Beyer, Clara Mortenson, 1892-1990

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Clara Mortenson Beyer was a pioneer in labor economics and workers rights. She worked under Frances Perkins at the United States Department of Labor during the New Deal era, and was instrumental in implementing minimum wage legislation via the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Clara Mortenson Beyer was born on April 13, 1892 in Lake County, California. She was the sixth child of nine. Her parents were Danish immigrants, Mary Frederickson and Morten Mortenson. Morten Mortenson was a carpenter and unsuccessful chicken farmer, and was killed in a freak trolley accident when Clara was young. The following hard times for the Mortenson family, during which both Clara and her mother worked as fruit pickers and domestic laborers, resulted in Clara's interest in labor politics.

Clara supported herself through her undergraduate and master's degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. She received her undergraduate degree in 1915, and her master's degree on the subject of economics, specializing in labor issues, in 1916. She served as an instructor at UC Berkeley for one year before agreeing to teach labor economics at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1917.

While teaching at Bryn Mawr College, Beyer encouraged students to join picket lines and to investigate tenement sweatshops in Philadelphia. Not long after the beginning of her time at Bryn Mawr, Beyer met Felix Frankfurter, a then Harvard University faculty member and future Supreme Court Justice, who had come to Bryn Mawr in order to deliver a lecture. He was impressed with Beyer and asked her to come and work with him in Washington, D.C. on the War Labor Policies Board, and she accepted his invitation. Beyer served on the War Labor Policy Board throughout World War I, creating labor policies related to the war. She worked with Elizabeth Brandeis on these policies, daughter of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and Justice Brandeis went on to become one of Beyer's mentors.

Beyer served as secretary of the District of Columbia Minimum Wage Board. In that position, Beyer established procedures, set minimums, and went so far as to physically go to mercantile houses at the end of the daily shift and inform clerks about the District of Columbia's minimum wage. At the same time, Beyer was a member of the National Consumers' League, where she found a mentor in the secretary of organization, Florence Kelley.

In 1920, Clara married economist Otto Beyer, with whom she had three sons, Donald, Morton, and Richard. They moved to New York in 1921. She took on only part-time work while the boys were still at home, and one such part-time position was with the New York Consumers' League. It was there that she met and befriended Molly Dewson and Frances Perkins, both of whom she would go on to work with at the U.S. Department of Labor's Division of Labor Standards. Beyer also worked other part-time jobs at the same time, and served as the executive secretary of the Women's Joint Committee for the Minimum Wage and Hour Legislation, as well as a researcher for the American Federation of Labor. However, Beyer waited until 1928, when all three of her sons were enrolled in school, before she took on full-time work. The Beyer family moved back to Washington D.C. in 1928 and Clara returned to full-time work as Director of the Department of Labor's Children's Bureau, and from 1931 to 1934 she was the director of the Industrial Department of that Bureau. During this time, Dewson and Beyer worked together to engineer Frances Perkins' appointment to the position of secretary of labor in 1933.

In 1934, Perkins and Dewson encouraged Beyer to take the freshly-minted position of Associate Director in the Division of Labor Standards, and take it she did; Beyer served as Associate Director there from 1934 to 1957, working on issues of apprenticeship, vocational education, programs for elderly and migrant workers, and other foundational American labor issues. Beyer was excited about working with a newly founded Bureau because she was eager to build an organization from the beginning. Frances Perkins expressed her political inability to appoint another woman to a leading role in an important Labor Department organization, which she told Beyer was why she was not promoted further within the organization, and which Beyer happily accepted. Beyer did go on to become Acting Director of the Division of Labor Standards for one year, 1957–1958.

During her time at the Bureau of Labor Standards, Beyer was a member of the so-called “Ladies’ Brain Trust,” working alongside Molly Dewson, Mary La Dame, and Congresswoman Mary T. Norton to advise Frances Perkins in her position as Secretary of Labor during the 1930s and 1940s. It was through this advisory position that Beyer became an influential voice in New Deal era labor policies. Also while serving at the Bureau of Labor Standards, Beyer worked closely with Perkins and Arthur Altmeyer to develop the provisions that went into the Social Security Act of 1935.

Beyer's most recognized achievement at the Bureau of Labor Standards is her instrumental work towards the establishment of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set minimum wage and maximum hour standards nationwide. Beyer's bureau helped Ben Cohen and Thomas Corcoran draft the legislation, and when Beyer herself was resisted by organized laborers who worried that minimum wage would lower wages overall, she worked with Congresswoman Mary T. Norton to lobby William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor. With his support, the law passed, and when the act was challenged and appealed to the Supreme Court, Beyer helped prepare the government's successful defense. Beyer left the Department of Labor in 1958 and went to work at the International Cooperation Administration, which eventually was combined with several other organizations to become the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). She would work with USAID until her retirement in 1972, visiting 32 countries and studying labor conditions there. In 1972, when Beyer retired, she was awarded a certificate of appreciation for her contributions to the social and economic development of people both in the United States and overseas. After her retirement, Beyer still served as a consultant for USAID and co-authored the Percy Amendment to the International Cooperation Assistance Act of 1973, which designated certain amounts of U.S. foreign aid to programs for women.

Beyer died in her Washington, D.C. home on September 25, 1990 due to acute cardiac arrhythmia. She was survived by her three sons, twelve grandchildren, and 23 great-grandchildren. One of her grandchildren, Don Beyer, serves as a Congressmen from Virginia's 8th congressional district since 2015, and was the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia from 1990 to 1998, and the United States Ambassador to Switzerland from 2009 to 2013 Don Beyer inaugurated the Clara Mortenson Beyer "Women and Children First" Award in 2011, which honors women leaders making positive change for women.

She was buried in Arlington National Cemetery beside her husband, Otto, who died in 1948. Her papers are held by the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Records, 1891-1955 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Raushenbush, Elizabeth Brandeis. Paul A. Raushenbush and Elizabeth Brandeis Raushenbush papers, 1918-1980. Wisconsin Historical Society, Newspaper Project
creatorOf Additional papers, 1959-1979 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Papers, 1884-1998 (inclusive), 1929-1988 (bulk) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Papers, 1920-1967 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Women in the Federal Government Oral History Project. Records, 1981-1991 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Beyer, Clara M. (Clara Mortenson). Interview, 1983. Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Anderson, James R. Frances Perkins. Interviews. Cornell University Library
referencedIn Papers of Frieda S. Miller, 1909-1973 (inclusive), 1929-1967 (bulk) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Glueck, Sheldon, 1896-1990. Papers, 1916-1972 Harvard Law School Library Langdell Hall Cambridge, MA 02138
referencedIn Peterson, Esther, 1906-1997. Papers, 1884-1998 (inclusive), 1929-1998 (bulk). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Albums, ca., 1861-1962 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Raushenbush, Elizabeth Brandeis, 1896-1984. Papers, 1920-1967 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Dewson, Molly, 1874-1962. Papers, 1898-1961, 1921-1961 (bulk) Campbell University, Wiggins Memorial Library
creatorOf Papers, 1911-1965 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Dewson, Molly, 1874-1962. Albums, 1861-1962 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Beyer, Clara M. (Clara Mortenson). Papers of Clara Mortenson Beyer, 1911-1974 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Miller, Frieda S. Papers, 1909-1973 (inclusive), 1929-1967 (bulk). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Women in the Federal Government Oral History Project. Interviews, 1981-1983 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Beyer, Clara M. (Clara Mortenson). Additional papers, 1959-1979 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Abbott, Edith, 1876-1957. person
associatedWith Abbott, Grace, 1878-1939. person
associatedWith Altmeyer, Arthur J. (Arthur Joseph), b. 1891. person
associatedWith American Association of University Women. corporateBody
associatedWith Anderson, James R. person
associatedWith Anderson, Mary, 1872-1964. person
associatedWith Brandeis, Louis Dembitz, 1856-1941. person
associatedWith Breckinridge, Sophronista Preston, 1866-1948. person
associatedWith Code Authority Organization. corporateBody
associatedWith Coit, Eleanor G. person
associatedWith Consumers' League of Massachusetts corporateBody
correspondedWith Dewson, Mary (Molly) WIlliams, 1874-1962 person
associatedWith Douglas, Helen Gahagan, 1900-1980. person
associatedWith Dubinsky, David, 1892-1982. person
associatedWith Edwards, India. person
associatedWith Eliot, Martha M. (Martha May), b. 1891. person
associatedWith Elizabeth (Brandeis) Raushenbush, 1896-1984 person
associatedWith Frankfurter, Felix, 1882-1965. person
associatedWith Gildersleeve, Virginia Crocheron, 1877-1965. person
associatedWith Glueck, Sheldon, 1896- person
associatedWith Goldmark, Josephine, 1877-1950. person
associatedWith Goldmark, Pauline Dorothea. person
associatedWith Hart, Vivien. person
associatedWith Herrick, Elinore, 1895-1964. person
associatedWith Hutchinson, Mary H. person
associatedWith Ickes, Harold L. (Harold LeClair), 1874-1952. person
associatedWith Inter-American Conference of Ministers of Labor on the Alliance for Progress. corporateBody
associatedWith International Labor Organization corporateBody
associatedWith International Labour Organization. corporateBody
associatedWith Kelley, Florence, 1859-1932. person
associatedWith Keyserling, Mary Dublin. person
associatedWith Lathrop, Julia Clifford, 1858-1932. person
associatedWith Lee, Percy Maxim, 1906- person
associatedWith Lenroot, Katharine F. (Katharine Fredrica), 1891-1982. person
associatedWith Lubin, Carol Riegelman. person
associatedWith Miller, Frieda Segelke, 1889-1973 person
associatedWith Miller, Helen Hill, 1899-1995. person
associatedWith National Consumers' League. corporateBody
associatedWith Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. corporateBody
associatedWith Organization of American States. corporateBody
associatedWith Overseas Education Fund. corporateBody
associatedWith Perkins, Frances, 1882-1965. person
associatedWith Peterson, Esther Eggertsen, 1906-1997 person
associatedWith Raushenbush, Elizabeth Brandeis. person
associatedWith Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962. person
associatedWith Schneiderman, Rose, 1882-1972. person
associatedWith Smith, Hilda Worthington. person
associatedWith Strauss, Anna Lord, 1899-1979. person
associatedWith Thomas, M. Carey (Martha Carey), 1857-1935. person
associatedWith United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. corporateBody
associatedWith United Nations Development Programme. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Agency for International Development. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Dept. of Labor. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Dept. of Labor. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Dept. of Labor. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. International Cooperation Administration. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. National Recovery Administration. corporateBody
associatedWith U.S. Department of Labor corporateBody
associatedWith Van Waters, Miriam. person
associatedWith Voteless League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia. corporateBody
associatedWith Wald, Lillian D., 1867-1940. person
associatedWith Women in the Federal Government Oral History Project. corporateBody
associatedWith Women in the Federal Government Oral History Project. corporateBody
associatedWith World Conference of the International Women's Year (1975 : Conference Centre of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs) corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
Developing countries
United States
Asia
Puerto Rico
Developing countries
United States
Asia
Latin America
United States
Latin America
Subject
Women
Home labor
Vocational education
Labor
Child welfare
Working class
Labor and laboring classes--Standards
Labor laws and legislation
Women's rights--Congresses
Working class--Standards
Women--Developing countries
Labor and laboring classes
Labor congresses
Migrant labor
minimum wage
World War, 1939-1945--War work
Working class women
Women--Employment
Women labor union members
Industrial hygiene
Social security
Quality of work life
International agencies
Occupation
Activity

Person

Birth 1892

Active 1911

Active 1974

Female

Information

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