How One Woman Upended American Work Culture (And What We Can Learn From Her Today)
On March 25, 1911, a bag of cotton scraps caught fire on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, where garment workers—mostly young immigrant women—were hard at work sewing blouses. The manager attempted to snuff out the flames, but the fire hose had rusted shut, and the fire grew to a blazing inferno.
Just a few blocks away, a young labor activist named Frances Perkins was having tea in Washington Square. When she heard the fire alarms, she and her friends followed the noise. As she looked on, horrified, she couldn’t have imagined that she would use this tragic moment to lead Americans to entirely rethink workplace safety.
Today, I’ll share her story—that of one woman who, though she couldn’t vote until she was nearly forty, ascended to the position of first female Cabinet Secretary and rewrote the norms that govern our working lives. In 2020, people moved from firmly believing remote work wasn’t feasible to realizing that it was (and in fact, makes people more productive).
Now, amidst the great resignation, I think Frances would want us to remember that the structures and norms that govern our working lives are not universal truths—they were created by people—and people can recreate them. The 40-hour workweek was once, after all, a fringe, radical idea.
Whether it’s moving to a more flexible work schedule, putting an end to undercharging, or learning to prioritize your mental health at work, Frances’ story shows that we can always reinvent the world of work to make it better.
The birth of an activist
Born in 1880, young Fanny Perkins (only later would she go by Frances) came of age in a time where poverty was seen as a moral failing—usually attributed to laziness or drunkenness. The idea that good people could simply be the victim of bad circumstances was a foreign one. And while we now see this as a very Victorian perspective, some of these attitudes and stereotypes still persist to this day.
As a young girl, Frances was already questioning these perceptions. But a key turning point came when she was a student at Mount Holyoke College for women and took a course on the growth of industrialism. Her professor had the students visit mills to observe the working conditions there, and she was horrified to see women and children working long, punishing hours, without protections in place to guard their health and safety. “Those things seemed very wrong,” she would later say. “I was young and was inspired with the idea of reforming, or at least doing what I could, to help change those abuses.”
These formative experiences inspired her to become active in New York City Consumer’s League (a labor lobby group), which was the role she held that fateful day when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
“The day the New Deal was born”
The horrors Frances Perkins witnessed at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire permanently imprinted themselves in her mind. While the fire department had arrived on the scene, their equipment hadn’t yet caught up with the rapidly expanding scale of New York City buildings, so their hoses only reached the seventh floor—one floor shy of the fire. Powerless to quench the flames, the fire continued to burn out of control.
Meanwhile, the shoddily constructed fire escape collapsed under the weight of the fleeing workers, and they plunged more than a hundred feet to the ground, leaving no survivors. Locked inside the burning building, more than 60 people jumped to their deaths from upper windows or down the defunct elevator shafts. Those left behind succumbed to the flames.
In just 18 minutes, 146 people died. It would be the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC history until 9/11.
In the wake of this tragedy, Frances Perkins threw herself even further into labor advocacy and started to get involved in politics. (Mind you, this was nearly a decade before American women would gain the right to vote). She became the executive secretary of a citizen’s committee on fire safety, which advocated for, and successfully passed the most comprehensive set of workplace health and safety laws in the country. Among other things, these obligated the installation of sprinkler systems, so no other factory would ever have to face down a fire with a defective hose. These laws, in turn, became a model for other states.
Years later, serving as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, she would look back on the fire and call it “the day the New Deal was born.”
The first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet
When FDR was elected in 1932, he asked Frances—with whom he had developed a close working relationship in the New York State legislature—to serve as his Secretary of Labor. She agreed, with the conditions that he pursue an ambitious set of policy priorities, including a 40-hour workweek, the abolition of child labor, minimum wage, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, universal health insurance, and more.
As the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, just fifteen years after women in her home state of New York had gained the right to vote, Frances had to contend with her share of sexism. Still, she came up with a clever ploy to make her ideas heard—she thought men would be more comfortable with a woman participating in government if she reminded them of their mothers, so she made a point to dress in a matronly way. (She even had a sense of humor about it, collecting tongue-in-cheek “Notes On The Male Mind” from her interactions with male colleagues).
The strength of her convictions, combined with her boundless work ethic, helped bring about change after change to protect America’s workers. She architected the legislation for Social Security, which was signed into law in 1935. She spearheaded the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a minimum wage, set out maximum working hours, and banned child labor, which was signed into law in 1938. She worked 15-hour days to fight for an 8-hour working day for others. Serving until FDR’s death in 1945, she became the longest-serving Labor Secretary and one of only two cabinet secretaries to serve the entire length of his presidency.
Close to the end of her tenure, Collier’s magazine described her achievements as “not so much the Roosevelt New Deal, as…the Perkins New Deal.” In fact, when she stepped down as Labor Secretary, the only thing she hadn’t checked off the list of policy priorities she had presented FDR with at the beginning of his presidency was universal health insurance.
The future is flexible
The labor practices we think of as “standard” weren’t always that way—and they can continue to change. We’re indebted to reformers, like Frances Perkins, who reshaped the way we work and gave us the freedom to reimagine what work could be.
At Gusto, we believe that people-oriented businesses can be at the forefront of positive workplace change. In 1926, the Ford Motor Company became one of the first major firms to adopt the 40-hour workweek—a dozen years before Frances Perkins’ Fair Labor Standards Act made it law. So consider, what assumptions are you holding about the way we work that might not be as ironclad as you think?
If you’re a staff accountant, you don’t need to accept unhealthy workplace norms. If you’re unhappy in your current work environment, try gently pushing back with your employer. Perhaps you can set better boundaries to preserve your work-life balance, or negotiate a pay raise to be better compensated for the value you provide. (Remember that we’re in the midst of an accounting talent shortage, so you have a fair bit of leverage. If your employer isn’t willing to put in the effort to help you thrive, there are plenty of places you can go that will.)
If you’re a firm leader, you can create a great place to work where people feel empowered. You might consider raising your rates, like Paul Glantz, to better capture the value your team provides and compensate them for the hard work they put in. Or, you might consider opening up difficult conversations around mental health in accounting, like Amber Setter. Or, you could start implementing more flexible working policies. I’m not saying you need to implement a four-day workweek (though you could!), but giving your staff options when it comes to remote work or choosing their working hours can go a long way in helping your team achieve a healthy work-life balance.
Right now, we have a golden opportunity to completely reimagine our working lives. As Frances said towards the end of her life, “There is much to be done….I am not going to be doing it! It is up to you to contribute some small part to a program of human betterment for all time.”