Perkins Becomes Secretary of Labor

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Perkins Becomes Secretary of Labor

United States 1933


Frances Perkins was the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet position. She became secretary of labor in 1933 after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president. This position allowed her to bring about sweeping changes with regard to social reform and labor conditions. She served in the position for the entirety of Roosevelt's term in office, 1933-1945, making her the longest-serving secretary of labor in the nation's history. Among her achievements in office were three hugely influential pieces of social legislation: the Social Security Act (1935), the National Labor Relations Act (1935), and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938).


  • 1917: Russian revolutions.
  • 1922: Inspired by the Bolsheviks' example of imposing revolution by means of a coup, Benito Mussolini leads his blackshirts in an October "March on Rome," and forms a new fascist government.
  • 1927: Charles A. Lindbergh makes the first successful solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic, and becomes an international hero.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.
  • 1932: When Ukrainians refuse to surrender their grain to his commissars, Stalin seals off supplies to the region, creating a manmade famine that will produce a greater death toll than the entirety of World War I.
  • 1932: A "Bonus Army" of unemployed veterans marches on Washington, D.C. Many leave after Congress refuses their demands for payment of bonuses for wartime service, but others are forcibly removed by General Douglas MacArthur's troops. Also participating are two other figures destined to gain notoriety in the next world war: majors Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton.
  • 1932: In German elections, Nazis gain a 37 percent plurality of Reichstag seats, raising tensions between the far right and the far left. On a "bloody Sunday" in July, communists in Hamburg attack Nazis with guns, and a fierce battle ensues.
  • 1932: Charles A. Lindbergh's baby son is kidnapped and killed, a crime for which Bruno Hauptmann will be charged in 1934, convicted in 1935, and executed in 1936.
  • 1935: Second phase of New Deal begins with the introduction of social security, farm assistance, and housing and tax reform.
  • 1937: Italy signs the Anti-Comintern Pact, signed by Germany and Japan the preceding year. Like the two others before it, Italy now withdraws from the League of Nations.
  • 1942: Axis conquests reach their height in the middle of this year. The Nazis control a vast region from Normandy to the suburbs of Stalingrad, and from the Arctic Circle to the edges of the Sahara. To the east, the Japanese "Co-Prosperity Sphere" encompasses territories from China to Burma to the East Indies, stretching deep into the western Pacific.
  • 1947: Establishment of the Marshall Plan to assist European nations in recovering from the war.

Event and Its Context

Educational Background and Early Career

Frances Perkins was born on 10 April 1880. After graduating from Mt. Holyoke College in 1902 with a degree in social work, Perkins knew that change was necessary to obtain social justice. Her postgraduate work in 1903 began in Worchester, Massachusetts, where she offered her services to help female factory workers. In 1904, after accepting a teaching post at a girl's prep school in Lake Forest, Illinois, Perkins met Dr. Graham Taylor, from whom she learned a great deal about trade unionism. She met other social reform leaders such as Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, cofounders of Hull House. Progressive thinking abounded at Hull House. Its leaders started a kindergarten and encouraged mothers to share their thoughts with each other on equal footing. The free lectures offered by university professors and their students served to empower women. Operating from a profoundly articulated aesthetic that encompassed humanitarian objectives through social and political activities, Perkins lived at Hull House for a time. This marriage of her professional and personal experiences with her naturally pragmatic mindset would served her well at Hull House and throughout her career.

The social climate of the time was an enormous influence on Perkins. Women still had not obtained the right to vote, and much work remained to be done with regard to women's rights. Women who took leadership roles faced great challenges and had to fight for their rightful place in society. As true in the early 1900s as today, a solid education opened professional doors. Understanding this, Perkins studied economics and sociology at the Wharton School of Finance and accepted a fellowship at the New York School of Philanthropy. While Perkins was pursuing her master's degree in political science at Columbia University, which she obtained in 1910, Pauline Goldmark, the head of the School of Philanthropy, asked her to survey Hell's Kitchen on the West Side of New York. Refusing to be passive in the process, Perkins decided that to help a slum family she had met, she would need to solicit the support of Timothy J. McManus, a state senator and the infamous Tammany Hall boss of Hell's Kitchen. Given the patriarchal nature of the political world during that era, Perkins's arguments must have been convincing, as McManus agreed to help. The experience allowed Perkins to demonstrate her powers of persuasion and also served to prepare her for her future role as secretary of labor—a role that would require her to understand thoroughly the political machinery of the time and to use it to achieve social reform.

By 1910 Perkins was able to put her wealth of education and experience to good use by becoming the secretary of the New York Consumer's League. Florence Kelley, the league's national director, served as a role model to Perkins and helped direct her emotional and intellectual passage into a world of political maneuvers and social reform. It was, after all, the league's mission to "spread information about harmful industrial conditions and lobby for protective legislation"; in this regard, Perkins became a recognized expert after conducting detailed surveys of filthy bakeries, unsafe laundries, and overcrowded textile mills. Having learned from Kelley to "look behind the immediate conditions and search for the real causes of safety and health problems in industry," Perkins developed a multilevel social awareness that married statistics with her moral convictions.

An avid reader, Perkins was profoundly influenced by the writing of investigative journalists such as Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, an international bestseller that focused attention on the deplorable conditions in Chicago's stockyards. Controversial in its socialist message, The Jungle profoundly affected people who could relate to the suffering of the poor, even if they did not necessarily embrace all of the book's political statements.

The period marked a major shift of consciousness in the American psyche. The early 1900s saw a public outcry for social justice that included demands for better labor conditions and new policies designed to aid the poor. The idea that "poverty is preventable" and that its existence in the "midst of potential plenty is morally unacceptable" must have been central to Perkins's belief system and at least in part formed the foundation of her staunch positions on labor reform and the elimination of slum conditions. She firmly believed that in order to achieve lasting social reform, new protective legislation would need to be enacted.

Early Government Service

On 25 March 1911 the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York caught fire. The accident resulted in 146 deaths, most of which were young girls and immigrant women. Girls as young as seven years of age were employed to cut thread, and teenagers and young women sat behind sewing machines in narrow rows with aisles that were blocked by huge piles of flammable linen. With no consideration for employee safety, Triangle's owners implemented the despicable policy of locking the doors to avoid unnecessary bathroom breaks and the unlikely event of employee theft. When the fire broke out, it spread so quickly that many of the workers were unable to escape and died at their machines. Some women attempted to take the fire escape, but it was rusty and in need of repair. When it suddenly collapsed, many women fell to their death, leaving the remainder of the women with no way out. Perkins's resolve was profoundly deepened after witnessing the tragedy first-hand. Perkins, along with the crowd that had begun to gather, watched in horror as young girls jumped from eighth-story windows, either in pairs or alone, and crashed to their death on the pavement below. For Perkins, it was a defining moment about which she would later write in her book The Roosevelt I Knew. She cited the experience as having fueled her lifelong commitment to regulate wages and work hours as well as ensure factory safety through legislation.

Perkins became executive secretary of the Committee on Safety that formed after the fire. In that capacity, she met New York assemblyman Al Smith. Together they actively engaged in helping to achieve the goals set by the Factory Investigating Committee, which had been created by the New York state legislature that "reviewed the entire scope of job safety and health conditions." Perkins not only testified on the conditions she witnessed, but she managed to persuade legislators to come with her to see firsthand the terrible conditions endured by many laborers. At a visit to a cannery, they witnessed young children shelling peas at 4:00 A.M.

When Smith became governor of New York in 1919, he appointed Perkins to the State Industrial Commission. Smith's faith in her was not unfounded as she was steadfast in her work, articulate under pressure, and respected in her field. Later, when Smith appointed Perkins chairman of the Industrial Board of the State Labor Department, Perkins was able to reduce the work week for women to 54 hours.

Perkins Joins Presidential Cabinet

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt replaced Smith as governor in 1929, Roosevelt appointed Perkins to be New York's Industrial Commissioner. Later in 1933, after Roosevelt was elected U.S. president, he appointed her secretary of labor, making her the first woman in history to be named to a cabinet position. This position allowed her to bring about sweeping social reforms and improvements in labor conditions.

Perkins knew that Roosevelt trusted her to help restore public confidence and return people to work. She played a key role in many aspects of Roosevelt's New Deal. Indeed, in the whirlwind first year of Roosevelt's administration, over 15 major laws were enacted. Roosevelt, who had a tendency to "think big," as Perkins wrote in 1946, often left the details to others. For example, the Civilian Conservation Corps, created in 1933, recruited approximately 2 million unemployed men to help repair environmental damage. Its success was made possible only after Perkins faced and ultimately overcame the objections by some trade unions that feared that unemployed workers would be exploited.

A perfectionist by nature, Perkins worked diligently to make the Department of Labor more efficient. Her ability to recognize talent in others allowed Perkins to compile a team that was considered one of the best in government. She streamlined the Bureau of Immigration and increased the responsibilities of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Unwavering in her belief that working Americans had a right to benefits at retirement age, Perkins delivered hundreds of speeches in a relentless quest to create a social security program that would pass the scrutiny of Congress and meet the needs of the people. Her efforts paid off with the 1935 passage of the groundbreaking Social Security Act. Perkins also collaborated with Senator Robert F. Wagner to pass the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA) in 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938. According to Perkins, Wagner deserved all the credit for the NRLA, because he had uncovered unfair practices that employers had used to prevent unionization. Wagner sought to enact legislation to address the abuses. The bill had limitations; it did not, as Perkins noted, "attempt to draw up a comprehensive code of ethical behavior in labor relations." Therefore, with Roosevelt's support, she took Wagner's idea one step further and suggested that labor leaders hungry for recognition develop the code and submit it for consideration. The act established maximum working hours and minimum wages. It also prohibited child labor in any form of interstate commerce and limited the labor of children between 16 and 18 years of age in hazardous occupations.

Perkins's interests and influence exceeded the realm of labor issues. A champion of privacy rights, she counseled Roosevelt against FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's plan to fingerprint and keep a file on every citizen. In addition, she was a proponent of state sovereignty, which was in keeping with her belief that the decision-making process should be kept as close to the people as possible. She believed wholeheartedly in mobilizing the "woman power" of the country for national defense, a conviction she shared with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Perkins remained the secretary of labor until 1945 when Roosevelt died; she was appointed to the United States Civil Service by President Harry Truman and later taught at Cornell University. She died on 14 May 1965.

Key Players

Addams, Jane (1860-1935): Having founded Hull House with Ellen Gates Starr, Addams was a vocal suffragette and later became the vice president of the National Woman Suffrage Association. She helped to establish the Women's Trade Union League and was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). An accomplished author and pacifist, Addams wrote several books about peace, democracy, and her experiences at Hull House. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Kelley, Florence (1859-1932): Having graduated from Cornell University in 1882, Kelley later attended Northwestern University's law school and was subsequently admitted to the bar. A strong supporter of women's suffrage and African American rights, Kelley helped establish the National Consumers League. A former mentor to Frances Perkins, Kelley strongly advocated for minimum wage laws and work hour reform as well as the elimination of child labor. Kelley teamed up with Upton Sinclair and Jack London to form the Intercollegiate Socialist Society in 1905 and later was a member of the Woman's Peace Party. Kelley was the author of several books such as Some Ethical Gains Through Legislation and The Supreme Court and Minimum Wage Legislation.

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano (1882-1945): Elected before there were term limits, Roosevelt served as president of the United States for three consecutive terms. He oversaw the passage of groundbreaking New Deal policies and led the nation through the Great Depression and World War II.

Sinclair, Upton (1878-1968): Sinclair penned over 90 books in his lifetime and won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Dragon's Teeth. One of his best-known works, The Jungle, greatly influenced many people, including Frances Perkins, and was an international bestseller.

Smith, Al (1873-1944): Smith served as governor of New York for four terms. Committed to ending child labor and improving factory laws, Perkins and Smith became political allies. While Smith was governor of New York, he appointed Perkins chairman of the Industrial Board of the State Labor Department.

Wagner, Robert (1877-1953): After becoming a justice of the New York Supreme Court, Wagner was elected to the Senate. Appointed by Franklin Roosevelt as the first chairman of the National Recovery Administration, Wagner is probably best known for his work regarding the National Labor Relations Act, which is commonly referred to as the Wagner Act.

See also: Civilian Conservation Corps; Fair Labor Standards Act; Sinclair Publishes The Jungle; Social Security Act; Triangle Shirtwaist Fire; Wagner Act.



Davis, Kenneth S. FDR: The War President, 1940-1943.New York: Random House, Inc., 2000.

Perkins, Frances. The Roosevelt I Knew. New York: Viking Press, 1946.


Berg, Gordon. " Be Ye Steadfast": The Life and Work of Frances Perkins. U.S. Department of Labor. 2002 [cited 14 October 2002]. <>.

Spartacus Educational. Frances Perkins. 2002 [cited 14October 2002]. <>.

Spartacus Educational. Upton Sinclair. 2002 [cited 14October 2002]. <>.

—Lee Ann Paradise