(April 10, 1880 – May 14, 1965)
Frances Perkins was the first woman cabinet officer in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. She served as Secretary of Labor from March 4, 1933 until June 30, 1945.
She was remarkably suitable for this position and very effective in helping develop FDR’s programs of social justice. How did a woman of her social class develop into a person who understood the working man and his needs and those Americans of all ages who had been devastated by the worldwide depression that began in 1929?
Frances Perkins was born in Boston, Massachusetts on April 10, 1880 to comfortable middle class parents who belonged to the Congregational Church. She had one sister, who was born in 1884. She was an average student at Worcester's Classical High School, which prepared her for college. She earned a Bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke College in 1902 and a Master’s Degree in Sociology from Columbia University in 1910.
At Mt. Holyoke, her History Professor, Anna May Soule, required her students to visit the local factories and write of the working conditions there. Frances later said that opened her mind to the idea that poverty was not merely caused by liquor or laziness, the prevailing view at the time. She supported herself by teaching and volunteered at settlement houses. She spent time at the famous Hull House in Chicago. There she began to realize that Labor needed to organize to earn a decent wage so that they could take care of themselves and not need the charity of those running settlement houses.
She came to live in New York City in 1909 and was hired as Executive Secretary of the Consumer League. In lobbying for the League in Albany, she met Al Smith, a New York State Assemblyman at the time, and Senator Robert F. Wagner.
On March 25, 1911, Frances was having tea with friends at Astor Place in Greenwich Village. Several fire trucks and emergency vehicles could be heard outside. The group went outside to see what was happening. They were just in time to see bodies falling from the upper floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. A fire had started and quickly spread The total dead was 146 and most were young immigrant women. There was only one exit. The others were locked because owners suspected workers might steal a newly made shirtwaist or that union organizers might enter the building. There was a great public outcry over this tragedy and investigations were called for. Because Frances knew about factory conditions due to her work for the Consumer’s League she was asked to do investigations for the newly formed Factory Investigating Committee led by Smith and Wagner.
Her education, her experiences, and her reading, which included Jacob Riis’ 1890 book, How The Other Half Lives, an expose of the terrible slum conditions in NYC, prepared her to become a vital force for Labor in New York State. At that time Labor was not yet organized, had no rights and were often exploited.
When Al Smith became Governor in New York, he asked Frances to join the NYS Industrial Commission. Frances used her influence to educate men like Smith and Wagner about labor conditions by bringing Smith to a factory at the end of a twelve hour shift to see the exhausted workers exit. She had Wagner come down a fire escape that ended twelve feet from the ground. As a Lobbyist for the Consumer’s League she was successful in getting a bill passed that limited the work week to 54 hours.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected NYS Governor, he named Frances Perkins State Industrial Commissioner. Because of the good relations she had worked to achieve with both labor, business, and lawmakers she was successful in achieving a forty-eight hour work week for women. She pushed for laws establishing a minimum wage and unemployment insurance.
When FDR was elected President, he asked Frances to be his Secretary of Labor. No woman had ever held a Cabinet Post. Frances accepted this position only after the President-Elect agreed to back her long list of social reforms, such as what came to be known as Social Security. He also supported her goals of a shorter work week, laws controlling child labor, setting a minimum wage and unemployment insurance. All these goals were achieved during Perkins time as Secretary of Labor, March 4, 1933 to June 30, 1945. Her biographer, Kirstin Downey, calls Perkins, the “Woman Behind the New Deal”, and she was. The skills she used in negotiating between business men and labor leaders worked well in the assured but tactful ways she dealt with Roosevelt’s all-male Cabinet, Congressmen, lobbyists, citizens, and the President himself. Her experience, knowledge, and personal qualities were major factors in helping settle strikes and heading off threatening strikes in industries producing needed war materials first for Lend-Lease and then goods for the War itself.
Perkins' personal life was difficult. She married Paul Caldwell Wilson in 1913. They had a baby that died and then a daughter Susanna. They were financially comfortable and lived on Paul’s family inheritance. Paul, however, lost their fortune in speculative investments. Frances realized she would have to support her family when Paul developed manic-depressive symptoms and spent years off and on in mental institutions. As an adult their daughter also was apparently mentally ill.
Frances continued to work for the government in Harry Truman’s administration, serving on the United States Civil Service Commission from 1945 to 1952. In that year, her husband died and Frances went to Cornell University as a teacher and lecturer in the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She continued there until her death in 1965 at age 85.
Though Frances Perkins came from an upper middle class background, had an excellent education and was a successful social worker she developed an early empathy with the working class. She saw and understood the dreadful places where they had to live and work. She made great contributions to the major portion of the population in our United States by getting social security, unemployment insurance, minimum wages, limited work week hours, and codes for secure working places. She also believed in universal health care and would be happy to see that becoming available to all our citizens.
Downey, Kirstin. The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience. Random House, 2009
Passachoff, Naomi. Frances Perkins: Champion of the New Deal. New York: Oxford University Press.1999
Perkins, Frances. The Roosevelt I Knew. New York: Penguin Group, 1946.
Lecture by Kirstin Downey at Hyde Park, New York, FDR’s home, presidential library and archives. June 20, 2009
Frances Perkins. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, 10-12-2009
Written and researched by Marjorie Regan, MA, LMFT.
AAUW Kingston Branch