Maine Native Frances Perkins Highlighted by Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Sept 16 campaign speech in Washington Square Park, New York City highlighted the work of Mainer Frances Perkins as a pioneer for labor  in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet. 

Perkins was the first female member of the presidential cabinet, serving as Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor during the Great Depression. Born in Boston but buried in Newcastle, Maine, Perkins always felt that Maine was her home. Both of her parents were from Maine, and she spent her summers with her grandmother in Newcastle. The Frances Perkins Center in Damariscotta holds an educational exhibit on her life, and her family homestead in Newcastle is a National Historic Landmark. 

Warren delivered her speech from a specially commissioned lectern made out of wood scraps from Perkins’ Maine home which were donated by her grandson, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall.

Warren began the speech by describing the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, near where we was speaking. The fire was a huge industrial disaster, killing 146 young immigrant women workers. 

In this vein, Warren also outlined her plans for her presidency, including lessening the gender pay gap, eliminating student loan debt, decreasing corruption, and tackling mass incarceration.

Reflecting on these plans, Warren addressed the crowd “I know this change is possible. And I know it because America has made big, structural change before. Let me take you back to the day of [The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire]. A woman was visiting friends who lived in a town house right behind me when the fire broke out. She hurried into the street, she joined the crowds as they ran across the park and headed to the Triangle Factory. And when she got there, she stood and she watched. She watched as women on the ledge begged for help. She watched as they held each other. She watched as they jumped to their deaths. The woman watching was Frances Perkins.”

Warren went on to describe the efforts of Perkins and fellow activists in changing fire and labor laws in New York State.

“Now everybody just remember, this was years before women could even vote, let alone hold major roles in government. But Frances had a plan. She and her fellow activists fought for fire safety. And they got it. So the next time you do a fire drill at school, or at work you see a plainly marked fire exit, think about Frances and the Triangle women, because they are the reason the laws changed. But they didn’t stop with fire safety. With Frances working the system from the inside and the women workers organizing and applying pressure from the outside, they rewrote New York State’s labor laws from top to bottom to protect workers.”

Warren then told the crowd how Perkins became the “state’s leading expert on working conditions,” leading her appointment by then Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt to lead his labor department.

Warren continued to explain that once Roosevelt was elected President, he appointed Perkins as “the first woman in history to serve in the cabinet” as his Secretary of Labor. Warren asked the crowd: “What did she push for when she got there? Big, structural change.”

In her conclusion, Warren asked: “So here’s what I want you to think about. What did one woman, one very persistent woman, one woman, backed up by millions of people across this country, get done? Social Security, unemployment insurance, abolition of child labor, minimun wage, the right to join a union, and even the very existence of the weekend. That’s big structural change. One woman, and millions of people to back her up.”

For those seeking a true authority on Perkins, one needs to look no further than Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Teaching Professor of History Rob Weisbrot, who provided valuable insight on to Perkin’s life in an interview with the Echo

When asked to provide an overview of the Secretary and her legacy, Weisbrot communicated that she was “significant because she was a pioneer in exploring what government could do constructively to help humanize the capitalist system.” 

Weisbrot notes, as did Warren, that Perkins believed deeply that government, if run effectively, could greatly improve the lives of its people. 

One notable manifestation of this belief came in the form of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work program established during the Great Depression intended to maintain National Parks as well as to increase morale among an increasingly dispirited labor force. 

Weisbrot stated that Perkins was integral to the creation of the Corps, declaring that while “Roosevelt had an idea for a Civilian Conservation Corps…he had no clue how to actually create…It was Perkins who provided the means [to see it through].” 

In general, Perkins served a role that was multifaceted and indispensable in Roosevelt’s administration. Weisbrot affirms that Perkins was equal parts visionary and practitioner.

“Perkins had, on the one hand, broad plans to make the government of help…but also a very practical sense of how to do it,” Weisbrot said. It was this savvy that allowed Perkins to become the longest-serving labor secretary in U.S history.

This glowing portrayal of Perkins brings to light the question of how much credit she deserves for the successes of Roosevelt’s administration, particularly its New Deal policies. The most famous biography of Perkins seems to answer this question in its title, The Woman Behind the New Deal. When pressed for comment on the matter, Professor Weisbrot was hesitant to profess Perkins as the main official behind the New Deal, saying that such a stance mitigates the fact that Roosevelt had many advisors and plenty of political acumen on his own. However, he was more than willing to disclose that Perkins certainly was “a true author” of the deal.

Weisbrot’s remarks provide an explanation for why Elizabeth Warren would hitch herself to Perkins’ image. Warren can use Perkins as both fuel and precedence for her campaign. 

Another obvious parallel between the women is that while Perkins served as America’s first female cabinet member, Warren has the chance to be its first female president. And on Perkins’ place as a first in history, Weisbrot takes care to note that the secretary was “not simply a token, but somebody who had, by common consent, earned that position.”

In an email to the Echo, the Frances Perkins Center wrote that “The Frances Perkins Center, a nonpartisan public  non-profit organization, is delighted when the extraordinary legacy of Frances Perkins is acknowledged.  To learn more about Frances Perkins, please visit FrancesPerkinsCenter.org.”

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