On March 26th city officials and labor advocates gathered to dedicate a stretch of West 46th Street to Frances Perkins who served as the United States Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. Often referred to as “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” Perkins had a hand in implementing programs like the 40-hour work week, social security, the Federal minimum wage, federal child labor laws and unemployment insurance, programs many Americans take for granted today. Her unwavering commitment to protecting the health and safety of workers was recognized when President Roosevelt appointed her to the position of Secretary of Labor, earning her a spot in the history books as the first woman in the country to serve in a presidential cabinet. Five years in the making, a street sign now honors the workers’ rights advocate.
The unveiling of the new Frances Perkins Place took place a day after the 111th anniversary of the historic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 people on March 25th 1911. Perkins witnessed the tragedy first-hand. Her grandson, Tomlin Coggeshall, said that although she was always committed to her work, the fire was what drove her to pursue workers’ safety with such fierce conviction. “The horrific scene galvanized her to improve working conditions. Those who died in the fire did not die in vain. My grandmother said she would never forget them. Reflecting back later in her career, she said that the day of the fire was the day The New Deal began,” said Coggeshall during his speech. Some of the other speakers in attendance included Mayor Eric Adams, New York City Councilman Erik Bottcher (District 3) and New York State Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon.
Later in the day, a reception was held at Hartley House where Perkins worked as a social worker in 1911. There, Reardon commented on the challenges women in politics faced during that time. “She didn’t blow her own horn. She was willing to be in the background while accomplishing all these things. She always wore drab clothing because she realized that she would be more successful if she appeared matronly so that she wouldn’t scare men. So she wouldn’t seem competitive or intimidate women,” said Reardon. At a time when women in politics were not always respected, she never took sole credit for her ideas, she always used the word “we” instead of “I”. Her grandson believes that the reason so many of her male coworkers trusted her was because of her incredible ability to predict and solve problems. “She was very good at influencing people to get to work on the things that she cared about. She was a doer. She had so much energy,” Coggeshall said.
Councilman Bottcher, who sponsored the bill that led to the street renaming, said he got into public service to make a difference, just as Perkins did. “At the end of my life, I hope that I will have achieved just a fraction of what Frances Perkins was able to do. That would be a life very well lived,” said Bottcher.
Please support independent media today! Now celebrating its 22nd year publishing, The Indypendent is still standing but it’s not easy. Make a recurring or one-time donation today or subscribe to our monthly print edition and get every copy sent straight to your home.