Perkins, Frances (1880–1965)
Perkins, Frances (1880–1965)
First American woman to hold a Cabinet office in the federal government, as President Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of labor. Born Fannie Coralie Perkins in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 10, 1880; died on May 14, 1965, in New York City; daughter of Frederick W. Perkins and Susan E. (Bean) Perkins; attended Worcester Classical High School; graduated, with a major in chemistry and physics, from Mt. Holyoke College, 1902; married Paul C. Wilson, in 1913; children: one daughter, Susanna Winslow Perkins (b. 1916).
Moved to Chicago as a teacher at Ferry Hall School (1904); became secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association (1907); worked for the New York Consumers' League (1910); witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire (1911); appointed to Industrial Commission by New York governor Al Smith (1918), reappointed (1922, 1924, 1926); promoted to New York Labor Commissioner with election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as New York governor (1928); appointed secretary of labor with election of FDR as U.S. president (1932); impeachment proceedings against Perkins thrown out (1935); resigned as secretary of labor (1945); appointed by President Truman to Civil Service Commission (1947).
Frances Perkins was a skillful administrator and politician, deeply loyal to the Democratic Party, patient as a negotiator and conciliator, and tirelessly hard-working. From her early life as a social worker and progressive reformer, she rapidly gained political and practical experience in New York state politics. After a long apprenticeship under Governor Al Smith, she moved onto the national stage with President Franklin Roosevelt and became one of the longest-serving and most trusted members of the New Deal government as well as the first woman to hold a Cabinet seat. Deeply serious and conscientious, she was a pillar of New England rectitude, but one with shrewd practical skills.
Perkins was born in 1880 in Boston to an old Yankee family with Maine connections, but moved while still a child to nearby Worcester, Massachusetts. After amassing a relatively undistinguished school record, she persuaded her father, a wholesale stationery merchant, to let her go to college at Mt. Holyoke. In college, she began to discover a more engaging intellectual world. She majored in chemistry and minored in the other hard sciences, but still found time for acting, sports, and election as class president in her senior year. An influential class on sociology that year also led her, for the first time, to visit factories and the homes of working-class people, and to discover the suffering of the industrial working class and the unemployed poor. Eager to carry on studying, she ran into parental opposition after graduation and for two years lived restlessly at home, acting as a substitute teacher and volunteering at the YWCA. In 1904, against her parents' objections (they had expected her to marry and settle down), she set off for a teaching job in Chicago.
Chicago was then a center of progressive activism, under the theoretical guidance of the philosopher John Dewey and the practical lead of settlement house founder Jane Addams . Perkins got to know both of them along with other city activists. Impressed by the work of the Episcopal Church in aiding the poor, she converted to it from her original Congregationalism. After two years as a teacher, Perkins took the momentous step—again in the face of severe paternal disapproval—of giving up her job and going to live and work full time (without pay) at Jane Addams' Hull House in one of Chicago's worst slum areas. Addams had a lasting influence on Perkins, teaching her how to respond to the constant crises arising in the daily lives of the poor immigrant community, and also how to gain leverage over the city authorities. Recalled Perkins:
It was [Addams] who taught us to take all the elements of the community into conference for the solution of any human problem—the grasping landlord, the corner saloonkeeper, the policeman on the beat, the president of the university, the head of the railroad, the labor leader—all cooperating through that latent desire for association which is characteristic of the American genius.
From there, she moved in 1907 to Philadelphia, becoming secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association, whose aim was to protect young women new to the city from falling into destitution, crime, or prostitution. When she threatened to prosecute corrupt employment agency men, two of them followed one night and attacked her. Luckily her cries for help as she beat at them with her umbrella brought local residents into the streets. The attackers fled but she was able to identify and prosecute them. After that, the police and local politicians cooperated with her more actively.
Next Perkins went to New York, with a scholarship to Columbia University where she studied for a master's degree in sociology. Remaining active in social work in the city's worst areas, she found on several occasions that a Tammany Hall boss could be more useful than the city's progressive charity organizations, though Tammany was a by-word for corruption and civic abuse among most of her liberal circle. This experience warned her against thinking that everyone involved on the urban scene could be categorized simply as good or bad, and showed her that it was possible to negotiate with the established urban powers. In 1910, she met Florence Kelley , another alumna of Hull House and now head of the New York Consumers' League, with whom she signed on to work. Living in Greenwich Village, home of a new circle of socialists and bohemians, she was wooed by Sinclair Lewis, then an aspiring novelist (later a Nobel Prize winner), but rejected his proposal of marriage. Also in this period, she met many of the men who were to be her comrades during the New Deal, including Franklin Roosevelt, Robert Wagner, and Al Smith.
Frances Perkins' early efforts to lobby the New York state government in favor of a 54-hour work week were unavailing. In 1911, she witnessed the dreadful fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Building near where she lived, which killed 146 young workers, most of them Jewish immigrant women, due to overcrowding and lack of fire escape facilities. Perkins had been investigating fire hazards in her work for the Consumers' League and now became an influential witness to the New York Committee of Safety, which was formed in response to the public outcry about the fire. In consequence of her good work on the issue, she was asked to become executive secretary of the committee. Even though she was only 29, her scientific background, her administrative skills, and her obvious competence enabled her to become an expert on fire-related issues in industry, winning the confidence of engineers, architects, and firefighters.
Through her lobbying efforts and the aid of friendly politicians (she was becoming well known in Albany), the state of New York set up a Factory Commission with sweeping powers of supervision and regulation, and before long this commission in turn had taken over her services. With its members, including Al Smith and Robert Wagner, she drove around the state, investigating factories where dangerous machinery, child labor, and lack of fire safety precautions abounded. Under her incitement and guidance, the commission proposed legislation on all these issues and had the gratification of seeing nearly all its recommendations enforced by law over the next decade. No legislative enactment gave her more pleasure than the 54-hour act, passed in 1912, even though seasonal cannery workers were exempted from its provisions. It was characteristic of Perkins, always a political realist, to settle for this unwelcome exemption rather than get no bill at all.
In 1913, Frances Perkins married an economist named Paul Wilson. He was a reforming
Republican, whereas she had strong ties to the Tammany Hall Democrats. They agreed to keep political differences out of their marriage, which was difficult at first since he became the reform mayor's executive secretary and budget advisor. But in the city elections of 1917, her husband's party was ousted, and Perkins campaigned for Al Smith as governor the following year without a sense of divided loyalties. She gave birth to her only child, Susanna, in 1916 but was soon back in the political fray, delighted by New York's referendum decision in 1917 to give women the vote.
Smith was elected governor in 1918 and appointed Perkins as one of the five members of the New York State Industrial Commission. After a stormy session in the state senate—where some Republicans vocally opposed her as a dangerous radical, while others found it suspicious that she still called herself Frances Perkins rather than Mrs. Paul Wilson—she was confirmed. Despite frequent criticism, she stuck with her maiden name throughout her public life.
Perkins gained notoriety in 1919 by settling an ugly strike at Rome, New York, between the copper companies and their 4,000 workers. Frayed tempers on both sides had led Governor Smith to send in the state militia, but Perkins was able to bring both sides to negotiations (which the owners had previously refused). Her investigation soon showed that the employers had acted in bad faith, intimidating workers, cutting pay, and increasing hours, but now, in the face of aroused public opinion, they were forced to make concessions to the workforce. The newspapers treated the outcome as a personal victory for Perkins, as did her boss, Governor Smith. In the election of 1920, which saw a Republican landslide all across America, Smith lost his office, but he was back again with a large majority two years later, and Perkins resumed her job. She spent the following years running her department efficiently and fairly, exposing unfair practices, and lobbying hard for a women's eight-hour day. In 1924, she was an ardent supporter of Smith for president, but when the Democratic Convention—held that year in New York City—deadlocked between Smith and William McAdoo, a compromise candidate named John W. Davis got the nod, and went down to defeat in his November contest against Calvin Coolidge. Smith was consoled by retaining his position as New York governor.
In these days when women have far better conditions than they used to have, when modern inventions reduce work, housekeeping can no longer take up all their thoughts and time…. I do not see why, because a woman works either in politics or in any other field, her home life must suffer.
—Frances Perkins, 1929
When Smith managed to get the Democratic presidential nomination in 1928, he faced strong opposition from rural southern and midwestern states because he was Catholic, the son of immigrants, and favored a repeal of prohibition. Perkins, being an old-stock Yankee with Puritan ancestors, was the ideal campaigner for Smith, and she spent the summer and fall of 1928 traveling to areas of the country where Smith faced an uphill battle, electioneering on his behalf. She was pelted with eggs and tomatoes at a rally in Independence, Missouri, but calmly endured the barrage and made her speech anyway. In any event, Smith was unable to prevail—probably no Democrat could have won in that year of widespread boom and optimism. Although Smith lost, his nominee for New York governor, Franklin Roosevelt, scraped together a narrow victory margin, and from now on Frances Perkins' star would ascend with Roosevelt's. He at once promoted her from the Industrial Board to the position of labor commissioner.
In the following four years, she witnessed the onset of the Great Depression, and won press notice for frequently challenging President Herbert Hoover's claims that the depression was not very serious. She and Roosevelt also began to work together on schemes to provide unemployment insurance to cushion families suddenly made vulnerable by economic conditions, and she made a study tour of England where an unemployment insurance scheme was already operating. Roosevelt held her work in high esteem, and when he was elected president in November 1932 he decided to appoint her secretary of labor (though she wrote candidly advising him not to appoint her). This was a precedent-breaking decision, first because no woman had previously served as a Cabinet member, and second because every other secretary of labor since the post was founded in 1914 had been a trade union member. But none had yet been as experienced in politics and labor matters as Perkins, who was warmly welcomed by women's organizations and by progressive reformers who recognized that she already had 25 years of honorable experience and accomplishments. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was furious at losing the position, and conservative congressmen treated her with the same kind of suspicion she had suffered previously in New York.
The first 100 days of the New Deal have become legendary for the administration's hard work and rapid innovations. The Labor Department was caught up in the general excitement, and under Perkins' lead it underwent a complete transformation. She created the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a new U.S. Employment Service and, the following year, the Division of Labor Standards. She also played a key role in the planning stages of new agencies, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Federal Emergency Relief Act, giving testimony to congressional committees and enlisting the aid of longtime New York friends and allies like Harry Hopkins. She swept away a mass of sinecures, jobs held by political cronies of former secretaries, and set new standards for hard work and long hours in a previously slow-moving department. She found it difficult to relax with the press, however, and one journalist wrote that her "social welfare patter" sounded "as if she had swallowed one of her own press releases." She also resented press intrusions into her private life. Her husband was now an invalid, still living partly in New York and partly in Maine, and Perkins tried to keep his name, and that of their 16-year-old daughter, out of the press. She spent weekends with her family as often as possible and hated to have eager journalists track her to them.
The single most important part of the early New Deal was the National Industrial Recovery Act, which created the National Recovery Administration (NRA) with its famous blue eagle symbol. Again Perkins was at the center of the discussions which led to its adoption and drafted the sections of the act referring to labor—section 7A of the act was the first occasion on which the federal government lent its weight to the trade union movement by recognizing the right to collective bargaining between managers and workers in every industry. In 1935, the NRA was found unconstitutional in the famous Schechter "sick chicken" case before the Supreme Court, but by then Perkins and her old New York ally Robert Wagner were ready with an alternative, the National Labor Relations Act.
Perkins also devoted a lot of time in the first years of the New Deal to speaking on behalf of a national unemployment insurance scheme. She made 200 speeches on the issue between 1933 and 1935, traveling widely and on one occasion surviving a nasty car accident en route to a speech in Boston. To the League of Women Voters, she said, with her usual blend of conciliation and determination:
In two years the United States has worked out a system of job insurance that took Europe years to accomplish. The bill is subject to change, for it is a human instrument, with human imperfections, representing compromises among various factions. But I know that once it is in the laws of this land we shall not abandon it, but improve upon it, from year to year.
She was again able to convince the president and Congress to take action on the idea by gathering up necessary experts to draft the legislation and calm the fears of conservative resisters. She pointed out that every other advanced industrial nation already had a workable scheme of this kind, and that the prophets of doom in the business community who feared the worst from such a scheme had no evidence from these countries to support their gloomy prognosis. As finally passed by a huge majority of Congress (371–33 in the House and 76–6 in the Senate), the Social Security Act of 1935 instituted a federal-based old age pension for all Americans, and a joint federal and state-run unemployment insurance system.
The legislation protecting trade unions, which she had helped create, inspired intense unionization drives throughout the country in the mid-1930s. In the steel and auto industries, management fought ferociously to prevent unions from getting a foothold, and a series of sitdown strikes and confrontations, some of them bloody, punctuated the second half of the decade. Perkins was steadfast in favoring the unions' right to exist, though she did not always win union members' gratitude, because she tried to stay neutral in each particular dispute and to conciliate management and workers. She also declined to take sides when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) split off from the American Federation of Labor (AFL), leading to a bitter period of intralabor disputes. But if union men were sometimes lukewarm towards the secretary of labor, conservatives and industrialists were often enraged by her. When she declined to use her powers to deport Harry Bridges, a West Coast strike leader and CIO organizer who had migrated to America from Australia in 1920, the House Committee on Un-American Activities alleged that she was a Communist sympathizer, and one of its members, J. Parnell Thomas, instituted impeachment proceedings against her in early 1939. President Roosevelt told her the impeachment was frivolous and that he would protect her if necessary. Sure enough, the judiciary committee found no grounds for proceeding, but the incident demonstrated the fierce feelings Perkins had aroused after six years of active administration.
The next year, she played an active role in the movement to nominate Roosevelt for a third term of office, and was reappointed to her Cabinet position for a third term, making her one of the longest-serving members of the Roosevelt team. By now many of the original New Dealers had been fired or else resigned because of philosophical or practical disagreements with the president, whereas Perkins, who had known him since 1910, remained by his side. After Pearl Harbor, she had the vital task of ensuring smooth relations between management and labor as the economy moved onto a war footing, and she extracted from them a no strikes-no lockouts pledge for the duration of the war, then built up the National War Labor Board. She was careful to protect gains which labor had made in the foregoing years, and not to let businesses profit at workers' expense from the wartime emergency, and she encouraged the large-scale movement of women into the work force when men of military age went into the service. Most of the war years she devoted to coordinating the massive array of organizations involved in labor management.
When Roosevelt won his fourth term of office, she was determined to resign; but Roosevelt, gravely ill, pleaded with her to stay on a little longer and overrode her determination to leave the administration. In consequence, she was still there when Roosevelt died and Harry Truman took his place the following spring. Perkins stayed long enough for Truman to get his bearings, then retired on May 23, 1945. She made a visit to newly liberated Europe later in the same year on behalf of the International Labor Organization, wrote her memoirs and a book about her former boss, The Roosevelt I Knew, but was soon back at work inside the government, when President Truman appointed her to the Civil Service Commission. She served as one of the three commissioners until 1953 when she resigned following the death of her husband and the election of the first Republican president in 20 years, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Frances Perkins remained active through her 70s and into her 80s, teaching classes at the University of Illinois, at Cornell, and at Princeton. She wrote extensively for journals and drafted a biography of her old friend and boss Al Smith, who had died in 1944. She lived long enough to witness the election of President John F. Kennedy and, following his assassination, the succession of Lyndon Johnson. She died in 1965, aged 85, after a lifetime of conscientious public service, having opened up the highest reaches of public life to women for the first time.
sources and suggested reading:
Martin, George. Madam Secretary: Frances Perkins. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
Mohr, Lillian Holmen. Frances Perkins: "That Woman in FDR's Cabinet!" North River Press, 1979.
Myers, Elisabeth. Madam Secretary: Frances Perkins. NY: Julian Messner, 1972.
Perkins, Frances. The Roosevelt I Knew. NY: Viking, 1946.
Severn, Bill. Frances Perkins; A Member of the Cabinet. NY: Hawthorn, 1976.
Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia