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Perkins, Frances

PERKINS, FRANCES

At a time when few women achieved prominence in national politics, Frances Perkins distinguished herself as a public official, a respected labor and industry expert, and an adviser to the president of the United States. When Perkins was named secretary of labor by President franklin d. roosevelt in 1933, she became the first woman in U.S. history to hold a cabinet post. Perkins used her position to help launch the sweeping social and economic reforms of the new deal.

Perkins was born April 10, 1880, in Boston, and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts. After graduating from Worcester Classical High School, Perkins attended Mount Holyoke College, where she studied physics and chemistry and was class president. As a senior at Mount Holyoke, Perkins was influenced by Jacob A. Riis's 1890 book How the Other Half Lives and by a speech given by Florence Kelley, the general secretary of the National Consumers League. Perkins's growing awareness of the plight of underprivileged U.S. citizens would lead to her life's work as a labor activist. After graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1902, Perkins pursued further studies in economics and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. She earned a master's degree from Columbia in 1910.

After graduate school, Perkins briefly taught biology and physics in a school in Lake Forest, Illinois. In her off-hours, she volunteered at Jane Addams's Hull House, in nearby Chicago, and at other settlement houses. There, Perkins witnessed the poverty and wretched working conditions endured by thousands of U.S. citizens. Determined to help improve the plight of workers, she returned to New York City to work as a lobbyist with her mentor, Kelley, at the New York Consumers League.

Perkins's task was formidable. Throughout the early twentieth century, U.S. businesses were unregulated: workers in sweatshops worked long hours for low pay in unsafe working conditions. There were no building codes to ensure the employees' safety, no regular inspections of equipment and machinery, and no limit to the number of hours employees could work. Children routinely were employed in factories, mills, and mines under the most miserable conditions. Some women worked nineteen hours a day with their children by their side.

"We all take refuge in the optimism which is typical of this great creative nation. Every situation has found us unprepared."
—Frances Perkins

An industrial tragedy heightened Perkins's resolve to force changes in the workplace. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, in New York City. Perkins happened to be in the neighborhood and watched as employees trapped on the top three floors of the burning ten-story building jumped

from windows to their death. The door to the only stairway in the building had been locked by employers, to halt break-ins. One hundred workers perished inside the building, and forty-seven jumped or fell to their death. The owners of the company were later absolved of criminal negligence for the disaster and collected $64,925 in property damage insurance.

In the fire's aftermath, the New York State Factory Commission was created, with Perkins named as chief investigator. She also became a member of the Committee on Safety of the City of New York and lobbied hard for legislation to make the workplace safer. She toured the state with Alfred E. Smith and robert f. wagner and documented the deplorable conditions faced by workers. An exhaustive investigation led to new laws to protect the labor force.

A major success for Perkins was the passage of a bill by the New York Legislature to limit the workweek to fifty-four hours for women and children. The bill was vigorously opposed by the employers of the four hundred thousand female factory workers throughout the state. While lobbying for the bill, Perkins became acquainted with Roosevelt, who was a New York state senator. Although Roosevelt's support of the fifty-four-hour bill was lukewarm, Perkins developed a professional relationship with him that grew stronger as Roosevelt's views on labor and government began to mirror her own.

In 1913 Perkins married Paul Caldwell Wilson and rejected prevailing social convention by retaining her maiden name for professional purposes. In 1918 she was appointed to the New York State Industrial Commission.

Perkins's work with Roosevelt in New York led to a position in the federal government. When Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he asked Perkins to become secretary of labor. Although she argued that a female trade unionist should be nominated for the post, she eventually accepted the position. Perkins became the only cabinet member to serve during all four of Roosevelt's terms of office.

When Roosevelt took office, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. About a third of the nation's workforce was unemployed. As labor secretary, Perkins helped shape the social security act (42 U.S.C.A. § 301 et seq.), a key component of Roosevelt's New Deal. Passed by the U.S. Congress in 1935, the act allowed qualified workers in commerce and

industry to collect old-age, survivors, and disability insurance benefits. The new program required employers and employees to make contributions to a federal pension fund for aged and disabled persons. In this way, workers and their families were financially protected in the event of unemployment, old age, or the death of a wage earner. Although critics likened the plan to socialism, social security became a successful federal entitlement program.

Perkins also helped develop the fair labor standards act of 1938 (29 U.S.C.A. § 201 et seq.), which limited the number of hours employees could work for minimum wage. The law also placed restrictions on child labor. It prohibited children under sixteen years of age from working in most jobs, and made hazardous occupations unavailable to workers under eighteen years of age. The Wage and Hour Division of the labor department was also established by the act.

After Roosevelt's death in 1945, Perkins served briefly in the administration of President harry s. truman. She left Truman's cabinet to serve on the U.S. Civil Service Commission from 1946 to 1952. Perkins then taught courses at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She died in New York City on May 14, 1965, at the age of eighty-five.

further readings

Pasachoff, Naomi. 1999. Frances Perkins: Champion of the New Deal. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Pirro, Jeanine Ferris. 1999. "Reforming the Urban Workplace: The Legacy of Frances Perkins." Fordham Urban Law Journal 26 (May).

Whitney, Sharon, and Tom Raynor. 1986. Women in Politics. New York: Franklin Watts.

cross-references

Child Labor Laws; Labor Law.

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Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins (1882-1965), American social worker, U.S. secretary of labor, and civil service commissioner, was the first woman to serve in a presidential Cabinet.

Frances Perkins was born in Boston, Mass., on April 10, 1882, and grew up in Worcester, the daughter of a manufacturer. At the age of 16 she entered Mount Holyoke College. Following her graduation in 1902, she spent 2 years in Worcester as a social worker for the Episcopal Church. She then taught school near Chicago before working at Hull House. After studying at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Finance, she took a master's degree at Columbia University in 1910.

Perkins next became executive secretary of the Consumers' League of New York, which investigated industrial conditions and lobbied for ameliorative legislation. In 1913 she married Paul Caldwell Wilson, a financial statistician, and they had one daughter.

Between 1919 and 1929 Miss Perkins was industrial commissioner for the state of New York. She helped get further reductions of the work week for women, the publication of monthly figures on unemployment within the state, and other reforms. She was also active in immigrant education programs and won the confidence of both trade unionists and middle-class reformers. In 1929 newly elected governor Franklin D. Roosevelt made her labor commissioner of New York. Four years later she followed Roosevelt (now president) to Washington as secretary of labor, the first woman to hold a Cabinet appointment.

Although opposed by both business groups and the leadership of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) because of her sex and her liberal social and economic views, Perkins did a reasonably good job. Her department improved the operation of the Children's Bureau, began issuing regular unemployment figures, and contributed significantly to the standardization of state labor laws and the formulation of the Social Security Act. The Labor Department proved ineffectual in dealing with the industrial disturbances of the 1930s and with the strife between the AFL and the emergent Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Despite persistent, often harsh, criticism, Perkins stayed in office, resigning only after Roosevelt's death in 1945. Soon after, however, President Harry Truman appointed her to the U.S. Civil Service Commission. She served quietly and rather obscurely until she resigned in 1953. For the next 12 years Perkins lectured at Cornell University and other institutions. She died in New York City on May 14, 1965.

Further Reading

Autobiographical information on Perkins is in her The Roosevelt I Knew (1946). The most scholarly account of her career as secretary of labor is in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt (3 vols., 1957-1960). □

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Perkins, Frances

Frances Perkins, 1882–1965, U.S. Secretary of Labor (1933–45), b. Boston. She worked at Hull House, was executive secretary of the New York Consumers' League (1910–12) and of the New York Committee on Safety (1912–17), and directed (1912–13) investigations for the New York state factory commission. She became an authority on industrial hazards and hygiene and began lobbying in Albany for more comprehensive factory laws and for maximum-hour laws for women. Gov. Alfred E. Smith appointed (1923) her to the New York State Industrial Board, and later she served (1926–29) as its chairman. Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt named her (1929) industrial commissioner of New York state to direct the enforcement of factory and labor laws. As President, Roosevelt appointed her U.S. Secretary of Labor—the first appointment of a woman to the U.S. cabinet. Her appointment was bitterly criticized by business, labor, and political leaders. As Secretary of Labor, she promoted adoption of the Social Security Act, advocated higher wages, urged legislation to alleviate industrial strife, and helped standardize state industrial legislation. After she resigned, she served (1946–52) as a member of the U.S. Civil Service Commission. Besides books on labor problems, she wrote The Roosevelt I Knew (1946).

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Perkins, Frances

PERKINS, FRANCES


Frances Perkins (18821963) changed her baptismal name from Fannie to Frances at the age of 25, as part of her religious conversion from Congregational to Episcopalian. Ms. Perkins also changed many other things during her 60-year long career as a social activist, social worker, social reformer, and feminist. Frances Perkins was best known for her appointment as the first female Cabinet officer in the United States government.

Frances Perkins was born in 1882, in Boston, Massachusetts, the eldest of two daughters born to Frederick and Susan Perkins, who were members of an old Maine farming family. She attended Mt. Holyoke College, where she studied physics and chemistry, subjects unusual for a girl in her day. While at Mt. Holyoke, Perkins was inspired by Florence Kelly, secretary of the National Consumers' League. Kelly was an advocate for the elimination of child labor and sweatshops (small businesses that crowded people into miserable working conditions for six or seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day). These conditions were quite common as the nation industrialized through the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Through Florence Kelly, Frances Perkins found her calling, and she devoted herself to a lifelong mission to help the poor and needy of the United States, especially children, women, and immigrants.

In 1905 Perkins joined the resident staff of what was to become a very famous and pioneering settlement house in Chicago, Illinois, known as the Hull House. Working there, she saw the affects of poverty and its daily issues firsthand. Though there was satisfaction to be had in providing direct services to the poor, Perkins began to understand that until certain laws were changed or created in the United States, no real change in the circumstances of the poor would be possible.

In Philadelphia in 1907 Perkins became a professional social worker. She began to advocate local legislation to stop the exploitation of young immigrant women and African Americans who had recently moved North from the former slave states of the South. She took courses in sociology and economics, and her social consciousness brought her closely in line with existing socialist thought of the time. She earned a degree in political science and moved to New York, where, in 1910 at the age of 30, she was offered the job of secretary of the New York City Consumers' League. As secretary she focused on changing laws to improve sanitary conditions in businesses, creating legislation for fire prevention in factories, and passing a 54-hour-week maximum labor law that would limit work hours of women and children under the age of eighteen. In 1918 she became a leader in the U.S. women's suffrage movement.

Perkins successfully supported many New York laws that regulated business practices with respect to the abuses of the workforce. She developed many political contacts in New York, and she took on various social and legislative projects on behalf of women and children. Among her contacts was the governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945), who later became President of the United States in 1933. Roosevelt was impressed with Perkins' skills and after his election to the presidency (19331945), he appointed her to his Cabinet as his Secretary of Labor. Frances Perkins became the first female member of a presidential Cabinet in U.S. history.

The pressure she felt to succeed at this post was immense. Many labor and business leaders were outraged at her appointment. Despite enormous pressures and controversy, she re-organized the Department of Labor during the Great Depression (19291939) and restored the integrity of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, which was then considered to be an agency of bribe taking and illegal deportations. She also became an important advisor to President Roosevelt, and she brought in many important members to Roosevelt's administration. Her sympathies for the unemployed during the Depression and her efforts to support organized labor gained her the reputation as a communist sympathizer, though she clearly distrusted the Communist Party in the United States.

Perkins survived an unsuccessful impeachment attempt in 1938, when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) accused her of being a communist. She remained in government service until 1953, when she retired. The legacy of her work was enormous, not only as a lifelong political and social activist on behalf of women and children, but as a pioneer in social legislation. The pioneering role she undertook as a woman made her arguably one of the most revered feminist role models in the twentieth century, alongside Eleanor Roosevelt; much of her work led to massive federal programs, including the Social Security program.

After her retirement, Perkins spent the rest of her life as a college lecturer, encouraging others to enter the work of social activism. She became a visiting professor at Cornell University, a post she held until her death in 1965, at age 85.

See also: New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Women's Movement


FURTHER READING

Colman, Penny. A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins. New York: Atheneum, 1993.

Josephson, Matthew. Al Smith: Hero of the Cities; a Political Portrait Drawing on the Papers of Frances Perkins. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969.

Martin, George W. Madam Secretary, Frances Perkins. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

Milton, David. The Politics of U. S. Labor: From the Great Depression to the New Deal. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1982.

Mohr, Lillian H. Frances Perkins, That Woman in FDR's Cabinet. Croton-on-Hudson: North River Press, 1979.

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