Women You Missed in History Class: Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins (1880-1965)

I’m sure you learned about FDR and the New Deal in your high school history classes.  But did you ever learn about the woman behind the New Deal?  Her name was Frances Perkins, and she was pretty badass.  She was born April 10, 1880 and grew up in a strict, conservative, Republican household in Worcester, Massachusetts.  As a child, she was taught that poverty was the result of laziness and alcohol, but as a teenager, she picked up a copy of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, and she began to question the things she’d learned in her conservative upbringing.  She attended Mount Holyoke College, where she was first drawn to the labor movement, and decided to commit her life to the plight of the working poor.  When she married Paul Caldwell Wilson in 1913, she defended her right to keep her own last name in court.  Wilson would spend much of their life together in and out of mental institutions, and Perkins was often the sole supporter of the household.

Frances Perkins was expected to follow the path that most college-educated women of her time took: Find a teaching position and teach until she got married; then quit her job to settle down and raise children.  Instead, she pursued a career in public service.  In 1910, she became head of the New York Consumers League, where she pushed for better conditions for workers.  After the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, she left the New York Consumers League and became the executive secretary for the Committee on Safety of the City of New York.  In 1918, the mayor of New York City appointed her to the State Industrial Commission.  Perkins held several different positions in New York city and state government, all of them focused on improving life for workers.  She earned the respect of several New York political giants, including Franklin Roosevelt, who appointed her Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor.  When Roosevelt became president, he appointed Perkins as Secretary of the Department of Labor, making her the first woman to serve as a US cabinet secretary.

Perkins served as Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945, one of only two cabinet members to remain in office for the entire Roosevelt administration.  As Labor Secretary, Perkins oversaw the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Public Works Administration.  She pushed for laws to ensure workplace safety and abolish child labor.  She drafted the blueprint for what would become the Social Security Act.  Signed into law on August 14 (my birthday), 1935 (not my birth year), the Social Security Act established pensions, unemployment benefits, and workers’ compensation for needy and elderly Americans.  In 1938, another Perkins project, the Fair Labor Standards Act, set the standard 40-hour work week and established the first minimum wage and overtime laws.

After the end of the Roosevelt administration, Perkins served on the United States Civil Service Commission under President Harry Truman.  She resigned from public service in 1952 after the death of her husband, but she didn’t retire completely.  Instead, she began a new career as a professor at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, a position she held until she was well into her eighties.  By the time of her death in 1965, she had changed the country and shattered several glass ceilings along the way.


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