Frances Perkins was the first woman in the United States to hold a cabinet-level position, serving as President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. She was one of the major architects of the New Deal. Years later, she reflected on those days: “What was the New Deal anyhow? Was it a political plot? Was it just a name for a period in history? Was it a revolution? To all of these questions I answer ‘No.’ It was something quite different… It was, I think, basically an attitude. An attitude that found voice in expressions like ‘the people are what matter to government,’ and ‘a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life’ .
Perkins was born in Boston on April 10, 1880, into a very conservative family. When she was a young child she asked her parents why some people are poor. She was told that it was the result of “alcohol or laziness,” and that “little girls shouldn’t concern themselves with such things.” But Perkins’ curiosity about the lives of the poor continued. For a college course, she was required to observe the conditions of factory workers and later recalled: “I was horrified at the work that many women and children had to do in factories. There were absolutely no effective laws that regulated the number of hours they were permitted to work. There were no provisions which guarded their health nor adequately looked after their compensation in case of injury. Those things seemed very wrong. I was young and was inspired with the idea of reforming, or at least doing what I could, to help change those abuses” .
After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts in 1902, Perkins became deeply involved in social movements. She worked in settlement houses (places that provided shelter, education, and social services for low-income families) such as Chicago’s Hull House, aggressively promoted women’s rights, and in 1907 became the general secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. In this position, she investigated fraudulent employment agencies that victimized immigrant women. Then, in 1909, she began working on a master’s degree in political science at Columbia University . In New York she came in contact with some of the leading figures in social reform of her time, such as Florence Kelley of the National Consumers League.
Shortly after completing her graduate studies, Perkins witnessed an event that neither she nor the nation would ever forget: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. She later described the fire: “Everybody who jumped, and a good many did jump from the 9th and 10th floors, was killed. The other people who died were all people who were burned or smothered by the smoke in the factory itself… It was a horrifying spectacle” . Thereafter, she became an activist and expert on industrial safety, an ally of New York Senator Robert Wagner, and Governor Al Smith’s appointee to the New York Industrial Commission.
When Franklin Roosevelt was elected governor of New York, he named Perkins Industrial Commissioner and she became his primary advisor on labor matters. She subsequently became a member of FDR’s inner circle of New Dealers, bringing New York’s leading ideas about labor regulation and welfare to Washington, DC. She helped shape the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration before helping guide the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Her greatest achievement was chairing the commission that wrote the Social Security Act. After President Roosevelt died in 1945, Perkins became a federal civil service commissioner and, later, a lecturer at Cornell University. She also wrote The Roosevelt I Knew in 1946 .
Frances Perkins died in New York City on May 14, 1965. Her legacy is still working for Americans today, including a more stable and secure retirement system, government benefits during periods of unemployment or disability, the minimum wage to raise working incomes, and the many improvements to state and national parks .
Sources: (1) “Social Security History, Frances Perkins,” Social Security Administration, https://www.ssa.gov/history/fpbiossa.html, accessed December 11, 2015. (2) “Frances Perkins: The Woman Behind the New Deal,” Frances Perkins Center, https://francesperkinscenter.org/?page_id=574, accessed December 11, 2015. (3) Ibid., and also see “Frances Perkins: Honoring the Achievements of FDR’s Secretary of Labor,” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, https://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/aboutfdr/perkins.html, accessed December 11, 2015. (4) “Lecture by Frances Perkins,” Cornell University, https://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/primary/lectures/FrancesPerkinsLecture.html?CFID=1291541&CFTOKEN=80715479, accessed December 11, 2015. (5) “Frances Perkins (1880-1965),” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, George Washington University, https://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/glossary/perkins-frances.cfm, accessed December 11, 2015. (6) The best overview of Perkins’ life and times is Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, New York: Nan Talese (Doubleday), 2009.