Frances Perkins was the Secretary of Labor for 12 years in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, the first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet and thus to be in the line of succession. But Frances Perkins had many other firsts to her credit, including the passage of the Social Security Act, unemployment compensation, the minimum wage, and the 40-hour work week. She was, needless to say, an avid supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and is credited with putting many of them in place. Frances Perkins was, as the title of one biography puts it, The Woman Behind the New Deal.
She came to the White House with ample experience in public service and a deep concern for the poor and the underdog in society. After graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1902, she took a job as a teacher at what is now Lake Forest Academy in Lake Forest, Illinois, and volunteered at the Chicago South Side settlement house, Hull House. Moving on to study at the Wharton School of Finance in Philadelphia in 19, Perkins became the secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association, helping young women find jobs and apartments in the city. Later, after finishing a master’s degree in sociology at Columbia University in New York City in 1910, she became secretary of the New York Consumer’s League, which promoted better working conditions for workers. Witnessing the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in downtown New York in which 146 workers died, Perkins became active in pushing for the social reform and legislation that would be her lifelong passion.
She was appointed as the first woman member to the New York State Industrial Commission by Governor Al Smith in 1918 and became its chairwoman in 1926. Perkins first came to Roosevelt’s attention when he was elected governor of New York in 1929. He appointed her State Industrial Commissioner and she worked to establish minimum wage and unemployment insurance that she would later see become law. Roosevelt was elected president in 1933 and appointed Perkins as the Secretary of Labor in his new cabinet. She served from March 1933 to July 1945, the longest service of any secretary.
Roosevelt had come into office in the Great Depression with unemployment at 25 percent in the spring of 1933. To help those out of work, Perkins was on a mission to set up unemployment compensation and a minimum wage, along with a social insurance program to help the elderly and disabled. As chairwoman of the President’s Commission on Economic Security, Frances Perkins drafted her most important proposal, the Social Security Act, giving federal benefits to retirees, elderly, and unemployed, half to be paid by a payroll tax and half by the employer. Congress passed the legislation on August 14, 1935, though not without intense controversy. Many were excluded in this first form of the Social Security Act. Part-time workers in many areas including agriculture and domestic labor were not covered, which left out many women and minorities. Calls for changes began immediately, but this linchpin of the New Deal would remain its long-lasting legacy and Frances Perkins’s greatest achievement. Her influence over American lives continues to this day.
In the first 100 days of Roosevelt’s administration in the spring of 1933, Congress passed every one of the programs he proposed and some he actually opposed. This was the first phase of what came to be known as the New Deal, with the goal of recovery from the Depression, relief for the unemployed and poor, and reform of the financial system. The United States had been devastated by the downturn, which began in October of 1929 when the stock market crashed and signaled a major financial crisis with deep causes already under way. Unemployment skyrocketed, businesses went bankrupt, investors jumped from tall buildings, and the suddenly homeless and out of work lined up at soup kitchens in fancy neighborhoods. The nation was desperate for a leader to save it, and the aristocratic Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then governor of New York State, stepped up to the plate, campaigning for the presidential nomination. He promised Americans “a new deal,” “a call to arms” that would put them back to work and put the country on the right track.
Elected and sworn in on March 3, 1933, Roosevelt faced a 25 percent unemployment rate, deflation, homes in foreclosure, and every bank in the nation closed. With the help of what he called his “brain trust” of handpicked advisers, including some Columbia University law school professors, Roosevelt came up with what is known as “the First New Deal,” which included establishing the National Recovery Administration (NRA) to regulate industry and prevent future instability. This program was essentially ineffective, its mandatory codes and bureaucracy getting in the way of any real change, and the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1935.
Nonetheless, the economy responded and began to improve in the first two years of Roosevelt’s first term. He had shut down the banks in the entire country on March 4, 1933, but reopened them on March 9 under the supervision of the Treasury Department with the passage of the Emergency Banking Act that day by Congress. The Economy Act, passed next on March 14, was intended to balance the federal budget by cutting government salaries and the pensions of veterans. The ambitious Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established in April of 1935 to put unskilled workers back to work, building bridges, parks, and roads. It also assisted single and widowed women with employment and put artists to work on public arts projects. The WPA provided training and jobs for Americans over the course of eight years but was disbanded during World War II when the economy was healthier.
The passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 had immediate positive effects as well, and Frances Perkins continued to influence the president’s policies. As a lone woman in the male-dominated political world of the 1930s, Perkins was apparently able to make herself heard without challenging the authority of the men around her or arousing their hostility. Nonetheless, as she succeeded in putting new labor legislation in place, the business community grew increasingly adversarial. She was constantly criticized for her role in the passage of Social Security and her support of unionization. Rumors circulated that she would be ousted from the cabinet and that she was a communist. At one point, there was even a move to impeach her. In 1939, the House Un-American Activities Committee brought an impeachment resolution against Perkins. She had refused to deport the head of the West Coast longshoreman’s union, Harry Bridges. But the proceedings were dropped for lack of evidence.
All along, Perkins continued to work quietly behind the scenes to address the problems women faced in the workforce, masking her efforts by publicly calling for reforms for all. She had become involved with the struggle for women’s suffrage when she first came to New York in 1909, marching in parades and speaking on street corners about women’s right to vote, and became a leader in the movement for a time. But as she became increasingly involved in government, often as the only woman around, it paid to be more circumspect. She worked tirelessly to eliminate child labor and reduce work hours for women. She also wanted to promote national health care insurance, but found it an unwieldy project.
Perkins did not support the Equal Rights Amendment, which was first introduced in 1923 and would have given women more equality. She feared it would undermine the legislation she had already worked to put in place. But Perkins applauded women’s entry into the workplace during World War II as helping to break down the restrictions on employing women. She herself paved the way, as the first woman in the cabinet, for other women to serve in government jobs.
President Roosevelt backed her up at every turn, and she was a faithful supporter of his programs. They got along well and became good friends, perhaps better friends, in a platonic way, than he was with his own wife, Eleanor. Perkins made it a point to confer with Roosevelt regularly, keeping tabs on his thinking and letting him know where she stood on the issues of the day. Perkins was also friends with Eleanor and they shared similar values, but were not close. Still, at a time when a woman’s success might be attributed to sexual favors, the public perception of Perkins’s rapid rise in government was her relationship with the boss’s wife, not with the boss.
Besides her major achievement in seeing the Social Security Act through to adoption, Perkins championed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 (known as the Wages and Hours bill at the time), which established a federal minimum wage and standards for overtime as well as a 40-hour work week and prohibited the employment of minors in “oppressive child labor.” Her time as a cabinet member was well spent and allowed her to pursue and bring to fruition several of her lifelong goals. When Roosevelt died in April of 1945, Perkins resigned from the cabinet. But the new president, Harry Truman, asked her to serve on the U.S. Civil Service Commission, which functioned to regulate the hiring and working conditions of civil servants. Perkins remained on the commission until 1952. She then became a lecturer at Cornell University where she taught until 1965.
Frances Perkins had been born Fannie Coralie Perkins (she later changed her name to Frances) on April 10, 1880, on Beacon Hill in Boston, Massachusetts. She grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, the first of the two daughters of Frederick W. Perkins who ran a stationery and office supply business, and Susan Bean Perkins. The family spent summers in Newcastle, Maine, at the homestead established in the early 1700s by her great-great-grandfather. Her father, a blue-blooded descendant of pre-Mayflower Scotch and English settlers, was a staunch Republican and Frances, who early on was developing “an acute sense of social justice” as biographer Kristin Downey put it, loved to get a rise out of her parents by proclaiming her concern for the lower classes. It was sincere.
She was a precocious child, which worried her mother. An educated woman, especially one whose looks left something to be desired, was not regarded favorably when it came to finding a husband. Nonetheless, her father encouraged her intellect, taught her Greek by the time she was 8, and sent her to Mount Holyoke College, where she majored in chemistry and physics, subjects that she would teach for the first few years out of school. By the time she got to Washington, Frances Perkins had figured out that the person men most respected was their mother, and she decided to dress like one, switching to wearing plain black dresses and a string of pearls from more youthful attire when she was only 33. It worked, gaining her a respectful audience in the male-dominated government.
Frances Perkins had found female mentors along the way who encouraged her, including Mount Holyoke president, Mary E. Woolley, and a single mother, Florence Kelley, secretary of the National Consumers League that Perkins would later join. Both women seemed to show that one could be a woman of accomplishment without being married. Nonetheless, Frances Perkins got married. She had met Paul Caldwell Wilson through friends when she came to New York and, in 1913, they married. But she kept her name.
A graduate of the University of Chicago, Wilson had campaigned for and joined the administration of the new New York mayor, John Purroy Mitchel, and the newlyweds set up housekeeping in a townhouse off Washington Square in Greenwich Village. They had one child, a daughter, Susanna. Unfortunately, both father and daughter were later diagnosed as manic-depressives and Frances was to spend a good deal of time and money on their care. Her husband was in a mental hospital by the time she was appointed secretary of Labor in 1933 and required constant care until he died in 1952.
Frances Perkins left government service that year and became a lecturer at Cornell University’s New York State School of Industrial Relations in Ithaca, New York. She was 85 when she died in 1965, and was buried, as was her husband, in the Newcastle cemetery in Newcastle, Maine. In honor of its famous graduate, Mount Holyoke College maintains a Frances Perkins archive and offers a Frances Perkins scholars program for older women students. Additional Perkins papers are archived at Columbia University. The building housing the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., was named after her in 1980.
But it is ironic, as biographer Kirstin Downey observes, that Frances Perkins is “now virtually unknown”:
About 44 million people collect Social Security checks each month; millions receive unemployment and worker’s compensation or the minimum wage; others get to go home after an eight-hour day because of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Very few know the name of the woman responsible for their benefits.
Downey, Kirstin. The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience. New York: Doubleday, 2009.
Keller, Emily. Frances Perkins: First Woman Cabinet Member. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Publishing, 2006.