Horrific Fire Scorches
the Conscience of Many Women: spurs Frances Perkins into social work and
the first woman in a U.S. President's cabinet
On March 25, 1911 one of the most horrific fires in the history of this
nation occurred at the Triangle Shirtwaist factor in New York City.
In 18 minutes the fire left 146 dead, mostly young immigrant women workers
who were trapped on the top three floors of a ten-story building.
Firemen and friends and neighbors rushed to the building only to be
forced to look on helplessly as the fire raced towards the women packed
at the windows seeking clean air and begging for help.
The city's fire ladders only reached to the seventh floor.
In desperation, with flames licking at them, most of the women jumped
to their deaths to the pavement below, leaping hand-in-hand from the upper
story windows rather than be burned alive.
All the exit doors at the Triangle company were locked or blocked.
The building by their employers to prevent the women from leaving their
work stations. Other reports said only one door was left working so the
girls could easily be searched for stolen lace or material - and that door
was locked during work hours. Another report said some of the men workers
got out before the fire blocked it.
The lower floors were never in danger!
How the fire started is not definitely known but investigators found
that in spite of work regulations, the male cutters were allowed to smoke
since "You would get little work out of your men if you would prevent
it," according to the company owner afterwards.
The tight aisles between the women's work stations where they sewed
in dim light were also choked with discarded scraps and papers.
The loft buildings such as housed the Triangle company avoided the New
York fire and health codes that stipulated that there be 150 cubic feet
of air for each worker by having ceilings 12 feet or more high. That way
the air above the workers was counted as part of the 150 cubic feet requirement
while the workers themselves were packed in unsanitary, filthy conditions
below that spawned brown lung.
Workers in the other seven floors were never in danger. Not only did
they have safe exit routes but the fire was almost completely isolated
on the top three floors where it was fueled by the discarded cloth scraps
and other trash
A photograph outside the building taken after the fire shows the one
fire escape from the Triangle floors twisted and broken from the weight
of the women attempting escape. It was made of cheap, inferior steel and
women using it to escape the fire fall to their deaths when it broke.
The Triangle management or its owners were never punished - unless you
call a VERY minor wrist slapping punishment and they were back in business
The newspaper photographs that showed dozens of broken bodies on the
sidewalk in front of the building burned into the consciousness of U.S.
women who were just beginning to get power enough to fight for their political
rights as well as human rights.
Although it would be nine years before the barriers to women voting
were removed by an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, women were mobilizing
to change the social climate of their nation.
One of those women was Frances Perkins who would became the first woman
to serve in the cabinet of a U.S. president.
She was sworn in as Secretary of Labor, March 4, 1933, 21 days shy of
22 years after the Triangle fire. She was 52. (Can you imagine the thrill
- the highest ranking woman EVER in the U.S. government?)
Living in New York, she had witnessed the Triangle Fire (see above)
and led the lobbying efforts that resulted in state legislation on factory
safety standards in 1911 and on hours and wages in 1913.
Perkins also conducted an influential survey of New York's notorious
Hell's Kitchen district. In 1926 New York Governor Alfred E. Smith appointed
her the New York State Industrial Commissioner as the highest paid state
employee in the U.S. at $8,000 a year. Franklin Delano Roosevelt reappointed
her when he became governor.
Under prodding by a number of women who had campaigned hard for him,
FDR defied convention and promoted her to the cabinet. It was no political
favor; Francis Perkins was eminently qualified.
FP was instrumental in writing many acts for reform including the Social
Security Act (1935) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), as well as
early legislation actions which were aimed at halting the Great Depression.
She reorganized the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Women's Bureau.
FP opposed several actions that she felt threatened women's protective
legislation including the ERA. She had fought hard and long to get protective
legislation for women who were traditionally worked longer hours for less
money and worried that the ERA might be used to destroy those gains.
During her entire 12-year tenure as Secretary of Labor, she was violently
opposed by Republican conservatives because she was a woman and prolabor.
They felt the job should have gone to a man.
In fact, a number of her "biographical" sketches by so- called
historians continue the belittling of Perkins by claiming she did almost
nothing of importance during her 12 years in office.
She had been influenced early in life by Florence Kelley and worked
at Jane Addams' Hull House.
She was acquainted, although not particularly close to Eleanor Roosevelt
through the Hull House influences as well as the noted Heterodoxy network
in New York City to which many of the prominent women of the day belonged
- or their friends did.
And, of course, Perkins and ER had a close friend in common.
ER's closest friends in New York and at her hideaway cottage near Hyde
Park included Caroline O'Day who became Congressional Representative at-large
from New York State for four terms, 1934-42. According to O'Day's son,
Caroline O'Day and Perkins maintained a lengthy domestic partnership. Perkins'
first domestic partner was Mary Harriman Rumsey, an official of the National
Frances Perkins retained her maiden name when she married in 1913 and
had to defend the choice in court. She stayed married with her husband
spending most of his time in mental institutions.
A very private individual, Frances Perkins destroyed many of her personal
papers before her death..
Caroline O'Day's official Congressional biography recites her liberal
policies, prolabor, prowoman, and opposed selling arms to Nazi Germany.
She also wanted to broaden our immigration laws to allow more refugees
from the Nazi tyranny into this country as did Francis Perkins. O'Day was
chair of the committee that sponsored singer Marian Anderson's historic
1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial.