Kheel Center exhibit honors labor champion

Mary Catt, ILR School

Frances Perkins, who left her progressive mark on New York City, New York state, the nation and Cornell, will be celebrated in an exhibit opening June 7 in the ILR School, where she served on the faculty until she died at age 85 in 1965.Items from across her career, including eight years of teaching at ILR, have been curated by the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives in Catherwood Library, part of Cornell University Library and located in the ILR School.

The “Frances Perkins and the New Deal” exhibit will be unveiled at an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. June 7 in the Catherwood Library lobby as part of Cornell Reunion Weekend. Kheel staff will be on hand to answer questions and host a mini version of Catherwood’s Cookie Day complete with a cookie-themed craft activity for children. 

Perkins mediated numerous labor disputes in New York state and the nation. As U.S. labor secretary, Perkins was an architect of Social Security and other New Deal initiatives; she was the mastermind behind child labor reforms, unemployment insurance, the Fair Labor Standards Act, minimum wage and the 40-hour work week.

“It’s so fascinating, the work she was doing,” said Steven Calco, Kheel Center research archivist. “This notion of labor and management working together that was exemplified by the ILR School when it was founded in 1945 is what Perkins embodied through her public service work. She looked at things through a critical lens, examining every angle. She maintained this uncanny ability to work with opposing groups to advance social causes.”

“She prided herself on teaching the next generation about labor-management peace. It fits with her career, so it’s kind of perfect that she ended her professional life here,” Calco said.

Katie Keegan, Kheel Center reference assistant and exhibit co-curator, said, “Frances Perkins showed so many women that opportunities, even if limited, can be accomplished. She aimed to dismantle gender stereotypes and pave the way for future generations of women to have a seat at the table.”

Her legacy will also be celebrated locally when a statue of her is unveiled on Aug. 17 in downtown Ithaca.

This excerpt originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle. Read the full story on the ILR website.

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