Frances Perkins was the first female member of a Presidential cabinet in the United States and today is the 135th anniversary of her birth. She served as Secretary for Labor from 1933 to 1945 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A social worker by training, Perkins was a staunch advocate for workers’ rights and was the chief architect of New Deal legislation including the Social Security Act. She chaired the President’s Committee on Economic Security in 1934 and was relentless in her efforts to protect the vulnerable and enhance the public welfare. The Department of Labor in Washington, DC is now named after her.
Perkins went to college at Mount Holyoke, where a class in American economic history that revolutionized her worldview. She emerged from her experience expressing the sentiment that she 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.”
After graduation, Perkins worked in settlement houses, which compelled her to say that she “had to do something about unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty.” The major turning point in Perkins’ life was when she witnessed the horror of the fire that engulfed the Triangle Shirt Waist Company in New York City in 1911. She saw 47 women leap to their deaths to escape the flames and she vowed to push for factory and worker safety as a result. She called that moment “the day the New Deal was born.”
When Perkins began her tenure in the FDR administration, she outlined a set of priorities for the President which included: a 40-hour work week; a minimum wage; unemployment compensation; worker’s compensation; abolition of child labor; direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief; Social Security; a revitalized federal employment service; and universal health insurance. She would not take the Secretary position without President Roosevelt’s agreement with her policy priorities. Forbes magazine stated that the progress was “not so much the Roosevelt New Deal, as…the Perkins New Deal.”
Perkins’ pioneering efforts did not come easy. Although a lifelong feminist who organized women to push for equal rights, she was known to go to great lengths to blend in with her male colleagues. She changed her name from Fanny to Frances. She wore dowdy clothing and little makeup so as to be perceived as “one of the boys.” She said about her first cabinet meeting “I was apprehensive and on guard at the first official cabinet meeting. As the only woman member, I did not want my colleagues to get the impression that I was too talkative. I resolved not to speak unless asked to do so. My colleagues looked at me with tense curiosity.”
Without Frances Perkins, it is arguable that our nation would not have realized many of the progressive policies that have made our nation great. She began the long journey of proving women’s worth as thinkers, leaders, and doers. She set the stage for women in our country to pursue the career of their choosing with passion and without apology.
Photo Credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library