Any recognition of influential and famous American women should include Frances Perkins and rank her close to the top of such a list. Perkins was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s secretary of labor during his entire time in office, from 1933 to 1945, and the first woman cabinet member in our history.
Although she is largely unknown to most Americans, many historians credit Perkins as being the architect and driving force responsible for the key achievements of FDR’s New Deal program during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
After graduating from college in New England in 1902, Perkins taught school in Chicago and while there also volunteered her time working to improve the lives of the immigrant poor at Jane Addams’ famous Hull House.
Soon after turning to full-time social work, Perkins earned a master’s degree at Columbia University in sociology in 1910 and became executive secretary of the New York City Consumer’s League. In her new position she promoted industrial reform and the improvement of sweatshop working conditions.
Perkins was an eyewitness at the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911 which took the lives of 146 immigrant workers, most of them women. The catastrophe was the result of grossly inadequate factory safety measures, and the event had a profound effect on Perkins’ zealous commitment to social reform for the remainder of her life. Decades later she remarked that the New Deal originated with the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
Perkins gained statewide recognition by investigating and exposing factory employers who placed the health and safety of their workers at risk. Her skillful lobbying in Albany eventually helped bring about a New York state law which established a 54-hour maximum work week for women and children. During this same period the young social worker also became active in the women’s suffrage movement.
In 1918, Gov. Al Smith appointed Perkins to the state Industrial Commission, where she reorganized factory inspection procedures and worked to resolve labor-management problems, including strikes.
Shortly after Franklin Roosevelt was elected governor of New York in 1928, he selected Perkins to chair the state Industrial Commission. In her additional role of heading the nation’s largest state labor department, she proceeded to expand factory investigations, was instrumental in reducing the work week for women to 48 hours, and advocated minimum wage and unemployment laws. Perkins also successfully pushed for public works programs to provide relief for the state’s unemployed during the beginning of the Great Depression in the early 1930s.
A few months after winning an overwhelming victory over Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election, FDR asked Perkins to be his secretary of labor. Although definitely wanting to accept the honor, Perkins at first declined and suggested that the cabinet position should go to a representative from the ranks of organized labor. Only when Roosevelt agreed to support her broad agenda of social reforms did she agree to accept FDR’s historic offer.
By this time in her life, Perkins had developed a remarkable commitment to social justice which was strongly reinforced by deeply held religious convictions. Her idealism and sense of mission was perhaps best described in a remark she made years later when retiring from government service: “I came to work for God, FDR and the millions of forgotten, plain common working men.” Perkins believed that poverty was “morally unacceptable in a Christian and democratic society.”
While serving as secretary of labor, Frances Perkins expressed concern for all wage earners, union or non-union. As she once said, “I have come to the conclusion that the Department of Labor should be the Department FOR labor.”
Less than a week after Roosevelt’s inauguration, the new secretary of labor contributed to the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Her department recruited unemployed young men to work on conservation projects such as reforestation, prevention of soil erosion, and flood control. This program provided employment to several hundred thousand within a year and nearly 2 million by the end of the decade.
Madam Secretary, as she became known, also delivered hundreds of public speeches, testified before Congress and gave vigorous support to additional New Deal public works programs which provided jobs for millions of unemployed Americans during the Great Depression. These projects included construction of roads, public buildings, bridges, airports and numerous other, smaller-scale work relief measures.
The National Labor Relations Act, enacted in the summer of 1935, granted workers the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining with their employers. Perkins actively worked in setting up a companion National Labor Relations Board to rule on labor-management disputes which would likely occur under this new law.
That same year, as chair of the Committee on Economic Security, Perkins became primarily responsible for the Social Security Act. This landmark legislation established a federal old-age pension system and a federal-state plan of unemployment insurance.
The Social Security concept has expanded over the decades and is today regarded as the cornerstone of the New Deal and its most successfully popular program.
Perkins, who as secretary of labor advocated a national health insurance plan, later viewed Medicare as a natural offshoot of Social Security.
In 1938 the tireless Perkins played a central role in the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a federal minimum wage and maximum hours standard for businesses engaged in interstate commerce, and also prohibited the employment of children under the age of 16.
A year before Perkins retired as secretary of labor, a popular journal observed that she would leave an enduring legacy to the nation. The magazine predicted “it is quite likely that Miss Perkins will be hailed as the most successful of the New Dealers, for the Roosevelt pattern of government contains more of her ideas than those of any of the president’s followers.”
This view has been widely confirmed by historians. As one remarked, “Nearly 58 million citizens collect Social Security checks each month, millions receive unemployment and worker’s compensation or the minimum wage; others go home after an eight-hour day because of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Yet few know the name of the woman responsible for their benefits.”
During the Truman years, Perkins became a civil service commissioner, and after leaving public service she later joined the faculty of Cornell University’s School of Labor and Industrial Relations.
Three years prior to her death in 1965, on the 25th anniversary of the Social Security Act, Frances Perkins expressed obvious pride when speaking about her proudest achievement: “One thing I know,” she said. “Social Security is so firmly embedded in the American psychology today that no politician, no political party, no political group could possibly destroy this act and still maintain our democratic system.”
Photo: Frances Perkins meets with Carnegie Steel Workers in 1933.
This essay is part of The New York History Blog’s project to highlight the history of women in New York State for Women’s History Month.