One spring day in 1911, Frances Perkins witnessed one of the most heart wrenching scenes in American history. The epiphany she then experienced led her to a path less traveled, as she became the first female Secretary of Labor and the leading architect of the 1930s New Deal.
She was lunching that afternoon with friends at a small café in the Greenwich Village district of New York City. Nearby, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory occupied the upper floors of a grimy, rundown building. In crowded quarters, young immigrant women sewed clothes in nine hour shifts, six days a week, for paltry wages.
While Perkins was sipping tea and conversing, a hidden fire smoldered in the lint and scraps of cloth in the factory. When it flared up, the women ran to escape. The fortunate discovered a way out, but many workers found exit doors impossible to open. Banging and pounding on the doors proved futile, and their desperate pleas went unanswered. One hundred feet above street level, they were trapped with the flames. The Triangle owners had locked doors from the outside, so they could control the workers leaving the plant.
Smoke poured from the upper floors, and Perkins went into the street to see what was happening. Women climbed out of the windows and stood precariously on the ledges, hoping for a miracle. The fire trucks arrived, but their ladders did not reach high enough. The firemen watched helplessly as women began to jump to their deaths, driven by the searing flames. One hundred forty-six workers perished. The youngest among them were fourteen year-old Kate Leone and Rosaria Maltese.
In a civil suit resulting from the fire, the plaintiffs were awarded $75 per deceased victim. Two years later, one of the owners was found guilty of again locking factory doors during working hours, and he was fined $20.
The Path Less Traveled
Perkins, then 31, was a social worker by profession, but after watching the horror of the Triangle fire, she chose a new direction. She threw herself into political reform to advocate for the working class. When women won the right to vote in 1920, more doors opened for skilled and dedicated women to rise in the progressive movement.
Perkins joined the administration of Governor Franklin Roosevelt in New York. When FDR became president in 1932, with the country prostrate and demoralized in the Great Depression, Frances Perkins became the Secretary of Labor. She was the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. She found herself right at home in the rough and tumble of national politics. Perkins was tough, but she was also persuasive. She knew how to work with people on their terms—an invaluable skill, particularly for a woman in the 1930s.
Perkins became the New Deal’s chief policymaker, overseeing reforms that would allow blue collar workers greater participation in American life. The American middle class flourished in this fertile soil. In the process, Roosevelt’s Democratic Party grew to be a broad coalition, with the working class as an integral partner. This realignment of American politics endured for two generations.
In 1968, a young man wrote a book entitled Revolution for the Hell of It. Abbie Hoffman was a leader of the late 1960s counter culture and the icon of a new social type, the celebrity protester. He was famous for being famous, and the television cameras, like faithful puppies, followed him from protest to protest. His remarks, however inane, regularly made the evening news. As his book’s title implies, Hoffman mocked the diligent efforts of reformers in the mold of Frances Perkins. He was, indeed, openly derisive of the American working class and its culture and values.
It has been remarked that as the Vietnam War became more unpopular with the American public, the anti-war protestors became even more despised. While this might seem a paradox, the attitude and behavior of the Abbie Hoffmans of that era dispels any apparent contradiction. Although the vast majority of anti-war protestors demonstrated peacefully, the fringe who instigated violence were always sure to attract the media’s attention, and the American public reacted. The provocateurs’ contempt for working class Americans goes a long way to explain the election of conservative Republican Richard Nixon as president in 1968 and his landslide re-election four years later.
Yet, a strange thing happened after the Democratic Party’s presidential election debacle in 1972. As the years went by, through the 1970s and the 1980s, the attitudes held by the 1960s extremists migrated from the fringes to become more prevalent in the Democratic Party. Perversely, repeated defeats led to a doubling down on failure. Instead of a searching self-examination, Democrats of the leftist persuasion blamed the voters, especially those in the working class who were white. This arrogance was no longer confined to the activists, but came to permeate the party leadership.
Frances Perkins would have been appalled, both on a personal and political level. The Democratic Party had not only turned its back on her constituency, but it had also eschewed her politics of persuasion.