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Analysis: What Elizabeth Warren Learned From Her Heroine

Frances Perkins’s genius lay in spotting a problem—and framing it as something government action could fix.

In a speech in New York City’s Washington Square Park last month, Elizabeth Warren plucked from history a woman who knew injustice when she saw it. Labor secretary to Franklin D. Roosevelt for all 12 years of his presidency, Frances Perkins was the key force behind the most creative and enduring parts of the New Deal—from Social Security to the 40-hour workweek. But Perkins’s career as a workers’ advocate began much earlier. On March 25, 1911, she was drinking tea at a friend’s when a fire broke out behind locked doors at the nearby Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Perkins bolted to the scene, only to witness scores of women workers—Italian and Jewish immigrants, some as young as 14—jumping nine stories to their death. In less than 20 minutes, 146 people died inside the factory or on the sidewalk. Perkins later described that Saturday as the day the New Deal began. In her speech last month, Warren drew inspiration from Perkins, asking, “So what did one woman—one very persistent woman—backed up by millions of people across this country get done? Social Security. Unemployment insurance. Abolition of child labor. Minimum wage. The right to join a union. Even the very existence of the weekend. Big, structural change. One woman, and millions of people to back her up.”


In recent polls of Democratic primary voters, Warren now finishes at or near the top—making the historical underpinnings of her campaign all the more noteworthy. That Americans in the early 20th century needed greater economic security and workplace protections might seem obvious in hindsight. Millions of people were laboring under conditions that were in no way a secret. But someone had to frame those conditions as problems that public policy could fix—and recognize that government action against poverty and insecurity offered a political opportunity for Roosevelt.