Today we celebrate a pioneer in workers’ rights and a critical player in the success of FDR’s New Deal, Frances Perkins. Born in Boston in 1880, she graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a degree in chemistry and physics. After teaching for a few years she attended Columbia University and received a master’s degree in Political Science.
She achieved statewide prominence as head of the New York Consumers League in 1910 and in that position she lobbied with vigor for better working hours and conditions. The next year, she witnessed the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a pivotal event in her life. Frances Perkins married Paul Caldwell Wilson in 1913. She kept her birth name, defending her right to do so in court.
Prior to going to Washington D.C., Perkins held various positions in New York State government. In 1929 the newly-elected New York governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, appointed Perkins as the state industrial commissioner. Having earned the cooperation and respect of various political factions, Perkins ably helped put New York in the forefront of progressive reform. She expanded factory investigations, reduced the workweek for women to 48 hours, and championed minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws–we still need champions like Perkins today.
In 1933 Roosevelt appointed Perkins as Secretary of the Department of Labor, a position she held for twelve years, longer than any other Secretary of Labor. She became the first woman to hold a cabinet position in the United States and thus, became the first woman to enter the presidential line of succession. With few exceptions, President Roosevelt consistently supported the goals and programs of Secretary Perkins. In an administration filled with compromise, the president’s support for the agenda of Frances Perkins was unusually constant.
As Secretary of Labor, Perkins played a key role in the cabinet by writing New Deal legislation, including minimum-wage laws. Her most important contribution, however, came in 1934 as chairwoman of the President’s Committee on Economic Security. In this post, she was involved in all aspects of the reports and hearings that ultimately resulted in the Social Security Act of 1935. Perkins would have been famous simply by being the first woman cabinet member, but her legacy stems from her accomplishments. She was largely responsible for the U.S. adoption of social security, unemployment insurance, federal laws regulating child labor, and adoption of the federal minimum wage.
Following her government service career, Perkins remained active as a teacher and lecturer at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University until her death in 1965 at age 85. Let’s celebrate this tireless advocate for workers’ rights and social justice with her own words:
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.” Most of man’s problems upon this planet, in the long history of the race, have been met and solved either partially or as a whole by experiment based on common sense and carried out with courage.