The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

Advocating for a minimum wage

In Biography on July 27, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Written by Sichu Mali, summer intern

Prior to being appointed as the Secretary of Labor in 1933, Frances spent 15 years as a member of the Consumers’ League and as an industrial commissioner in New York State. In 1918, she had accepted Governor Al Smith’s invitation to become the first female member of the New York State Industrial Commission. In 1926, she became the chairperson of the commission. During her years as the member and later, as the chairperson of this commission, she championed better working hours and conditions, compensation for work-related injuries, and a minimum wage. An article titled ‘Average Pay is $13, says Miss Perkins’ which was published in the New York American on November 19, 1929 stands as a testimony to Frances’s endorsement of the minimum wage issue.

The article reports that in 1929, a single woman living alone in Manhattan needed $19.70 weekly “to maintain life according to a minimum standard of health and comfort.” Yet the average wage offered to beginner girls and women in the city varied from $13 to $15 a week. It was impossible for the average working girl to make ends meet on the wages she was earning. These points were brought up by Frances, then the New York Industrial Commissioner, in an address before the Association to Promote Proper Housing for Girls, held at the Hotel Pennsylvania.  There, she had asked for wages “high enough so that there should be no demand for a subsidy for working girls.” She expressed her opinion as follows:

minimum wage quote

While Frances’s idea about a reasonable living wage was not fully realized until she became the Secretary of Labor, as this article shows, she had begun advocating for it earlier in her career.

Frances Perkins Center featured on public television

In The Center on July 27, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Written by Sichu Mali, summer intern

On July 3, 2009, the Frances Perkins Center was featured in “Maine Watch with Jennifer Rooks” on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN). The program included an interview with the executive director, Barbara Burt, who mentioned that Cynthia Otis, Frances Perkins’s grandmother, had been a major influence on Frances. She also shared the vision of the center with the show host Jennifer Rooks, which includes creating a digital archive of Frances’s documents and a conference center in her name.

Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, Frances’s grandson and a board member of the center, who was also featured in this program, talked about the fire safety practice he and his grandmother had at The Brick House.

At the MPBN studio, Rooks was joined by Kirstin Downey, author of The Woman Behind the New Deal and Dr. Christopher Breiseth, the immediate past president and CEO of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. Downey discussed Frances’s role in the New Deal and the Fire Safety Code. Dr. Breiseth, who knew Frances personally as a student at Cornell University, spoke about her personality. He mentioned that when he had asked Ms Perkins about her most important accomplishment, she had replied, “Social Security.”

To watch the program, click on the photo below.

Click to watch the video

Click to watch the video

Not “a policy for a woman to continue with business”

In Biography on July 22, 2009 at 11:21 am

Written by Sichu Mali, summer intern

While cataloging Frances Perkins’s documents at The Brick House this summer, I’ve discovered articles and correspondence on the history of the Perkins family. Among the articles I’ve found was one regarding the Perkins & Butler retail business. According to an article dated 1913, the Perkins & Butler retail business was the largest wholesale paper and twine dealer in Worcester, Massachusetts. Besides carrying paper and twine, their store also carried a line of stationery.

The business was founded by Frederick W. Perkins, Frances Perkins’s father, in October 1, 1882 and was initially known as F.W. Perkins Wholesale. He advanced his business venture alone until 1900 when he admitted George S. Butler to partnership. The business then continued under the firm name Perkins & Butler.

Perkins&Butler Ad

However a letter from George Butler’s attorney to Frances Perkins dated 1916 shows that, with the death of her father, the partnership was automatically dissolved under the Massachusetts law. It became the duty of Frances and her mother to liquidate the business and dispose of the assets or to simply accept a payment worth Frederick’s share in the retail business from Butler and let him continue the business.

In the letter, attorney Willis Sibley suggested to Frances that her mother “should get her money and interest out of the firm” as he did not believe “it was policy for a woman to continue with business with which she could not conveniently keep in touch.” Frances Perkins, who strongly believed in women’s equality, must have found such a remark to be misogynist as well as disrespectful.
sexist letter

By 1916, Frances had already graduated from Columbia University. After receiving her degree, she was appointed the secretary of the Consumers’ League in New York, where she worked for better conditions for working men and women. While we don’t know her actual reaction to this letter, Frances, who defended the labor rights of both men and women, can be imagined to have deemed it appalling. At the same time, such discouraging comments made to her about women may have actually strengthened her will to succeed.

Real Principles for Healthcare Reform

In Political world on July 16, 2009 at 10:29 am

I recently received an email from a friend asking me to sign a petition listing the following principles for health care reform as set out by President Obama:


REDUCE COSTS — Rising health care costs are crushing the budgets of governments, businesses, individuals and families and they must be brought under control

GUARANTEE CHOICE — Americans must have the freedom to keep whatever doctor and health care plan they have, or to select a new doctor or health care plan if they choose

ENSURE AFFORDABLE CARE FOR ALL — All Americans must have quality and affordable health care

These principles, though pithy, are much too general. Who defines “quality” and “affordable”? Here’s what I propose as the real principles for health care that we should be following:


HEALTH IS A HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUE Access to health care is a human right and recipients should not be subject to market pressures or personal financial considerations in their pursuit of good health.

MEDICAL EXPERTS AND THEIR PATIENTS SHOULD HAVE CONTROL OVER MEDICAL DECISIONS Doctors, nurses, and patients together — not insurance companies — should determine medical treatment.

WE SHOULD BE WORKING TOWARD A PATIENT-CENTERED — NOT PROFIT-CENTERED — SYSTEM A majority of Americans (a NY Times poll from June 20, 2009 reports 72%) are in favor of a public option. Our current system lags far behind those of other developed countries, in terms of health outcomes, convenience, and cost. (Check out our dismal ranking here.)

OUR POPULATION’S HEALTH IS A COMMUNITY RESPONSIBILITY We pay for public education with taxes because we believe that an educated citizenry is a benefit to all. We pay for our judicial system, our military, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food & Drug Administration, our airports, roads, and bridges — and many other critical items — in the same way, because they make all of us stronger. Is health care less important than these other essential services?

A BAD BILL IS WORSE THAN NO BILL We need major reform, not a re-jiggering of the current system. We must not settle for less. A complicated incremental bill will not help anyone, except the industry lobbyists who are working so hard toward that goal.

And I like to think that Frances Perkins would agree.

Frances Perkins Center honors six Maine women leaders

In Events on July 2, 2009 at 9:05 am

Written by summer intern Sichu Mali

On June 26, the Frances Perkins Center 1st Annual Garden Party was held at The Brick House, the Perkins homestead. The theme of this year’s Garden Party was “Maine Women Leaders: Past, present and future.”

Frances Perkins's grandson, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, looks on as executive director Barbara Burt reads congratulations to honorees Shenna Bellows, Selma Botman, Laura Fortman, and Elaine Tuttle Hansen.

Frances Perkins's grandson, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, looks on as executive director Barbara Burt reads congratulations to honorees Shenna Bellows, Selma Botman, Laura Fortman, and Elaine Tuttle Hansen.

Five Maine women leaders were honored at the event. The honorees were Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU) Director Shenna Bellows; Commissioner of Labor Laura Fortman; Bates College President Elaine Tuttle Hansen; University of Southern Maine (USM) President Selma Botman; President of Maine Senate Elizabeth Mitchell; and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree.

While Senate President Mitchell and Congresswoman Pingree were not able to attend the event, a representative of Congresswoman Pingree received the honor on her behalf. Congresswoman Pingree sent a letter in which she celebrated the Frances Perkins Center and said she was joining us at this event in spirit. In her letter, she acknowledged that Frances brought a deep commitment to improving lives of all Americans by playing an instrumental role in creating Social Security, unemployment insurance and a federal minimum wage.  She emphasized the importance of an organization such as the Frances Perkins Center that is dedicated to furthering her legacy of commitment to working people. Congresswoman Pingree also reminded the garden party attendees that universal healthcare is the one unfinished piece of Frances Perkins’s agenda for social and economic justice.

Senator Olympia Snowe sent her best wishes to the Frances Perkins Center and congratulated the six women leaders. She described Frances Perkins as exemplifying Maine’s legendary work-ethic, can-do spirit, and hallmark independence. Senator Snowe envisioned the center as a vibrant epicenter for research and the thoughtful interactions and deliberations among students, scholars, and policy makers whose common inspiration is founded on the magnificent life of Secretary Perkins.

Besides MCLU Director Bellows, Commissioner of Labor Fortman, Bates President Hansen and USM President Botman, the other distinguished guests at this event were New Deal historians Dr. Christopher Breiseth and Neil Rolde as well as Kirstin Downey, author of The Woman Behind the New Deal and Karenna Gore Schiff, author of Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America.