Clara Beyer was an associate director in the Division of Labor Standards—an office within the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)—from 1934 to 1957, and its acting director from 1957 to 1958 . She was also part of the so-called “Ladies’ Brain Trust,” a group of four women who advised Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins during the 1930s and 40s (the others were Molly Dewson, Mary La Dame, and Congresswoman Mary T. Norton) . In this advisory role, Beyer became “an influential figure on labor policies of the New Deal era” .
Beyer was born Clara Mortenson in Lake County, California, on April 13, 1892, the sixth daughter of Danish immigrants Morten Mortenson and Mary Frederickson. Clara’s father died when she was very young, and the resulting hard times sparked an interest in labor issues. In 1915 and 1916, Clara earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. She then worked as an instructor at Berkeley, before moving to Pennsylvania in 1917 to teach labor economics at Bryn Mawr College .
During World War I, Clara came to Washington, D.C. to work with Felix Frankfurter and Elizabeth Brandeis at the War Labor Policies Board (Brandeis was the daughter of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis). She also worked for the District of Columbia Minimum Wage Board, where she assessed “wages paid to women in the district so minimum levels could be set” . After the war, Clara married fellow economist Otto Beyer and the couple had three children. For the next several years, she worked part-time for various groups, including the New York Consumers’ League where she befriended Frances Perkins and Molly Dewson .
By 1928 all of Beyer’s children were enrolled in school and she was working full-time again, this time for the DOL’s Children’s Bureau. From 1931 to 1934 she was director of the bureau’s Industrial Department . Her New Deal friends then steered Beyer to her management position in the DOL’s Division of Labor Standards, an office created by Secretary Perkins “to promote, through voluntary means, improved conditions of work” . Beyer’s duties as associate director included “such issues as apprenticeship, vocational education, liaison with state governments, programs for elderly and migrant laborers, occupational accident and disease controls, industrial home work abuses and training for factory inspectors” . The Oakland Tribune described her accomplishments thus: “She gets shorter hours, better wages and working conditions for employees… making it all as painless as possible for employers” .
Beyer continued working for the DOL for many years after the New Deal, but left in 1958 to begin working for the International Cooperation Administration (ICA), which in 1961 was amalgamated with other initiatives to form the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) . During her years at ICA and USAID, Beyer visited 32 countries to examine labor conditions . She retired from USAID in 1972, but continued to serve as a consultant.
Clara Beyer died in 1990, in Washington, D.C., at the age of 98. She was survived by three sons, Donald Beyer of Falls Church, Virginia, Morton Beyer of Lolo, Montana, and Richard Beyer of Seattle, as well as 12 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren . One of her grandsons, Don Beyer, has served as lieutenant governor of Virginia (1990-1998), U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland (2009-2013), and U.S. Congressman for Virginia’s 8th District (2015- ) . At the age of 95, reminiscing on her long career in public service, Clara Beyer said, “I never got any publicity, but that never bothered me. It was enough just to get your ideas across” .
Sources: (1) Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981, p. 145. Also see note 4 below, Papers of Clara Mortenson Beyer. (2) See, e.g., “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” San Bernardino Daily Sun, January 18, 1938. (3) “Labor Expert Clara Beyer Dies At 98,” Washington Post, September 27, 1990. (4) Ibid., and“Beyer, Clara M. (Clara Mortenson). Papers of Clara Mortenson Beyer, 1911-1965: A Finding Aid,” Harvard University Library, accessed May 6, 2016; also see, “Clara Mortensen Beyer ‘Women And Children First’ Award,” Embassy of the United States, Bern, Switzerland, accessed May 6, 2016. (5) “Clara Beyer, 98, Dies; Key New Deal Official,” New York Times, September 28, 1990. (6) See notes 1 and 3. (7) See note 1, pp. 29 and 145. (8) “History at the Department of Labor, Chapter 3: The Department in the New Deal and World War II, 1933-1945,” U.S. Department of Labor, accessed May 6, 2016. (9) See note 3. (10) Sigrid Arne, “Former UC Woman Student U.S. ‘Nurse’ to Labor Laws,” Oakland Tribune, May 11, 1937. (11) “USAID History,” USAID, accessed May 6, 2016. (12) See note 3. (13) See note 5. (14) See, e.g., note 4, Embassy of the United States, and also Don Beyer’s biography at https://beyer.house.gov/about/, accessed May 6, 2016. (15) “Washington Talk: Women In Government; Tales of the Pioneers,” New York Times, November 13, 1987.« Back to Glossary Index