Progressive, barrier-breaking labor advocate Frances Perkins was a former Hell’s Kitchen resident and the first woman to serve in a US presidential cabinet. On Saturday the legacy of the woman known as “the Mother of Social Security” was honored as W46th Street between 9th and 10th Avenue was renamed “Frances Perkins Place” — just in time for the end of Women’s History Month.
The renaming was first proposed to Community Board 4 in 2017 by The McManus Midtown Democratic Club and the National Democratic Club. “Frances Perkins was in my opinion — and a lot of other people’s opinion — the most important woman of the 20th century,” said National Democratic Club co-president James Kaplan in a report by DNAinfo.
Added McManus club member Mickey Spillane: “She’s a national figure who got her start in Hell’s Kitchen. She really is probably the most noteworthy progressive of the 1900s. At a time when the Democratic party is struggling for an identity, to look at a woman like Frances Perkins who was really a progressive and believed in a social safety net shows that we don’t always have to look forward — we can look backwards and find out what was good about the Democratic party.”
Perkins — known as much for her signature tricorn hats as for her tireless advocacy for the working class — served under Franklin Delano Roosevelt as both head of the New York State Department of Labor and the longest-serving US Secretary of Labor. She is widely credited as the “Mother of Social Security” — implementing “New Deal”-era labor protections such as minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, the abolition of child labor, and unemployment compensation. Perkins, who got her start in New York politics while living and working as a social worker at Hartley House on W46th Street between 9th and 10th Avenue, is set to be immortalized in an upcoming biopic from director Janek Ambros.
Mayor Eric Adams and City Council member Erik Bottcher were on hand at Saturday’s commemoration to give remarks reflecting on Perkins’s impact on the neighborhood, the city, and the country at large. “Frances Perkins came to New York City with a determination to change the world, and change the world she did,” said Bottcher, unveiling the only public recognition to Perkins in New York State.
Born in Boston in 1880, Fannie Coralee Perkins (who would later change her name to Frances) spent her childhood years shuttling between a family farm in Newcastle, Maine, and her family’s home in Worcester, Massachusetts. A bright, scholarly child who took up classical language lessons at the tender age of eight, she went on to study physics, biology, and chemistry at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A senior year course in American economics, however, changed the trajectory of her life. Taught by historian Annah May Soule, the class on the growth of industrialism in both America and Britain required students to visit and observe the subpar working conditions of nearby mills along the Connecticut River.
According to archival documents from the Frances Perkins Center, she would later credit the experience as definitive in determining her life’s work in labor advocacy, saying: “From the time I was in college I was horrified at the work that many women and children had to do in factories. There were absolutely no effective laws that regulated the number of hours they were permitted to work. There were no provisions which guarded their health nor adequately looked after their compensation in case of injury. Those things seemed very wrong. I was young and was inspired with the idea of reforming, or at least doing what I could, to help change those abuses.”
Her newfound determination to make a difference in the lives of laborers led her to pursue a career in social work, first achieved through volunteering at several Chicago settlement houses and then through her position as general secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. While in Philadelphia, she studied sociology and economics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, leading to a 1909 fellowship with the New York School of Philanthropy. After moving to New York, she jointly enrolled at Columbia University as a Master’s Degree candidate in sociology and economics, where her work first intersected with Hell’s Kitchen. Perkins’ 1910 thesis, “A Study of Malnutrition in 107 Children from Public School 51,” focused on pupils from Hell’s Kitchen’s PS 51 — then located at 520 W45th Street, the building still stands and is now a modern-day luxury condo known as The Inkwell.
Perkins found that the diets of the Hell’s Kitchen children studied, many of whom lived in the hastily built tenements of the 1850s, were severely lacking in protein and fresh produce, leaving many of them “fainting for sheer lack of food.” Observing the effects of the poverty-stricken Midtown West neighborhood left Perkins shaken: “The sight of many little children with the blight of hunger set upon their future made it impossible for the investigator and writer to forget that the material here treated in a cold, impersonal manner, is nevertheless a mass of human documents full of human misery,” she wrote.
Perkins went on to surmise that there was an inextricable connection between low worker wages, limited social programs within the public school system, and generations of malnutrition. “The questions involved in preventing malnutrition are after all the two which are fundamental to all social reform — the question of increasing wages and the question of increasing education widespread. Temporary relief is necessary, and its method may well be worth discussion, but it is after all an expedient to head off malnutrition until society adjusts itself and provides adequate incomes and adequate educations to all its workers,” she wrote.
Perkins would continue her work in Hell’s Kitchen at Hartley House, a languishing, overcrowded settlement on W46th populated by German and Irish immigrants and generally dismissed by the press and local governments as a shelter for street gang activity. Perkins advocated on behalf of residents to Tammany Hall political boss Thomas J McManus (the great-grandfather of McManus Club member Mickey Spillane). After successfully aiding her clients while navigating the deeply bureaucratic Tammany Hall system, she decided to strike out on her own in New York politics.
Her work as a lobbyist would be further influenced by witnessing the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 — in which 146 people, most of them factory workers — perished. Perkins was only a few blocks away when she heard sirens and rushed to the scene, recoiling in horror at the sight of countless women and girls jumping to their deaths. Said Perkins: “Never shall I forget. I watched those girls clinging to life on the window ledges until, their clothing in flames, they leaped to their death.” After the creation of a citizen’s Committee on Safety was established to prevent future tragedies, Theodore Roosevelt appointed Perkins as its executive secretary, where her comprehensive suggestions for industrial regulations would establish New York as the nation’s leader in workplace health and safety. Said Perkins of the moment: “The extent to which this legislation in New York marked a change in American political attitudes and policies toward social responsibility can scarcely be overrated. It was, I am convinced, a turning point.”
Perkins had met Franklin Delano Roosevelt in her early New York days and been relatively unimpressed with him upon first meeting, but after being elected governor of New York in 1928, FDR appointed Perkins as the state’s Industrial Commissioner, eventually paving the way for her to serve as its Head of Labor. During her time in the New York State government, Perkins was bravely and broadly critical of the Hoover administration, remarking in 1930 that despite their assertion that recovery from the Depression was imminent, New York’s unemployment figures disagreed. Said Perkins in a front-page-news-making press conference: “It is cruel and irresponsible to issue misleading statements of improvement in unemployment, at a time when the unemployed are reaching the end of their resources.”
Perkins remained committed to combating unemployment at the New York State level until 1933, when, appointed by then-President FDR, she became the country’s Secretary of Labor, and the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.
Perkins was at the forefront of many of the administration’s “New Deal” programs, implementing minimum wage standards and working hour limits through the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, supporting the formation of unions through the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, and the creation of the National Labor Relations Board to manage employer-employee disputes. Perkins was also in charge of the task force that would lead to the Social Security Act of 1935 and the creation of unemployment insurance. One policy of note that Perkins passionately advocated for but remains unrealized? Universal Healthcare.
As she concluded her term in Roosevelt’s cabinet, Perkins was said to have stood in the building’s auditorium, and as a full orchestra played, thanked each and every one of the department’s 1,800 employees. She would go on to write a best-selling biography of FDR, serve as the head of the American delegation to the International Labor Organization, be appointed by President Truman to the US Civil Service Commission, and serve as a lecturer at Cornell University’s new School of Industrial Relations. Perkins died of a stroke at the age of 85 at Midtown Hospital, but not before attending one last New York ballet shortly before her death.
More hell’s kitchen nostalgia
At Saturday’s commemoration, both Mayor Adams and Council Member Bottcher emphasized the underrecognized impression that Perkins made not only on working and living conditions throughout New York City but also the nation.
Bottcher said: “She would go on to make more of a positive impact on Americans than most people who have ever served in the government of the United States of America. The forty-hour work week, minimum wage, federal child labor laws, the creation of Social Security, unemployment insurance — these things that we take for granted today only exist because of Frances Perkins — yet I wager that most Americans are unaware that Frances Perkins made these possible.”
Mayor Adams compared the labor leader’s resilient and solutions-focused philosophy to the city’s current COVID recovery battle: “I think we need to draw on Ms Perkins — she saw the devastation of the [Triangle Shirtwaist] fire, and she could have said ‘woe is me’, but instead — she said ‘why not me’. And what she did with her life, turning that painful moment into a purposeful moment, we all benefited from it — she changed the landscape of employment, of safe spaces for employees. Let’s acknowledge the role she played on humankind in New York City.”
“I got into public service to make a difference in the world,” added Bottcher. “At the end of my life, I hope to have achieved a fraction of what Frances Perkins was able to — that would be a life well-lived.”