Skip to main content

Perkins, Frances, Change Agent

Frances Perkins: She Boldly Went Where No Woman Had Gone Before

By Harris Chaiklin, Ph.D.

Frances Perkins
Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, arrives for a special meeting, September 16, 1938
Image: Library of Congress ID hec.25045

The title for this entry is adapted from the iconic Star Trek television show. It aptly fits Frances Perkins. She and her major accomplishments are known to many social workers. What is less familiar is who she was as a person and what she went through to become one of the great change agents in American history. These blanks are admirably filled in by Kirstin Downey’s biography The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience (Downey, 2009).

Fannie Perkins was born April 10, 1880 in Boston but grew up in Worcester where her father was a partner in a stationary and supply store. While comfortable the family had once had considerably more wealth. Her parents were an ill-matched couple. The father was a Boston Brahmin in temperament and the mother plain and dowdy. Fannie was an exceptionally bright girl. Her father began to teach her Greek at age 8. At the same time the parents were worried about the spinsterhood that awaited educated women.

From an early age she showed a concern for the deprived and in her teens declared herself a Democrat in very Republican Worcester. In high school she was influenced by Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives. She went to Mount Holyoke and while she was there Florence Kelley, then with the National Consumers League, came to give a lecture. Her emphasis on needing good data obtained by proper research techniques made Fannie turn to her as a mentor after she graduated in 1902, moved to Chicago and took a job as a science teacher at a Ferry Hall, a college oriented toward wealthy young women. She also associated with Hull House and spent as much time as she could staying there and participating in its activities. Her school job precluded moving in full time. She changed her name from Fannie to Frances and her religion from Congregational to Episcopalian. The Perkins of the familiar public image was beginning to emerge.

In 1907 she took a job in Philadelphia as general secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. The agency was concerned with immigrant women who were forced into sexual slavery. The pay was $50 a month, there was frequent pawning of her watch between paychecks. She decided that as a woman the only way she could advance herself was to get further education. The Wharton School had recently begun accepting women. She went there and in 1909 Simon Patten, one of her professors, arranged for her to get a fellowship at Columbia. This began a new phase of her life. She moved into a settlement house that had connections to Hull House. Her master’s in political science was received in 1910. Shortly after she moved to Greenwich Village. She made connections to people who ranged from the Astors and Vanderbilts toartists, writers, and actors. She became friendly with Robert Moses and Sinclair Lewis asked her for editorial help with an early novel. Her social work with the poor gave her a certain cachet with society people and creative artists.

She got a job with the National Consumer’s League and worked closely with Florence Kelley. Her social and political skills blossomed in this setting. She deepened her knowledge and commitment to a change strategy she had first seen in action at Hull House. “Kelley insisted on rigorous research before proposing reforms. Once she settled on a course of action, she brought employers and workers together to mediate solutions (Downey, 2009, p. 31).” She did not seek to confront but proceeded by first getting the facts and then bringing contending parties together. Her political skills in conflict resolution became legendary.

A transforming event occurred while she was having tea with a wealthy friend who lived in Washington Square. Word came that the Triangle Shirtwaist factory was on fire. They rushed to it. The horror they saw there helped forge in Frances a lifelong commitment to worker’s safety and rights. That she was with a wealthy friend is significant. Though not wealthy she knew this life style and associated with wealthy people. Good friends from this group provided a place for her to live at key points in her career when her earnings were not enough to meet her needs.

Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt at the 50th anniversary commemoration at the site of the Triangle fire, March 25, 1961.
Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt at the 50th anniversary commemoration at the site of the Triangle fire, March 25, 1961.
Photo: Courtesy of the Kheel Center

After the fire there was increasing activity in campaigning for worker’s rights and safety while the social work job continued. Once a social worker who lived in the settlement house with Frances asked for help in getting a teenage boy out of jail because he was supporting his family. Frances went to the Charity Organization Society which after a long investigation deemed him “unworthy.” A friend suggested she try the Tammany Hall in the client’s district. The problem was helped within 24 hours. Her lobbying activities also put her in contact with other machine politicians. She met and struck up a close relationship with Al Smith. Working together they succeeded in getting a bill passed that limited women to a 54 hour work week. It was a compromise and liberals attacked her for giving up too much to get it passed. She knew that without the compromise there would have been no bill and not even the limited protection this bill offered. The lessons in becoming a skilled politician were piling up. In the past she had looked down on politicians but now concluded, “…that venal politicians can sometimes be more useful than upstanding reformers (Downey, 2009,p. 39).” Understanding and accepting the value of working within the political order was one of the secrets of her success.

Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins shaking hands with Carnegie Steel Workers during the National Recovery Act drive, July 1933.
Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins shaking hands with Carnegie Steel Workers during the National Recovery Act drive, July 1933.
Photo: Courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum

Her experiences in these activities taught her another valuable lesson. A politician told her that men trusted women who were motherly and not seductive sirens. Downey says, “She began to see her gender, a liability in many ways, could actually be an asset. To accentuate this opportunity to gain influence she began to dress and comport herself in a way that reminded men of their mothers, rather than doing what women usually like to do which is making themselves more physically attractive to men (Downey, 2009, p. 45). At this time she was 33 years old. Up to then the papers had characterized her as “perky” “pretty” “dimpled.” They now began to label her as “Mother Perkins” a name she disliked only a little less than being called “Ma Perkins.” Such was the price for shaping herself into a highly effective politician. In these activities Frances was aware of her limitations as a woman and avoided places where women did not usually go. She did her lobbying in hallways and not bars. This too became a lifelong skill. When people were brought together to work out differences she stayed in the background. Others often got credit for her greatest accomplishments. Who today identifies her as the moving force behind achieving Social Security?

The next step in her political education came from the effort to control industrial fires. The Triangle shirtwaist fire continued to haunt the nation. A man named Kingsbury who was the director of the Association for Improving the Condition of the poor wanted to develop a committee to work on the project. He asked Theodore Roosevelt for help. He turned him down but suggested Henry L. Stimson [later Roosevelt’s Secretary of War] as chairman, Henry Morgantheau Sr. [father of Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary] and Kingsbury as secretary. He suggested that Perkins be the executive director. Frances had corresponded with him previously but he had also heard about her from Jane Addams and Florence Kelley. Frances became an expert in fire prevention.

In 1913 Perkins married Paul Caldell Wilson. He was handsome, rich and a progressive. She defied convention and kept her maiden name. After several attempts at conceiving a daughter was born. Life did not treat Frances well. Both husband and daughter were depressed and institutionalized for long periods. While she had some help with living from her wealthy friends Frances paid their bills until they died. She also dealt with a myriad of stresses they introduced into her life. She did not believe in divorce. Despite her personal miseries Frances continued to develop her political skills.

When Al Smith campaigned for governor  she helped by making contacts. To her surprise, shortly after he was sworn in Smith appointed her to the Industrial Commission which oversaw factory conditions. One of her important victories there was to outlaw child labor. This job paid $8000 and was considered a plum. No woman had ever served on the commission and there was a lot of protest over the appointment. Frances had some doubts about accepting and consulted Kelley. Smith told them, “If you girls are going to get what you want through legislation, there better not be any separation between social workers and government (Downey, 2009, p. 77).”

When Al Smith ran for president she campaigned for him. After campaigning on Maryland’s Eastern Shore the estimate was that, “It was perfectly clear to them that the whole idea of having Smith for president was for the Roman Catholic Church to get control of the government and military forces and everything else in the United States. … It was the most deep-seated prejudice I’ve ever met (Downey, 2009, pp. 92-93).”

In due course Smith lost. But Perkins got to meet Franklin D. Roosevelt who succeeded Smith as governor of New York. Roosevelt liked her and against advice made her the director of the State Industrial Department. She was now making $12,000 a year. She got along well with him and he came to trust her honest views about important state matters. During her tenure she began to push a social agenda which included developing unemployment services and woman’s right to work.

She also met Eleanor Roosevelt since she was often at the Roosevelt home. They had a long and complicated relationship. Perkins did not consider her a friend. She found Eleanor to be under her mother-in-law’s domination and passive in the face of her husband’s extra marital affairs. Contrary to popular supposition she received no access to higher political circles or special appointments because of Eleanor’s influence. Over the years they did work out accommodations so that they got along.

During this time Perkins also added to the biographical changes she had already made. She presented herself as a Boston Brahmin and took two years off of her age. She never discussed her difficult family life and people thought she was a happy wife and mother. During Roosevelt’s term the Depression started. Downey describes some of the conditions that brought this on. They are startlingly similar to today’s economic difficulties: “Homes rose markedly in value, especially in hot markets like Florida and New York City. Borrowers believed that home purchases were no-risk ventures certain to escalate, and they went out on a limb to buy a home. Lenders who had once required large down payments now permitted home purchasers to combine two and three loans to buy a home. People took out what they called “bullet” loans which were interest-only loans that buyers were told they could refinance in three years or five years. Lenders told home buyers not to worry; homes were rising so fast in value that it would always be easy to refinance into another loan. Developers built larger homes. They needed the space to hold all the things they were buying (Downey, 2009, p. 106).”

When Roosevelt ran for president all her study of economics and research came into play. She provided Roosevelt with the data to show that the employment figures that Hoover was using were not correct. Hoover did not budge on the data and Roosevelt said to her, “Frances, this is the best politics that you can do. Just be an outraged scientist and social worker (Downey, 2009, p. 112).”

Reference: Downey, K. (2009). The woman behind the New Deal: The life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and his moral conscience. New York: Doubleday.

Note:  This entry first appeared as a column in The Maryland Social Worker (Winter 2012)

For further reading: 

Frances Perkins Center. Her life: The Woman behind the New Deal.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Chaiklin, H. (2012). Frances Perkins: She boldly went where no woman had gone before. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from