Perkins, Frances

views updated May 09 2018

Frances Perkins

born april 10, 1880 boston, massachusetts

died may 14, 1965 new york, new york

secretary of labor

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"When subordinates asked [Perkins] how she should be addressed, she replied, 'Call me Madam Secretary.'… From the beginning she was treated as an equal."

arthur schlesinger jr., in his book the coming of the new deal

Trained as a teacher, Frances Perkins became an advocate for the working classes, children, women, and the poor. As a social worker and reformer, she combined a practical approach, which she attributed to her New England common sense, with an energy and focus that allowed her to get things done in politically difficult situations. In a male-dominated workplace, Perkins overcame prejudices and restrictions to establish herself as an outstanding federal government official who significantly improved the lives of Americans. She shaped much of the basic labor legislation of the United States. She also authored two books: People at Work (1934) and The Roosevelt I Knew (1946).

Young Fannie

Fannie Coralie Perkins (later adopting the first name of Frances in her adult life) was born April 10, 1880, to Frederick W. and Susie E. Perkins in Boston, Massachusetts. The Perkins family descended from prominent British colonists who settled in New England in 1620. As an adult, Frances delighted in relating stories of her ancestors that expressed her own zeal for living. A favorite story concerned her spry ninety-nine-year-old great-grandfather who marched down from the hill where he lived and ordered a fine pair of leather boots. Certain the elderly gentleman would never live to wear out such an extravagant pair of boots, the boot maker was reluctant to accept the order. Dismissing the boot maker's concern, Fannie's great-grandfather stated that he most certainly could live to wear out the boots, because statistics plainly showed that very few people died after ninety-nine. The spunk, energy, courage, and intellectual talent of her ancestors flowed through Francis as she lived out her remarkable life.

When Fannie was two years old, her father moved the family to Worcester in central Massachusetts. He owned a shop offering cards and writing materials, a business that provided a comfortable living. Although not formally educated, Frederick Perkins was quite well-read and, as Frances recalled, knowledgeable about such topics as the law and the ancient Greeks. Frances believed her love of knowledge came from her father and her lifelong interest in art from her mother. She also owed her preference for wearing tricorn, or three-cornered, hats to her mother. Susie Perkins took twelve-year-old Fannie to a fine hat shop in Boston and placed a tricorn hat on her daughter's head. She instructed Fannie to always wear a hat that was wider than her cheekbones. Fannie complied, and the tricorn hat became her trademark in later years.

Student leader

As a teenager Fannie never thought of herself as especially bright, but she nevertheless easily completed her years at Worcester Classical High School in 1898. At a time when few women went on to college, Fannie was accepted into a prestigious women's college, Mount Holyoke in western Massachusetts. Her interests were history, art, and literature, but much to her dismay she was also required to take chemistry. Although the chemistry class under Professor Nellie Esther Goldthwaite proved very difficult, as the year progressed, Fannie proved to herself that she could indeed pass the course. For the first time she thought of herself as bright. By her senior year Fannie, known as "Perk," had become a popular class leader.

During her senior year at Mount Holyoke Fannie took a class that set her on her career path of promoting social justice. Taught by Professor Annah May Soule, the American economic history class required students to visit local factories and write about what they found. The dreadful factory conditions Fannie witnessed changed her forever. She became passionate about improving working conditions in factories, where so many Americans, including women, labored. She saw how job loss and poverty could result from industrial accidents such as loss of a limb or loss of eyesight. Together with other students from Professor Soule's class, Fannie helped form a chapter of the National Consumers' League on campus. This organization used consumer pressure to try to change factory conditions. Its members urged people not to buy products made in unsafe factories.

Teacher and budding social worker

After graduation in 1902 Perkins taught briefly at an academy in Connecticut and then at academies in Massachusetts, including in Worcester. All the while, she maintained her interest in improving the lives of American workers. She turned her interest into action in Worcester by running a girls' club for fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds who were already working in factories.

In 1904 Perkins took a job teaching physics and biology at a boarding school for wealthy girls, Ferry Hall, in Lake Forest, Illinois. Her free time was spent at Chicago Commons and Hull House, settlement houses in Chicago. Settlement houses were located in poor areas of cities and attempted to help the underprivileged with social services such as shelter, food, clothing, and job searching. Perkins often took on the most difficult tasks for the houses. For example, with intelligence, courage, and her piercing dark eyes, she visited employers who had failed to pay workers (generally immigrant workers) and convinced them to hand over the wages owed.

While teaching in Lake Forest, Perkins joined the Episcopal Church on June 11, 1905, using the name Frances C. Perkins (rather than her given name Fannie). Shortly thereafter she dropped the C and from that time on was known as Frances Perkins. Convinced that her future lay in social work rather than teaching, Perkins, after three years at Ferry Hall, moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1907. There she took a position as executive secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. The association helped immigrant girls as well as blacks just venturing north from southern states and researched the situations they were subjected to, such as long hours of work in dirty and unsafe factory conditions. Perkins also took classes in the graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, where economics professor Simon N. Patten taught her to attack problems with practical solutions. Recognizing her brilliance, Patten helped Perkins obtain a graduate school fellowship (grant of money to attend school) beginning in September 1909 at Columbia University in New York City.

In New York City

Perkins completed her master's thesis at Columbia in 1910. Her thesis was an investigation of undernourished children at Public School 51 in the crime-ridden, poverty-stricken area known as Hell's Kitchen, where Perkins herself briefly lived. In dramatic contrast to her time in Hell's Kitchen, Perkins managed to keep up a social life in the city. At a tea dance in 1910 she met a tall, handsome young man, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry), the future president. Not particularly impressed, she remembered him only because he was a distant cousin of former president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–09).

During the time she worked on her master's thesis, Perkins also worked as the executive secretary of the New York City Consumers' League, a chapter like the one she and college friends had established at Mount Holyoke. Perkins successfully lobbied the New York legislature for the 54-Hour Bill. This piece of legislation prohibited males under eighteen years of age and females of any age from working more than fifty-four hours per week in factories. Perkins also undertook studies of factory fire safety and of filthy conditions in the many basement bakeries in New York City.

On March 25, 1911, by coincidence Perkins witnessed firsthand the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire just east of Washington Square Park in New York City. Fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Asch Building, trapping six hundred young garment workers, mostly immigrant girls. Perkins had been attending a tea nearby and upon hearing the sirens went to the site just as girls started jumping to their death to escape the flames.

Factory Working Conditions in the 1930s

In the 1930s, factory workers, including women, children, and immigrants, commonly worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, six days a week. Children as young as five or six worked as farm laborers. Children also worked in mines. Women earned less than half of men's salaries for the same work. In textile industries workers were typically paid by the piecework system; that is, they were paid by the number of goods they produced. This system often caused employees to work to the point of exhaustion, in the hopes of earning a little extra money.

A worker's job was always in jeopardy. Being late for work, working too slow, or questioning a supervisor were causes for firing. Workers could not afford to refuse the demands of employers, because there were always other people eager for their jobs. If business dropped off, the workers were simply laid off.

Workers were exposed to many dangers in the workplace: high temperatures, poisonous gases, and the loss of fingers and limbs in accidents involving large machinery. Working environments were stiflingly hot in summer and frequently not heated in winter. Work areas were overcrowded, poorly ventilated, and poorly lit, and breaks were rarely allowed.

Inspector Perkins

Following the tragedy, New York City leaders organized the Committee on Safety, and the state legislature formed the New York State Factory Investigation Commission on June 30, 1911. State senator Robert Wagner (1877–1953), who would be elected to the U.S. Senate in 1926, was chairman of the commission; assemblyman Alfred Smith (1873–1944), who would be elected governor of New York in 1918, was vice chairman; and Perkins became an inspector for the commission. Soon she was in charge of investigations, organizing trip after trip into an array of factories and making sure that Wagner and Smith personally saw the filth and dangerous conditions.

In 1913 Perkins married Paul Caldwell Wilson, an economist from the University of Chicago who had come to New York City to work in the mayor's office. She kept her maiden name, Perkins, to save Wilson and the mayor's office any embarrassment about the fiery speeches she made around the state to promote social justice for workers.

Highest-paid female state employee

For the next five years Perkins continued writing legislation. She also started a family. Her first child died shortly after birth in 1915, but in December 1916 she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Susanna Winslow Wilson. Ready to settle into a more domestic life, Perkins foresaw the rest of her life as a mother, volunteer, and adviser on social justice issues. Yet an unexpected turn of events jolted her back into the need of paid employment. Her husband began to develop mental health problems, which she described as "ups and downs." He never recovered and until his death in 1952 needed periodic hospitalization. Perkins's friend from the New York legislature, Al Smith, was elected governor in November 1918. Because women were close to gaining the right to vote, Smith believed the time was right to appoint a woman to a high-level position. Besides, he had a commission that needed reorganizing. Knowing he had just the person for the job, he appointed Perkins as a member of the Industrial Commission of the Department of Labor of the state of New York. She accepted the position, which paid $8,000 a year, or about $90,000 in 1998 dollars. With this appointment Perkins became the highest-paid female state employee in the United States. Perkins was a fast learner, so fast that when trouble broke out among copper laborers and management in Rome, New York, Governor Smith sent Perkins. Her courage, self-assurance and ability to find practical solutions made her instrumental in settling the dangerous dispute.

Industrial commissioner

Governor Smith lost his reelection bid in 1920 but regained his position in the 1922 election. During Smith's terms as governor, Perkins continued her vigorous factory inspection work and skillfully helped straighten out the Industrial Commission's workmen's compensation department. She dealt with employees, employers, and insurance companies with intelligence, honesty, and fairness. During this time Perkins had also become good friends with Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962; see entry), whose husband, the former state senator Franklin Roosevelt, was recovering after being struck with polio. During his illness Eleanor and Perkins kept him in touch with labor leaders and organizations so that his period of recuperation would be productive. So constructive were those years that Roosevelt won the election for governor of New York in 1928, succeeding Governor Smith. Roosevelt immediately appointed Perkins industrial commissioner of the Department of Labor of the state of New York. She was the first woman ever to hold such a high-level state position. As head of the commission she continued to focus on workmen's compensation and factory inspection but also worked to further reduce the workweek (from fifty-four to forty-eight hours), prohibit child labor, and set a minimum standard wage.

At a speech in New York's Hotel Astor in February 1929, Perkins commented that it was good to be labor commissioner during such prosperous economic times. However, Perkins was aware of troubling undercurrents within her state. Both farmers and the textile industry had been struggling for some time. Then on October 24, 1929, Black Thursday, the stock market crashed. Overnight, Americans who had invested in the market lost most of their money. This crash signaled the start of the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in U.S. history.

Onset of the Great Depression

Perkins's own words best describe what happened next. In a famous speech, "The Roots of Social Security," delivered on October 23, 1962, when she was eighty-two, Perkins explained: "Since 1929 we had experienced the short, sudden drop of everything. The total economy had gone to pieces; just shook to pieces under us, beginning, of course, with the market crash. A banking crisis followed it. A manufacturing crisis followed it. Everybody felt it. In less than a year it was a terror.… Everything was down. Nobody could get a job."

Perkins soon became disillusioned with President Herbert Hoover's (1874–1964; served 1929–33; see entry) attempt to rescue the economy. In late January 1930 Perkins read a report from President Hoover in the New York Times that there was a rise in employment and that the economy would soon swing upward. Perkins knew Hoover had not checked his sources and that the figures were false. This so angered Perkins that she held a press conference the next day to show how Hoover's figures were wrong. She had forgotten to ask Governor Roosevelt if he minded her rebuking the president of the United States. Nevertheless, Roosevelt completely supported what she had done. From that time on, newspapers, state officials, and labor leaders checked with Perkins whenever President Hoover issued employment figures.

Secretary of labor

President Hoover, unable to turn around the deepening crisis, was voted out of office on November 8, 1932; Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt won a landslide victory. On February 28, 1933, Roosevelt announced his choice of Frances Perkins as secretary of labor. Perkins, by then in her early fifties, had accumulated roughly thirty years of experience to bring to the department. With her sixteen-year-old daughter, Susanna, Perkins left New York City by train for Roosevelt's inauguration on March 4, 1933. Perkins began her service that evening. The first woman in a U.S. president's cabinet, she stayed at the post until July 1, 1945, shortly after Roosevelt's death.

In his book The Coming of the New Deal (1958) historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. describes what Perkins had gotten herself into at the Department of Labor:

frances perkins had a keen sense of responsibility about being the first woman member of the cabinet. she had been incongruously given [it was ironic, or surprising, that she had been appointed to] that most masculine of departments, the department of labor, redolent [evoking images] of big men with cigars in their mouths and feet on the desk; but she took over with her usual quick competence.

when subordinates asked her how she should be addressed, she replied, 'call me madam secretary.'… from the beginning she was treated as an equal.

"Madam Secretary" set about making sure that all of President Roosevelt's early actions moved the administration toward social responsibility. For the next twelve years she remained his closest adviser on social legislation.

A time of action

Perkins's first major role in Washington was with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a relief program created by the Roosevelt administration to address unemployment. The CCC put unemployed young men to work on public works projects such as soil conservation, planting trees, building small reservoir dams, maintaining roads and trails, and fighting forest fires. Secretary of Labor Perkins was in charge of enrolling men for the program.

Perkins played the lead role in passage of the Social Security Act of 1935. The act was the premier legislation of Roosevelt's presidential years, and it was Perkins's proudest achievement. In June 1934 Roosevelt had created the Committee on Economic Security to make recommendations to him about unemployment insurance and old-age insurance. Perkins headed the committee and provided leadership until Congress passed the Social Security Act. President Roosevelt signed the act in August 1935. Over the next two years Perkins played an important role in developing a package of fair wages and hours. After many legislative battles Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

A First for Women

When Frances Perkins became the first woman to serve in the cabinet of a U.S. president, reporters asked the newly appointed secretary of labor if being a woman was a handicap. "Only in climbing trees," she replied. Perkins served at that post for twelve years and four months—longer than any other secretary of labor. Perkins came to Washington, D.C., from New York, where she had been the first woman to serve as industrial commissioner of the Department of Labor.

Perkins was responsible for persuading President Roosevelt to make the United States a member of the International Labor Organization. She increasingly gained the respect of union leaders and constantly worked to mediate labor difficulties between workers and management. (A union is an organized group of workers joined together for a common cause, such as negotiating with management for better working
conditions or higher wages. If negotiations failed, unions could call strikes, in which the members would cease working for a time.) Perkins worked especially hard for the rights of women workers. She also cleaned up corruption in the U.S. Immigration Service and expanded the activities of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Perkins's service as secretary of labor included many rocky and controversial times. Her involvement in the 1934 Pacific Coast longshoremen's strike affected her office through the rest of the 1930s. (Longshoremen load and unload cargo for docked ships.) Several years before the strike Harry Bridges, a native of Australia and leader of the long-shoremen, had affiliated himself for a few months with the Communist Party. (Communism is a theory that calls for the elimination of private property so that all goods are common property and available to all the people. Communism is incompatible with the economic system favored by the United States, capitalism, which embraces private ownership.) Communists had come into power in Russia in 1917. The Communist Party USA attempted, in general unsuccessfully, to organize new unions and infiltrate older ones. Many people believed Perkins should have had Bridges deported for his earlier communist ties. Perkins refused. Rumors abounded that Perkins herself was a communist. Ultimately, in 1939, the House Judiciary Committee considered a resolution that Perkins be impeached (removed from office). After conducting an investigation, the committee rejected the resolution.

Life of service continues

Perkins remained the secretary of labor until July 1, 1945, a few months after President Roosevelt's death. President Harry Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) called Perkins back into government service the following year. He appointed her as one of the three civil service commissioners who oversee all government employees. Perkins held this post until 1952 when her husband died.

Perkins continued to teach and lecture on labor and industry topics. In the mid-1950s she accepted a visiting professorship at Cornell University, where she taught until shortly before her death in New York City in 1965.

In the last decade of her life Perkins constantly challenged young people to work for the betterment of hu-mankind. In Frances Perkins: "That Woman in FDR's Cabinet," Lillian Holmen Mohr quotes Perkins as Perkins addresses students on the topic of social justice for all: "It is not something to be accomplished before breakfast. It will take years, and the enthusiasm and courage of youth can do much.… It is up to you to contribute some small part to a program of human betterment for all time."

For More Information


martin, george. madam secretary: frances perkins. boston, ma: houghton mifflin, 1976.

mohr, lillian holmen. frances perkins: "that woman in fdr's cabinet." croton-on-hudson, ny: north river press, 1979.

pasachoff, naomi e. frances perkins: champion of the new deal. new york, ny: oxford university press, 1999.

perkins, frances. people at work. new york, ny: john day, 1934.

perkins, frances. the roosevelt i knew. new york, ny: viking press, 1946.

schlesinger, arthur, jr. the coming of the new deal. reprint. boston, ma: houghton-mifflin. 1988.

severn, bill. frances perkins: a member of the cabinet. new york, ny: hawthorne books, 1976.

Web Sites

perkins, frances. "the roots of social security." social security administration. (accessed on september 9, 2002).

united states department of labor. (accessed on september 9, 2002).

Frances Perkins

views updated Jun 11 2018

Frances Perkins

Excerpt from "The Roots of Social Security"

reprinted from the social security administration web site, available at

"The total economy had gone to pieces; just shook to pieces under us, beginning, of course, with the stock market crash. Everybody felt it … In less than a year it was a terror."

frances perkins

On October 23, 1962, eighty-two-year-old Frances Perkins (1880–1965) went to the Social Security Administration headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, and delivered a riveting, lengthy speech on how the Social Security Act of 1935 came into being. Early in the speech she described the situation and conditions facing Americans in the earliest, worst years of the Great Depression, 1929 to 1933. According to Perkins, as quoted in "The Roots of Social Security," the whole U.S. economy "had gone to pieces; just shook to pieces under us, beginning, of course, with the stock market crash.… In less than a year it was a terror." Pay close attention to Perkins's words as she describes hunger, loss of homes, apple sellers, wandering boys, and unemployment.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "The Roots of Social Security":

  • Typical middle-class Americans in 1931 and 1932 were shocked and discouraged and fearful of what the future would bring.
  • In late 1932 and early 1933, business failures, bank closures, and unemployment rates peaked, and many Americans struggled just to feed their families.
  • Frances Perkins watched the first years of the Great Depression unfold in New York. There she was serving as the industrial commissioner of the Department of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was governor of the state at that time. From her New York vantage point Perkins saw up close the desperation of the unemployed.

Excerpt from "The Roots of Social Security"

When we came to the problem of doing something for the "poorer kind of people" (as John Garner [1868–1967; the vice president of the United States during Roosevelt's first two terms in office] called them) in 1933 after the Roosevelt administration took office, we, of course had had a very recent experience with poverty. Since 1929 we had experienced the short, sudden drop of everything. The total economy had gone to pieces; just shook to pieces under us, beginning, of course, with the stock market crash. A banking crisis followed it. A manufacturing crisis followed it. Everybody felt it. In less than a year it was a terror.

People were so alarmed that all through the rest of 1929, 1930, and 1931, the specter of unemployment—of starvation, of hunger, of the wandering boys, of the broken homes, of the families separated while somebody went out to look for work—stalked everywhere. The unpaid rent, the eviction notices , the furniture and bedding on the sidewalk, the old lady weeping over it, the children crying, the father out looking for a truck to move their belongings himself to his sister's flat or some relative's already overcrowded tenement , or just sitting there bewilderedly waiting for some charity officer to come and move him somewhere. I saw goods stay on the sidewalk in front of the same house with the same children weeping on top of the blankets for three days before anybody came to relieve the situation!


specter: haunting vision.

Eviction notices

eviction notices: orders to leave a residence after failure to pay rent.


tenement: apartment in a slum area.

These were the years in which developed, you remember, in New York City—and later in other cities—the pattern of the applesellers. Some kindhearted man who had a surplus of apples—because the farmers were in this depression, too—thought of getting rid of his apples (which he couldn't sell) by giving them to the unemployed to sell. So they got them every morning somewhere down in the market. Nobody asked them to prove they were unemployed. I'm sure they were because no man in his right mind would have taken a big basket of apples to try and sell at five cents apiece in a poverty-stricken community—out of which he would make just a littlebit of pocket money—unless he had been out of work, out of wages, out of money, out of everything.…

The wandering boys were a source of terror. But it was the most natural thing in the world for a great big grownup boy 14 to 17 years old to go wandering. Consider the case of a boy who found himself in a family where the breadwinner was unemployed, where there were other children around, where his mother was distracted by the lack of anything to buy food with, and to feel himself, not unwanted, but one more mouth to feed, and a great big mouth at that.

"I ate so much," one boy said to me, "I couldn't stand it. The kids, the little children were hungry. So I went out to find a job, and I went out of town."

This is what the boys did—not a few of them—thousands of them. They wandered around the country and were a problem to every charity and relief organization, to every State aid or Federal-and-State relief station, and the railroads were terrified of them. These boys, following the road, would steal a ride under the bumpers, and the railroads were frightened all the time that there would be accidents; that somebody would be killed; and I believe some were. It's a dangerous business to ride the rods . I remember I went out to see some of the boys. They finally gathered them in—the railroaders did. They sort of herded many of them into the St. Louis yards, and let them pitch a camp. Well, there they lived in the camp—in the St. Louis railroad yards—a hazard to the community—picking up whatever they could. I'm sure some of them learned to steal. Some of them learned to be panhandlers . All kinds of things happened. These were really alarming situations. They were alarming because of the demoralization and because of the general hazards to the community and to the total economy.


breadwinner: the person bringing in the main, often only, source of income in a household.


rods: trains.


panhandlers: beggars.


demoralization: loss of spirit; giving up.

Given too much credit

given too much credit: allowed customers to take out goods with a promise to pay later.


irreversible: impossible to turn around.

But everything was down. Nobody could get a job. The grocer didn't employ the young boys to deliver goods any more. He couldn't afford to. The grocer himself finally went bankrupt and closed up. He had given too much credit . I mean the people who were out of work had credit at the grocery store at first and they could eat; but they couldn't pay their bills, and finally, the grocer couldn't pay his bills; and eventually somebody came and sold him out. It went on like that all the time. One thing led to another, and we began to realize how cruel, how very deep, how almost irreversible this situation had come to be. This was the situation which faced people who began to be aware of the problem early as 1930.…

Unemployment was mentioned as a great and outstanding problem of the United States in the year 1932, and the Democratic Party platform included a clause which said it was a problem. They promised to study the causes of unemployment—as though anybody hadn't studied them in years.

They promised to have a committee to study the causes of unemployment, and to study and look into the whole matter.… Most of the committee members seemed to be determined that there should be nothing said about unemployment that would frighten people away from the Democratic Party.

But, you may remember, it didn't frighten the people at all. Actually, nothing frightened them. They would have voted for anybody who was running, and for any platform because they wanted change. Everybody was depressed; every industry was depressed; so every individual had some sort of stake in the situation. Thus, we got the first public mention and the first public commitment to do something or other about unemployment—at least to study it.…

At any rate, that was the situation when Roosevelt was elected and we went to Washington. [Perkins, pp. 3–5, 10]

What happened next…

Before Frances Perkins "went to Washington," she met with president-elect Roosevelt. Roosevelt had inquired whether she would consider taking the position of secretary of labor within his cabinet, but before accepting the appointment Perkins had some questions to ask. She informed Roosevelt that she would pursue an extensive agenda, including unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, minimum wages and maximum hours, and passage of legislation preventing child labor. Roosevelt assured her he would not stand in her way. If she thought she could do it, he promised he would authorize her to push forward. With that, Perkins accepted the position.

By the time Perkins went to Washington, D.C., in the early 1930s, she had accumulated roughly thirty years of experience as an advocate for working people, children, women, and the poor. She had worked in the male-dominated world of labor negotiations, and she had a talent for getting things done in politically challenging situations. After Roosevelt's inauguration on March 4, 1933, Perkins and the rest of the Roosevelt administration set about creating new pieces of legislation to bring economic relief, recovery, and reform to the country.

Did you know…

  • Frances Perkins was the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.
  • Perkins served as secretary of labor for twelve years and three months.
  • Throughout Roosevelt's presidential years, Perkins remained his closest adviser on social legislation. Her two proudest achievements were passage of the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Consider the following…

  • Frances Perkins was the first woman cabinet member in U.S. history. What do you suppose her first few days in the Department of Labor were like? What qualities must she have possessed to be successful in that post?
  • When Perkins speaks of "the wandering boys," for what reason does she seem to believe many of the boys left home?
  • Perkins quotes Roosevelt's vice president, John Garner, when she refers to America's "poorer kind of people." Who do you think was included in this group in 1933?

For More Information


pasachoff, naomi e. frances perkins: champion of the new deal. new york, ny: oxford university press, 1999.

perkins, frances. the roosevelt i knew. new york, ny: viking press, 1946.

schlesinger, arthur m., jr. the coming of the new deal: the age of roosevelt. boston, ma: houghton mifflin, 1988.

Web Sites

perkins, frances. "the roots of social security." social security administration. (accessed on august 26, 2002).

Perkins, Frances

views updated May 21 2018


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


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.

Perkins, Frances

views updated May 09 2018


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.


Child Labor Laws; Labor Law.

Perkins, Frances

views updated May 29 2018


Frances Perkins (April 10, 1880–May 14, 1965), Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of labor from 1933 to 1945 and the country's first female cabinet member, molded New Deal welfare and labor legislation. Daughter of Susan Bean and Fredrick W. Perkins, a businessman, Fannie Perkins (she later changed her name to Frances) was born in Boston, raised in Worcester, and attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts from 1898 to 1902. In 1910, Perkins received a master's degree in economics and sociology from Columbia University in New York, and became executive secretary of the New York City Consumers League, where she lobbied for maximum work hours, workplace safety, and other labor laws. Outraged by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, Perkins and others demanded that the state legislature act, leading to creation of the Factory Investigation Commission, cochaired by state senator Robert F. Wagner and assembly leader Alfred E. Smith. Perkins testified before the commission as an expert witness, became its chief investigator, and arranged surprise factory visits for lawmakers. Based on the commission's findings, New York enacted more than thirty laws protecting industrial workers.

When Smith became governor of New York in 1919, he appointed Perkins to the state Industrial Commission and heeded her advice on labor and welfare policies. In 1929, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt elevated Perkins to the post of industrial commissioner of New York. Once the Depression hit, Commissioner Perkins became a leading advocate for unemployment insurance and direct federal aid to the jobless.

As President Roosevelt's secretary of labor, Perkins helped establish the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. She insisted that the National Recovery Administration (NRA) codes include wage and hour standards and that they prohibit child labor. After the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional, Perkins backed the Wagner Act, guaranteeing labor's right to collective bargaining. She also had Labor Department lawyers draft a minimum wage, maximum hour, child labor-banning bill. A modified and weakened version of the bill passed Congress in 1938 as the Fair Labor Standards Act.

In June 1934, President Roosevelt created the Committee on Economic Security, with Perkins as its chairperson, to formulate a social security program. Working with scores of experts and state and federal officials, often with conflicting views and interests, Perkins delivered to the President recommendations that became the basis for the 1935 Social Security Act. Disappointed by the law's exclusion of farm, domestic, and some other workers, she fought for the rest of her life to extend social security to everyone.

Rising labor militancy and the split between the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations complicated Perkins's job. Though she was neutral and urged reconciliation between the AFL and CIO, each accused her of favoring the other. On her advice, Roosevelt refused to use force in the 1934 San Francisco Longshoremen's and general strike and in the wave of sitdown strikes. This angered management and conservatives, as did Perkins's refusal summarily to deport Harry Bridges, the radical leader of the San Francisco strike. In 1938, the House Committee on Un-American Activities demanded her impeachment, but dropped the matter after a few hearings.

Perkins's and the Labor Department's role diminished during World War II as Roosevelt created independent wartime agencies to mobilize industry and labor and to curtail strikes. President Harry S. Truman accepted Perkins's resignation as secretary of labor in July 1945, subsequently appointing her to the Civil Service Commission, where she stayed until 1953. Perkins remained active, writing, lecturing, and teaching at Cornell University, until two weeks before her death. In 1965, Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz summarized her importance: "Every man and woman in America who works at a living wage, under safe conditions, for reasonable hours, or who is protected by unemployment insurance or social security, is her debtor."



Altmeyer, Arthur. Reminiscences of Arthur Altmeyer. Oral History Collection, Columbia University, New York.

Lubin, Isador. Reminiscences of Isador Lubin. Oral History Collection, Columbia University, New York.

Martin, George. Madam Secretary: Frances Perkins. 1976.

Perkins, Frances. The Roosevelt I Knew. 1946.

Perkins, Frances. Reminiscences of Frances Perkins. Oral History Collection, Columbia University, New York.

Severn, Bill. Frances Perkins: A Member of the Cabinet. 1976.

Barbara Blumberg

Perkins, Frances

views updated May 21 2018

PERKINS, Frances

Born Fannie Coralie Perkins, 10 April 1880, Boston, Massachusetts; died 14 May 1965, New York, New York

Daughter of Frederick W. and Susan E. Bean Perkins; married Paul C. Wilson, 1913; children: Susanna

Although known primarily as a social reformer and government official, Frances Perkins was also the author of a popular biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt. She also wrote books and articles dealing with labor and social problems. At the time of her death, she was working on a biography of Alfred E. Smith, which was completed by others and published posthumously in 1970.

Frances Perkins was born Fannie Coralie Perkins and used this name until she was twenty-five years old. Born into a conservative, middle-class family that had lived in New England since colonial times, Perkins was expected to respect the authority of her father, but she was also encouraged to read and to obtain a good education. In 1898 she graduated from the Worcester Classical High School, an institution where almost all the other students were male. Although she was a shy, quiet child, in school she soon demonstrated an ability to win debates and to express herself in words.

Perkins entered Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, in 1898 and quickly showed an aptitude for science. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and physics in 1902. While a student, Perkins took a class in economic history taught by Anna May Soule. Soule's students visited factories and read How the Other Half Lives (1890) by Jacob Riis, a book describing conditions in the slums of New York City. After taking this class and hearing a speech by Florence Kelley, general secretary of the National Consumers' League, an organization that sought to improve working conditions for laborers, Perkins was inspired to devote her life to social and economic reform.

Perkins spent the next five years teaching and doing volunteer work for social reform organizations in New England and Illinois. From 1907 to 1909 she served as general secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. She earned a master's degree in social economics from Columbia University in 1910. In October of the same year, the Survey published her first article, "Some Facts Concerning Certain Undernourished Children."

From 1910 to 1912 Perkins served as executive secretary of the New York City Consumers' League. On 25 March 1911, her commitment to improving working conditions was strengthened when she witnessed a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company that killed 146 workers, mostly young women. Perkins worked with the New York Committee on Safety from 1912 to 1917.

In 1918 Perkins worked to elect Alfred E. Smith as governor of New York. When he took office in 1919, she was appointed a member of the New York State Industrial Commission. Perkins held several labor-related positions in the administrations of Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who succeeded Smith as governor in 1929. In 1925 the Survey published her article "Do Women in Industry Need Special Protection?"

When Roosevelt took office as president in 1933, Perkins was appointed secretary of labor, a position she held until 1945. She was the first woman to be appointed to a Cabinet post. During her years in office, she worked to enact legislation establishing a minimum wage, a maximum workweek, and limits on the employment of children under the age of 16. She was also instrumental in the creation of unemployment compensation and Social Security. In 1934 she published her first book, People at Work. She also published numerous articles in the Survey and other publications. She discussed her own career in "Eight Years as Madame Secretary," published in Fortune in 1941.

After Roosevelt died on 12 April 1945, Perkins continued as secretary of labor under his successor, Harry S. Truman. She resigned from her post in July of 1945. Truman appointed her as a member of the Civil Service Commission in 1946, a position she held until 1953. Also in 1946, the Survey published "The People Mattered," her tribute to Harry Hopkins, a recently deceased colleague in the Roosevelt administration. The same year, with the assistance of Howard Taubman, she published her most famous work, The Roosevelt I Knew. An intimate, if uncritical, portrait of the late president, the book was an immediate success and was reprinted in 1964.

From 1953 to 1957 Perkins lectured on the problems of business and labor at universities across the United States. She served as visiting professor at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University from 1957 until her death.

Other Works:

Two Views of American Labor (coauthur, 1965). Al Smith, Hero of the Cities (completed by Matthew and Hannah Josephson, 1970).


Martin, G. W., Madam Secretary (1976).

Reference works:

NAWMP (1980). DAB (1981). American Reformers (1985). Handbook of American Women's History (1990). Great Lives from History (1995).

Other references:

NYT (obituary, 15 May 1965).


Frances Perkins

views updated May 18 2018

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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