The woman behind Elizabeth Warren’s blueprint for the presidencyRoundup
tags: labor history, Elizabeth Warren, Frances Perkins, 2020 Election
Rebecca Brenner is a PhD candidate in history at American University in Washington, DC.
Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren delivered a speech before her largest crowd yet, in Washington Square Park in New York. She invoked the memory of former labor secretary Frances Perkins, a witness to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which took place adjacent to the site of Warren’s speech to argue that “big structural change” is possible through a combination of relentless activism outside of government and a leader like Perkins or Warren herself on the inside.
Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, isn’t the first politician to use public memory of a historic figure to convey her message, but Perkins, who rarely receives national attention today, is a unique choice. Although Warren’s speech marks a key point in remembering Perkins, it also offers insight into the candidate’s hopes for a potential presidency. She depicted Perkins as a trailblazing female politician who fused progressive idealism and pragmatic policy change, exactly what she hopes to be.
Perkins was the first female Cabinet secretary in American history, and she was also the longest-serving labor secretary, occupying the post throughout Franklin Roosevelt’s more than 12-year presidency. From this perch, Perkins was a key architect of the New Deal. As Warren noted, however, Perkins’s activism had actually ramped up decades before Roosevelt’s presidency, when she happened to witness the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911.
At the time, Perkins headed the New York Consumers League with a focus on working conditions. Her undergraduate education at Mount Holyoke College, volunteer experience at the settlement home Hull House in Chicago, and economics and political science graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, respectively, prepared her for the job. But nothing prepared her to watch a factory burn with workers trapped inside.
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