Frances Perkins, 1880-1965

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Woman Category: Academy & Education, Activism & Feminism, and Politics & LeadersWoman Tags: Suffragist and WDC Metro Area Women

  • HerStory

    A workers-rights advocate, the 4th US Secretary of Labor, the first woman in this position, the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary, and the first woman to serve in a Presidential cabinet.

    Fannie Perkins was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Worcester. After high school, she attended Mount Holyoke College, where she discovered progressive politics and became active in the suffrage movement. At age 22, after receiving her Bachelor’s degree in physics and chemistry, she moved to Chicago and taught chemistry in various schools. During vacation and in her free time, she volunteered at the Hull House settlement house, where she worked with Jane Addams. At 25, she joined the Episcopal church and changed her name to Frances. In 1907, she moved to Philadelphia to study economics at the University of Pennsylvania while working as general secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. Two years later, she moved to NYC, where she worked at the New York School of Philanthropy investigating childhood malnutrition as well as studying political science at Columbia University.
    At the age of 30, Perkins was appointed the head of the National Consumers League in New York. In this position, she lobbied to improve working conditions and to set working hours limitations for factory workers, especially for women and children. In 1911, she witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where 146 workers, mostly women, were trapped in the building and died. Following this event, she was chosen by the new mayor of NYC, Theodore Roosevelt, as the executive secretary for the Committee on Safety of the city. As secretary, Perkins served as an expert witness and led legislators on inspections of factories and worksites. The Commission formulated a set of laws for workplace health and safety, which became a federal government model. In 1913, she married Paul Caldwell Wilson, and three years later, she gave birth and left the office. Not long after, her husband was hospitalized for mental illness, and she returned to work in the New York State government. On February 18th, 1919, Perkins was appointed to head of the New York’s State Industrial Commission, becoming the first woman to serve at an administrative position in the state government, and the highest-paid woman in public office in the US. As a commissioner, she oversaw the industrial code and supervised the bureau of mediation and arbitration and the bureau of information and statistics.
    In 1929, at the age of 49, Perkins was appointed by the new governor Franklin Roosevelt as the inaugural New York State industrial commissioner. Supervising 1,800 employees, she reduced the workweek for women to 48 hours, expanded factory investigations, and pushed for ending child labor as well as unemployment insurance laws and minimum wage. Four years later, when Roosevelt was elected as the president, he asked Perkins to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of Labor, becoming the first woman in the US to hold a cabinet position and enter the presidential line of succession. She presented a list of labor programs, known as the “New Deal,” and in the 12 years she held the position, she had accomplished all the items on the list, but one – universal access to health care. Perkins also served as a member of the Special Board for Public Works, ensuring funds for social projects such as schools, housing, and roads. She chaired the President’s Committee on Economic Security, in which she established the She-She-She Camps for unemployed women and the Civilian Conservation Corps and drafted the Social Security Act.
    In 1945, when Truman was elected president, she was replaced in the cabinet but was asked to serve on the US Civil Service Commission. As a commissioner, she spoke against the requirement of secretaries and stenographers to be hired for their looks. She held this position for seven years, retiring in 1952 after her husband had died. She remained active as a lecturer and teacher in several academic institutes until she passed away at the age of 85.

    “The people are what matter to government, and a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.”

    “The people are what matter to government, and a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • Her family had ancestors in colonial America.
    • She used to spent her childhood summers in Newcastle in Maine on her grandmother’s farm.
    • She loved Greek literature.
    • She was named class president in college.
    • She published a memoir about her time in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration titled “The Roosevelt I Knew,” in which she details her personal history with FDR, since their first meeting in 1910.
    • She kept her maiden name and had to defend this decision in court.
    • In the movie Dirty Dancing, the lead character, Frances “Baby” Houseman, was named after her.
    • Before she left the Department of Labor in June of 1945, she shook hands and personally thanked all 1800 employees of the department.
    • May 13th is the Episcopal Church’s feast day in her honor.
    • The Frances Perkins Memorial Fellowship of the Telluride House and Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations is named in her honor.
    • The Frances Perkins Building at the headquarters of the US Department of Labor in Washington, DC, is named in her honor.
    • Her home in Washington and her Maine family home are designated National Historic Landmarks.
  • More About Her Legacy

    * Inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame (1982)

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  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Restoring Economic Growth 1934 Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins

    During the early days of the 1930s, the shorter hour cure for overproduction and unemployment was almost as important as the other solution, the gospel of consumption. The critical debate about unemployment that developed in the 1920s was not, as it has been since the Depression, over how to stimulate demand. Shorter work hours was a vital issue during the formation of the labor movement in the 19th century and continued to be important until the end of the Great Depression. Between 1900 and 1920 a rapid reduction took place-especially between the years 1913 and 1919 when weekly hours fell about eight percent. Economic abundance threatened overproduction and unemployment. Shorter hours could decrease work, raise wages, spread employment, reduce unnecessary production and surpluses, and insure a minimum standard of life for everyone. Shorter hours would counter the new "economic gospel of consumption" which had begun to define progress solely in terms of economic growth and abandon the other, more humane kinds of progress." For more on this, read THE END OF SHORTER HOURS by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, published in Labor History, XXV (Summer, 1984),373-404. Frances Perkins (1882-1965) was the first woman cabinet member. As Secretary of Labor from March 1933 to July 1945, she also served longer than any other Secretary. She was trained as a teacher, and her views were decidedly liberal. (Her enemies said she was a communist!) And she valued individual liberty. Her character combined a very strong sense of "mission" in pursuing social justice with a pragmatic, practical bent, which helped her to appraise the political realities of a situation and get things through. It was with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that her goals for social justice were able to be taken to a national level. In 1933, the new President wanted Perkins for Secretary of Labor. As Secretary of Labor, Perkins worked tirelessly to create programs such as The Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Public Works Administration. These programs provided food, shelter and jobs for millions of people and invested in conservation projects. But perhaps her greatest achievements were the enactments of the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. In 1935, Congress passed the first, ensuring that working people had benefits during unemployment and in retirement. In 1938, the second was made law. This immediately raised wages and shortened work hours for many people, and in many industries, prohibited the use of child labor. Perkins' dedication to labor reform and the welfare of the public that needed her was manifested in these two laws. When she ended her career in government service, she took a post on the faculty of Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where she remained until her death in 1965. Frances Perkins was born in Massachusetts, of an upper middle-class family.. She did her undergraduate work at Mount Holyoke College, and graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. In 1910-12, she was executive secretary of the Consumer's League in New York City. She lobbied for a 54-hour work week for women. In 1911, she witnessed the horrible Triangle Fire, when 600 young women workers were trapped by fire in the upper floors of the Triangle Shirt Waist Company. The number of women who died in that fire was 146, many of whom leaped from the building to avoid the flames. Driven by what she had witnessed, Frances Perkins intensified her efforts in the area of factory safety. She became well known as a social worker and active lobbyist for legislative reforms. For more on her life and work, go to This film is from the US National Archives.

  • Photo credit - LOC