A Model of Moral Imagination
Frances Perkins, an American heroine for social justice
Today, 107 years ago, on Washington Place in New York’s Greenwich Village, a great fire engulfed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, killing 146 garment factory workers and becoming the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city. The factory doors had been locked, and the workers, 123 of which were women, could not escape the flames and smoke. The city erupted in outrage over workers’ conditions, but most people soon moved onto other worries.
It could have been simply a tragedy, but one young woman, Frances Perkins, bore witness. As the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned, she put herself in the shoes of the workers locked inside. Grounded in empathy, she envisioned a better system to protect the workers and was compelled to do something about it.
As Women’s History Month comes to a close, I find myself thinking about how Frances stepped forward as a candidate and was selected as the executive secretary of a newly formed citizen Committee on Public Safety to recommend new workplace standards. Born into a wealthy New York City family, she extended her privilege to fight for workers’ justice, giving voice to the concerns of low-income men and women as she unflinchingly spoke truth to power. Though women did not yet have the right to vote, Frances would go onto become the first woman to hold the position of U.S. Secretary of Labor and the architect behind the New Deal with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “I had to do something about unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty,” she wrote, “It was sort of up to me.”
In today’s interconnected world, it is up to all of us.
In reading about Frances, I’ve wondered how her moral imagination became so powerful — not just her ability to put herself in another’s shoes but her ability to dream a world that could be and to take action to make that world real. In university, Frances’ industrial economics professor had her visit local mills, an experience that would awaken her to the horrendous conditions of workers. She immersed herself in books like Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives. If a formal education honed her intellectual skills, immersion in the actual lives and conditions of workers enlivened her moral imagination, compelling her to spend her entire life advocating for and creating fairer conditions for workers in ways that would shape the nation’s economy.
We live in a world far more complex than that of Frances Perkins, demanding much more of us and our collective sense of moral imagination. Today, our concerns play out across a much broader, global canvas, bringing a host of new problems to our door. Companies employ hundreds of thousands of individuals operating across the world. Profits often are earned in countries far away from where workers toil. Supply chains have become wildly complicated across nations that do not operate according to a set of shared set of standards, whether social, political or environmental.
Distance combined with complexity lull us into inattentiveness and abstraction and enable us to avoid our own sense of accountability. The question is whether we will engage with these challenges or let them wash over us, our episodes of ephemeral outrage darting from one disaster to another.
Thankfully, we are seeing a new generation rising who understand the need to wake up the world to injustices and do something. It is a generation with more tools, knowledge and platforms than any in history. The students of Parkland, Florida and around the country who are fighting for gun control and who will no longer risk their lives waiting for someone else to take action carry the spirit of Frances Perkins. So does every person daring to lead with and, when needed, on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.
More than a century after New York’s shirtwaist fire ignited Frances Perkins to start a new conversation about our moral responsibility to one another, may we reflect on her spirit and infuse our own lives and work with an even deeper commitment to one another.