Written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Kristy Caldwell, Thanks to Frances Perkins: Fighter for Workers Rights (2020) brings the social and political landscape that inspired Perkins’ labor activism to life.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in the year 1880, Perkins was raised to respect intellect and kindness. She eventually earned a Master’s degree, an accomplishment that set her apart from most women of the period. After completing her education, Perkins moved to New York City to find work. While in New York City she witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. Nearly 150 workers died in the preventable tragedy. The following week Perkins attended a memorial and heard a labor activist named Rose Schneiderman speak. Schneiderman’s words inspired Perkins, who decided to work for labor justice.
In her lifetime, Perkins worked to shorten the work week, end child labor, and improve day-to-day working conditions in the state of New York. In fact, in 1928, New York’s governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, appointed Perkins to run the state’s labor office. Even more, in 1932, during the Great Depression, after being elected president, Roosevelt appointed Perkins to be his Secretary of Labor. Perkins was the first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet. In this role, Perkins worked to create unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and social security. Hopkinson’s book gestures towards the sacrifices Perkins made within her family to serve the nation, but her focus is clearly on the substantial contributions Perkins made to national life and their lingering influence on the lives of Americans.
Hopkinson and Caldwell have created a lovely biography. Caldwell’s illustrations are beautiful windows into significant aspects of US history. Hopkinson does a great job creating a story that inspires without losing itself in historical detail. However, she does provide detailed back matter to help teachers and parents elaborate on Perkins’ important contributions to history and their current significance.
I recommend this accessible and inspiring biography for personal and classroom libraries. It’s a timely book about a woman who cracked the metaphorical glass ceiling constraining women’s opportunities as well as a necessary reminder about the importance of labor regulations.
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