May 20, 1995
FRANCES PERKINS MEMORIAL CONFERENCE
Be Ye Steadfast .
The Frances Perkins We Knew
Labor Themes in the Architecture of the Cathedral
About Today’s Conference
The Return of the Sweatshops
Bruce Parker, Director of Communications, The General Theological Seminary
William Parker, GTS Seminarian, Diocese of Olympia
The Rev. Richard Witt, Chair, Economic Justice Committee, Diocese of New York
Anita Lemonis, Director of Communications, Diocese of New York
Connie Kopelov, New York Labor History Calendar
Nick Dowen, Integrity/ New York
The Rev. David Dyson, Religion and Labor Coalition
Bobbie Robinowitz, Service Employees International Union
Gail Malmgreen, New York Labor History Association
Timothy Smith, Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility
Ruth Schmidt, National Network of Lay Professionals
And the dedicated employees of: The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, The Diocese of New York, Butler
Library—Columbia University, Taminent-Wagner Labor Archives—New York University, The New York Public Library, The
Library of Congress, The Smithsonian Institution, Newsweek, and The Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan
Program Edited by Donn Mitchell
Program Design by Mark Flora
01995, Economic Justice Committee, The Diocese of New York
Cover Art:Painting for Fortune by Arthur Szik, 01941, Time Inc. All rights reserved.
Portrait on page 5 by the late Alice Neel first appeared in Images of Labor, published by 1199’s Bread and Roses
Cultural Project. Reprinted with permission.
THE CHURCH AND TODAY
The Frances Perkins Memorial Conference
on the Church and Labor Today
Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the
Social Security Act
The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine
New York City
May 20, 1995
The Diocese of New York: Economic Justice Committee
The Diocese of Long Island: Economic Justice Committee
The Diocese of Newark: Social Concerns Committee
The Diocese of Pennsylvania
Peace and Justice Ministries, The Episcopal Church Center
All Saints Sisters of the Poor
Church of the Resurrection, Manhattan
Mount Holyoke College
FRANCES PERKINS MEMORIAL CONFERENCE
Be Ye Steadfast
By Donn Mitchell
Frances Pekins was the first woman appointed to a Presidential
cabinet. No woman would surass that rank in the federal govern-
ment until Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme
Court some 50 years later.
Despite her unprecedented leadership, Perkins saw herself primarily
as a follower: In a 1944 letter to priest, author; and long-time
friend, Bernard Iddings Bell, she said “when it comes to the
Church, I have always been a learner,• and certainly on every count
I can think of I ought to remain in that role for a long time.
Without attempting to second guess the wisdom of her judgment, it
seems fitting to suggest that, 30 years after her death, the time has
come for the Church to learn from Frances Perkins.
It was a rainy Sunday in March of 1934. Inside the White
House, silver vases filled with pink roses, white snapdragons,
and blue lillies of the valley graced the dinner table. The
flowers must have provided welcome relief to the guests, who
had endured not just a day of gloom but a full year of crisis
The occasion was the first anniversary of the inaugura-
tion of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as President of the United
States. The principals of the fledgling administration had just
returned from Mount St. Alban where they had joined the
President and First Lady at a special anniversary liturgy at
Now seated around the dinner table, the inner circle of
the New Deal formed a reverent, chastened, hopeful tableau.
Newspaper accounts noted that Frances Perkins attended the
dinner unescorted. Although she was indeed someone’s wife
else’s mother, she
was not there for
either of those
reasons. She was
there because she
was part of that
inner circle, a key
player on the New Deal team.
She believed God’s creation was essentially good and that
God’s creatures embodied that goodness.
What led to her being at table that day? Contemporary
witnesses as well as historians would probably cite the com-
plex historical circumstances that propelled her into that
moment. Perkins, though, would have said it was none other
than Jesus Christ. She had responded to a call. This was
where her vocation had led.
Although history remembers Frances Perkins as a
reformer, her theology is not Reformed theology. She was a
catholic and a zealous convert at that. The towering giants of
the American Social Gospel movement are noticeably absent
from her public discourse, her religious reading, and her
correspondence. Though her life’s work achieved many of
the aims of the Social Gospel movement, she was always
marching to a slightly different drummer.
Thomas Aquinas and his early 20th Century interpreters
were major sources of inspiration for Perkins. Thinkers such
as William Temple, W.G. Peck, R.H. Tawney, and other
English social theorists show up in her personal correspon-
dence as well as her readings and speeches.
Born in 1880, Perkins was baptized in the Plymouth
Congregational Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, when
she was seven years old and remained a member until she was
at least 23, teaching Sunday School there during her last year
of residence with her parents.
That following year, she told her parents she was consid-
ering a conversion to Roman Catholicism but opted for the
Episcopal Church instead. In the spring of 1905, she was con-
firmed at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest,
Illinois, where she had taken a teaching job.
As the years went by, she moved steadily toward the
catholic emphasis on incarnation, sacrament, and philo-
sophical realism, which integrated her interests in the natur-
al and social sciences with her aesthetic and spiritual inclina-
tions. Her vocation followed a similar path, first as an observ-
er of the real world, later as an architect of the modern City
Her mission, as she saw it, was to call forth the good that
was already there. She believed God’s creation was essential-
ly good and that God’s creatures embodied that goodness.
But she did not believe the realization of this goodness could
be held constant. Humankind was not perfectible. God’s
action and attention were constantly needed and, in her view,
As a student at Mount Holyoke College, she had been
deeply impressed by the social justice classic How the Other
Half Lives by Jacob Riis. Later, she attended a lecture by
Florence Kelley, secretary of the National Consumers’
League, an organization which encouraged consumers to use
their economic power to press stores and manufacturers to
improve working conditions. She was so impressed by
Kelley’s presentation that she later became involved with the
league’s Mount Holyoke chapter.
Perkins was elected president of Mount Holyoke’s Class
of 1902, which chose as its motto “Be Ye Steadfast” (1 Cor.
15:58). She remained true to that motto throughout her life.
When she was frustrated in her initial attempts to obtain
employment in social work, she resolved to keep trying, in
the meantime taking
finally Lake Forest,
her interests, spending
her first Christmas
vacation as a temporary
resident at the Chicago
Commons, a settle-
ment house that con-
centrated on industrial
problems and union
organizing. The follow-
ing autumn she began
spending weekends at
Jane Addams’ famous
Hull House, where the
emphasis was on cultur-
al and educational pr()-
The following sum-
mer, she toured Italy,
detail (the last such
indulgence her career
would permit until
after World War 11).
Upon her return, she
took a job as general
“About Our Sponsors”,
began taking courses in
economics and sociolo-
gy at the University of
under the legendary
Simon Patten, whose
theories influenced an
entire generation in
the fields of economics
and sociology. In the summer of 1909, on Patten’s recom-
mendation, she went to New York on a fellowship from the
Russell Sage Foundation and earned a master’s degree in
political science from Columbia University, living in settle-
ment houses in Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village the
to myself, “That’s the
way to get things done. So
behave, so dress, and so comport
yourself that you subconsciously
remind them of their mothers.”
In 1910 she accepted an appointment as secretary of the
New York City Consumers’ League. As a lobbyist in Albany
for the league, she was instrumental in obtaining passage of
the 54-hour bill, a land-
mark piece of labor legis-
lation prohibiting women
of any age and boys under
18 from working more
than 54 hours in a single
week. It was a long battle
that required more than
one attempt, but it taught
Perkins the fundamentals
of the legislative process
and won her credibility in
the all-male state legisla-
When one legislator’s
comments led her to real-
ize that she reminded
men of their mothers, she
resolved that her tricorne
hat would be an indis-
pensable tool of her
A fire Perkins had
investigated in a Newark
factory (See “About our
Sponsors”, p.10 ) had led
Manhattan Fire Chief
Edward Croker to predict
that a similar disaster
would occur in New York.
On a Saturday afternoon
in March of 1911, Chief
Croker’s ominous predic-
tion came true.
Perkins, who lived
near Washington Square,
was having tea with a
friend when they heard
fire engines rushing to
the Asch Building just
east of Washington
Square, now a part of
New York University. The
eighth, ninth, and tenth
floors were occupied by
the Triangle Shirtwaist
Company, which manu-
factured the famous
“Gibson Girl” blouses.
Despite eight fires in nine
years of operation, the owners had refused to hold fire drills.
Successful in their efforts to defeat unionization, the fire
exits had been chained shut to keep workers in place and
Now the Triangle was on fire again—for the last time. In
continued on page 8
The Divine Architect
used this soul mightily. Frances
Perkins was a sensitive instrument
in His hands. She listened, she heard,
and she executed.
—Mother Catherine Grace
All Saints Sisters of the Poor
The Rev. Charles O. Moore Jr.
I met Frances Perkins in the early 1960s when I was
priest-in-charge of Church of the Resurrection on the upper
side of Manhattan.
Resurrection, a thriving, socially
inclusive and intellectually alive
Anglo-Catholic church, was spiri-
tual home for Frances Perkins.
The legendary “Madame
Secretary” came to me for spiritu-
al guidance and counsel. She was
in her 80s and I was in my early
30s. The age difference mattered
not at all. We discovered ourselves
to be soul mates very early on. The bulk of her political activ-
ity now lay behind her, but she was still passionately con-
cerned with the implications of a living faith and how that
faith should be put into practice. Our discussions focused
primarily on the fact that her life was coming to a close. She
wished to develop her personal prayer life in readiness for
her passage into the kingdom. She also wanted to put that
prayer into action in her relationships with her family and
The depth of Frances’ faith, the earnestness of her devo-
tion, and the clarity of her commitment to put her faith into
action was evident from the very first. Without her zeal for
justice and her compassion for the dispossessed, unemploy-
ment insurance, worker’s compensation, the 40-hour week,
and Social Security might well never have come into exis-
tence. There is not a human being in this country today who
does not owe Madame Secretary a vote of thanks. Yet she
knew that the main source of all her social conviction and
political activity was the faith that fed her innermost soul.
Frances Perkins was petite, but she radiated a powerful
personal presence. She filled my study the moment she came
into the room, not with a sense of self importance but with
a clarity of focus, a seriousness of intent, and an engaging
humility that challenged me to meet her straight on. The
public Madam Secretary was matched by the private one.
She had great concern and love for her family and friends,
about whom we frequently talked. She observed a rule of
prayer that formed the foundation for her daily life. She
wanted to prepare for her death still living life to the full,
aware that she was going to be with the God she already knew
and loved. Frances was well aware of what she had accom-
plished in the public arena, but she also knew that these
accomplishments could be undone if they were taken for
granted and not constantly guarded and regarded in light of
Madam Secretary was often the target for political
attack, but she rarely attacked in return. She knew that the
good that she had accomplished came from the Source of all
good and gracious things. She was not a woman without
pride, but it was a pride for those who were helped and in the
Helper that she herself relied on so consistently and trust-
ingly. She was a source of inspiration for me as an embodi-
ment of faith in action for the betterment of others. This is a
form of sanctity that the world rarely sees in politicians and
On April 10, 1980, the federal government recognized
the accomplishments of Madam
Perkins by dedicating the U.S.
Department of Labor Building in her
honor. I was privileged to be present
with her family. Frances Perkins’ life’s
work and mission was to comfort the
afflicted, to strengthen the weak, and
to free the oppressed. That message
and her example are needed today as
much as when she was Secretary of
Labor. In this time when it seems fash-
ionable to afflict the afflicted and to
comfort the comfortable, I believe that
it would be appropriate to include Frances Perkins in the
liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church’s lesser feasts.
—Father Moore is Rector of St. Mark’s Church, Philadelphia.
Frances Perkins, a regular visitor at All Saints Convent,
became an Associate of the Community on February 21,
1942 (an Associate is one who lives a rule of life as a layper-
son specified by the Order); and attended the Associates
Retreat just three weeks before her death on May 14, 1965.
Her anonymity was carefully guarded by the Sisters who
always referred to her as Mrs. Wilson (Mrs. Paul Wilson).
Frances spent many hours in the Convent chapel and was
there frequently even during the times when chapel was
being swept. Frances Perkins valued her long talks with
Mother Laura—a very wise and discreet Religious, in those
years of her great and awesome responsibilities. These times
were balanced by long walks through the surrounding coun-
try with the Assistant Superior, another great friend of Miss
—Mother Virginia was Superior of All Saints Convent,
Mother Catherine Grace
I was a very new new sister when Mrs. Wilson made her
last retreat. Although nearly 30 years have passed, the mem-
ory continues to be a vibrant one. She had become frail and
there was an evident transparency. I felt strongly that the
perplexities of this life had begun to melt away and that she
was experiencing a new awakening in her relationship with
God. When I learned of her death, I was not surprised; and
I continue to give thanks for the glimpse of the Kingdom of
God within her. The Divine Architect used this soul mighti-
ly. Frances Perkins was a sensitive instrument in His hands.
She listened, she heard, and she executed. Through this
attentiveness, the Social Security Act came to fruition. We
join in giving thanks for the life of this very special lady.
—Mother Catherine Grace is the current Superior of All Saints
Convent, Catonsville, Maryland.
Labor Themes in the Architecture
of the Cathedral
Begun as a “House of Prayer for All People”, the
Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is the official seat
of the Episcopal Church’s Bishop of New York. The art
and architecture of the cathedral contain a number of
themes affirming the dignity of human labor.
The most notable example is the Labor Bay, located
along the south wall at the west end. The stained glass win-
dow includes both biblical and modern images of labor.
St. Joseph is shown working at his carpenter’s bench, while
a youthful Jesus symbolically bears a yoke. Joseph of the
Old Testament is shown being sold into slavery, later rising
to become a ruler in Egypt.
Other scenes depict the making of arrowheads;
American Indians cultivating corn; an Apostle mending
nets; medieval sawyers with a pit saw; Romans making
brick; and a Phoenician cloth-dyer.
The window also features a blacksmith, potter, printer,
construction engineer, tapestry weaver, and a cowboy herd-
ing cattle. A farmer at mid-day rest is joined by a cotton
gin, glass blower, water wheel, clipper ship, and locomo-
Public servants are remembered in a monument to the
Fire Department of New York. Other bays are devoted to
specific professions or occupations: Law, Education,
Medicine, Communications, Sports, and the Arts. Also
included are the Armed Forces and Religious Orders.
The various chapels behind the high altar pay special
tribute to the immigrant groups which built New York and
formed the backbone of its labor movement. Each is
named for a saint from their various homelands.
St. Ansgar honors Scandinavian immigrants, while
St.Boniface recalls the Germanic lands. St. Columba hon-
ors Celtic peoples. St. Savior commemorates Africa and
the Orthodox lands of Europe and the Eastern
Mediterranean. St. Martin recalls France, and St.
Ambrose, the Italian provinces. St. James remembers the
The Cathedral also reaches beyond the Christian tradi-
tion by including in its furnishings Shinto vases, Siamese
prayer chests, and a Jewish menorah. Its stained glass win-
dows honor classical figures such as Hippocrates and
Homer, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and the
Islamic jurist Abu Hanifan.
All the city’s children are honored in the Children’s
Arch, built in the 1920s with donations from New York
City’s school children and gifts made in memory of chil-
dren. It is located at the eastern end of the nave.
Complete details of the history and symbolism of the
cathedral are found in The Living Cathedral by Howard E.
Quirk. Published by Crossroad Publishing Company, it is
available in the Cathedral Gift Shop.
Be Ye Steadfast
continued from page 5
all, 146 died and an untold number were injured. Forty-
seven workers, some with flaming hair and clothing, jumped
from the eighth and ninth floors. Firemen tried to break the
fall with nets and blankets, but the bodies hit with such force
that the firemen somersaulted and the bodies crashed right
through the sidewalks.
An outraged citizenry formed the Committee on Safety.
With the blessing of the Consumers’ League, Perkins accept-
ed an assignment as the Committee’s executive secretary.
The Committee “lent” her to the Factory Investigating
Commission created by the state legislature so that she could
arrange surprise visits on factories with the worst safety con-
ditions. Among the outcomes of this activity were state laws
requiring fire escapes and sprinkler systems and other safety
improvements. Minimum wage and child labor laws fol-
At the age of 33, Perkins married Paul C. Wilson in the
Chantry of Grace Church, retaining her family name for
professional reasons. It was a decision she was forced to
defend for the rest of her life, incurring resistance ranging
from her alma mater all the way up to the State Department.
Two years after her marriage she bore a child who died
shortly after birth. Perkins contracted septicimia and suf-
fered a long illness. This development led her to join with
friends in founding New York’s first Maternity Center to pro-
mote healthy pregnancies and well babies. The concept was
expanded city-wide, and Perkins was eventually hired as
executive secretary of the Maternity Center Association.
Three years later, A1 Smith, who had been Perkins’ ally
in many of the labor legislation battles, was elected Governor
of New York. Immediately after his inauguration, he appoint-
ed Perkins to the State Industrial Commission, where she
continued her work for progressive labor legislation. This
new post involved her in strike resolution and workmen’s
Smith lost his 1924 reelection bid, but in 1928, Franklin
Delano Roosevelt was elected governor, and Perkins was
again appointed Industrial Commissioner. She began her
research on unemployment insurance at this time.
When Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, he want-
ed Perkins for Secretary of Labor, but she was unsure if she
should accept the appointment. The American Federation
of Labor objected because she was primarily a social worker,
certainly not a union member. Her gender was also objec-
tionable to some. Opposition, however, was not her only con-
cern. There were personal considerations. A long-term ill-
ness had precluded her husband from working for many
years. They had a teenaged daughter and Perkins was the
breadwinner for the family.
On the other hand, Bishop Charles K Gilbert, then-suf-
fragan of New York, told her he believed it was “God’s own
call.” Leaders of women’s groups were also eager for her to
accept the appointment.
With these considerations in mind, she met with FDR to
discuss possibilities. She stressed that social insurance and
other reforms would have to be part of the New Deal if
Frances Perkins was to be part of the New Deal. Roosevelt
agreed to the terms, noting that she would have to “invent”
the way to do these things.
With the American Federation of Labor opposed to her
33% of the labor
force out of work,
that heading the
would be the most
she had ever had.
She had to do
something to prcy
tect that interior,
spiritual space that
was the source of
her great strength.
made provision to
spend one day a
month in silent
retreat at All Saints
Maryland, a prac-
tice she continued
through her 12
(See ‘The Frances
Perkins We Knew”,
The resistance she had encountered to her decision to
retain her family name emerged in a new form after her
appointment. Cabinet officials were routinely addressed as
“Mr. Secretary.” When the press corps wanted to know how
a woman cabinet official was to be addressed, Perkins
deferred to Speaker of the House Henry T. Rainey, who
cited Rürts Rules of Order. When a woman served as chair-
man, she was to be known as “Madam Chairman”, when as
president, “Madam President”. Therefore a woman as cabi-
net official would be “Madam Secretary”.
Author George Martin, whose biography of Perkins
bears the title Madam Secretary, noted that the logic was clear
enough, but the press corps seemed to have trouble with it
anyway, as if her very gender confused them. “Madam
Secretary” was to be used as a form of direct address and
“Miss Perkins” in reference, but references to “Madam
Perkins” continued to crop up.
Frances Perkins believed that insurance was
humankind’s most moral invention. By combining the idea
that people should pull together in times of trouble with the
technology of actuarial science, it was possible to create a sys-
tem that eased the pain of misfortune.
What was even better, in her view, was that it could be
developed on such a scale that it was no longer just neighbor
but stranger help-
ing stranger. The
moral impulse of
Works of Mercy
could be institu-
Act did not ulti-
Perkins had origi-
nally wanted, it
did include old
to families with
The Corporal Works of Mercy show up in every aspect of
Frances Perkins’ long career. In her settlement house days,
it meant actually performing such acts for specific individu-
als. In her career as a public official, it meant breaking down
the barriers that prevented the flow of mercy and designing
systems to make it more widely available.
That she should move in this latter direction was emi-
nently logical. Perkins was someone who knew how things
worked. She understood manufacturing processes as well as
the debilitating effects of poverty. She understood political
processes as well the complexities of modern economic life.
These understandings enabled her to see that, in mod-
ern societies, mercy — the relief of misery
— could not be
accomplished solely through individual acts of charity.
Regulation of abuses was needed along with sophisticated
systems to provide aid and to insure against misfortune. She
had a hand in all of them.
In pursuing this task, Frances Perkins did not have the
luxury of role models. Thanks to her steadfast dedication to
God’s call, we do.
WORKS OF MERCY
To feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty
To clothe the naked
To shelter the stranger
To visit the sick
To help prisoners
To visit the fatherless and widows
To bury the dead
Through direct service, legislative adivity, and the design of
administrative systems, Frances Perkins’ career extended the works direct federal aid
of mercy to the whole of American society.