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Frances Perkins (1882-1965) – Secretary of Labor in President Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration, First Woman Cabinet Member, Advocate for Working People.
Introduction: Frances Perkins was born on April 10, 1880, in Boston, Massachusetts, of an upper middle-class Republican family. Her birth name was Fannie Coralie, which she later legally changed to Frances. When she was two years old the family relocated to Worcester, Massachusetts, where her father opened a profitable stationery business. She spent her childhood there. Her parents, both devoted Congregationalists, instilled in Frances a strong desire to “live for God and to accomplish something in life.”
It was with her father’s approval that Perkins enrolled in the the college-preperatory curriculum at Worcester Classical High School. After graduation, she enrolled in Mount Holyoke College, fifty miles away in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
While attending Mount Holyoke College, Frances Perkins became further committed to the advancement of women. In addition to her studies, she visited many local factories where she took an interest in the problems of working people — especially the working poor. Students at Mount Holyoke organized a chapter of the National Consumer’s League and, in Perkins’ senior year the NCL’s executive secretary Florence Kelley came to speak. Perkins once told a friend that Kelley’s speech “first opened my mind to the necessity for and the possibility of the work which became my vocation.”
Upon graduation from Mount Holyoke, Perkins returned to Worcester where she taught part time and volunteered to work with a variety of Worcester social service organizations. She continued looking for employment. In 1904, Perkins accepted a teaching position in Lake Forest, Illinois, and began to spend her free time at Hull House and other Chicago settlement houses helping immigrants. It was during this period that Perkins changed her name to Frances and left the Congregational Church to be confirmed in the Episcopal faith. Then, in 1907, Perkins moved east to Pennsylvania to study economics and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. While there, she received a Russel Sage Foundation Fellowship.
It was in the summer of 1909 that Perkins decided to move to New York City to survey the living and working conditions there, and pursue her education at Columbia University. There she earned a master’s degree in economics and sociology in 1910. In the same year, she became head of the National Consumer’s League (NCL) where she lobbied for better working hours and improved working conditions. She served for the following two years as secretary. During that time, she successfully lobbied the state legislature for a bill to limit the workweek to 54 hours for both women and children.
On March 25, 1911, Frances Perkins has socializing with friends when they heard fire sirens and engines. Rushing to the scene of the fire, they witnessed the deadliest industrial fire in U.S. history in a building that lacked fire escapes. One hundred twenty-three women and twenty-three men died from the fire, smoke inhalation or from jumping to their deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire . For Perkins it was “a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.”
In her role as a social worker and political activist, Perkins felt that “poverty was preventable, destructive, wasteful and demoralizing. In the midst of potential plenty, it is morally unacceptable in a Christian and democratic society. Because the ‘poor’ are people, with hopes, fears, virtues, vices and fellow citizens….” — her focus thus being the improvement of the quality of life for all. Because she devoted most of her time to enhancing the public welfare, Perkins’ diverse efforts were viewed by her enemies as “liberal.”
Perkins overcame many of the restrictions and prejudices of her era, especially in areas that were dominated by men. As an outstanding individual and career woman she was also an effective public official whose work would profoundly change the lives of all Americans.
In 1913, Perkins, 33, married Paul Caldwell Wilson, an economist and budget expert in the New York Bureau of Municipal Research. She retained her surname. She briefly withdrew from public service after her marriage and the birth of her daughter. Following the resumption of her professional and political career, Perkins’ husband suffered from mental and emotional illness and was frequently institutionalized, leaving Perkins as the sole supporter for her family. Despite her life of public service, managed to keep her husband and daughter away from the public eye.
In her pursuit of reform, Perkins was appointed to the State Industrial Commission in 1918 and named its chairman in 1926. It was only two years later, in 1929, that then governor Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted Perkins to be the Industrial Commissioner of New York, the chief post in the state labor department. She continued her efforts to expand factory investigations, reduce the work week to 48 hours for women, and facilitate minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws.
In 1933, President Roosevelt appointed Perkins as his Secretary of Labor, making her the first woman in the United States to hold a Cabinet position. She served longer than any other Secretary of Labor, from March 1933 to July 1945.
As secretary, she played a key role in writing New Deal legislation. She immediately proposed federal aid to the states for direct unemployment relief, an extensive program of public works, an approach to the establishment by federal law of minimum wages and maximum hours; unemployment and old-age insurance, abolition of child labor, and the creation of a federal employment service. Because of her diligence and vision, the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act, 1935) was passed, which gave workers the right to collective bargaining and created the National Labor Relations Board. A famous event, in which Perkins led thousands of steelworkers to a meeting place to negotiate their bargaining rights, was captured and circulated in a newspaper photo. Best described as a strong advocate for government intervention for the public good, Perkins’ involvement and persuasive ventures usually led to victory.
In 1934, while serving in the cabinet, she was made chairwoman of the President’s Committee on Economic Security. A report issued by that committee laid the basis for the Social Security Act. Although it was considered at the time to be a radical departure, the proposal was accepted with enthusiasm by Roosevelt. A petition in favor of the measure was signed by 20 million people. Her most important contribution as chairwoman resulted in the Social Security Act of 1935.
Note: In 1979, SSA staff wrote a brief biography of Frances Perkins, along with a selection of quotations from her career. With minor edits, the 1979 SSA staff bio with quotes is reproduced in full below.
Introduction: Frances Perkins biographers justly note that she overcame the restrictions and prejudices of her era and established herself as the equal of any person, in areas then virtually dominated by men. She was an outstanding career woman, but more importantly, an outstanding individual and a public official whose work profoundly changed the lives of all Americans. She was the author of two books — People at Work (1934) and The Roosevelt I Knew (1946) — in addition to innumerable other studies and speeches.
She was trained as a teacher, and taught and lectured at various universities throughout her lifetime. Her character combined a very strong sense of “mission” in pursuing social justice with a pragmatic, practical bent, which helped her to appraise the political realities of a situation and get things through. A good part of her effort was spent in advancing the cause of women, but she was not a single-issue person. Women’s issues seemed to her to fit quite comfortably within a broader view of the situation of all working people.
Her views were decidedly liberal. (Her enemies said she was a communist!) And she valued individual liberty. That also applied to her own privacy. As a public official for a good portion of her life, she devoted her efforts without hesitation to enhancing the public welfare, but she also insisted on keeping her personal life with her husband and daughter quite separate from her public responsibilities — and the inquisitive minds of reporters.
Early Years: Frances Perkins was born in Massachusetts, of an upper middle-class family. Her name at birth was Fanny Coralie, which she promptly changed to Frances when she struck out on her own. But her surname she retained, even after her marriage to Paul Caldwell Wilson in 1913. She did her undergraduate work at Mount Holyoke College, and graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.
Mount Holyoke College was committed to the advancement of women. While there, in connection with her course work, Frances Perkins visited many local factories and came to develop a permanent interest in, and compassion for, the problems of working people and the working poor. This early experience seems to have sparked her mission to improve the lives of the less fortunate.
In 1907, she became Secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. Backed by church and philanthropic groups, the Association had been formed to help immigrant white girls from Europe and black girls from southern states who were then arriving in Philadelphia in great numbers, hoping to find work, but all too often preyed upon or robbed. She issued a highly original and comprehensive social report on the living and working conditions of young women supporting themselves in a major American city — a report that helped her gain success in lobbying efforts to have stricter ordinances passed for the licensing of rooming houses.
In 1910-12, she was executive secretary of the Consumer’s League in New York City. She lobbied for a 54-hour work week for women. In 1911, she witnessed the horrible Triangle Fire, when 600 young women workers were trapped by fire in the upper floors of the Triangle Shirt Waist Company. The number of women who died in that fire was 146, many of whom leaped from the building to avoid the flames. Driven by what she had witnessed, Frances Perkins intensified her efforts in the area of factory safety. She became well known as a social worker and active lobbyist for legislative reforms.
The year she was married, she spoke to an assembly in New York which the New York Times described as “the first feminist mass meeting ever held.” The theme was equality with men in marriage, at work, and in every area of human endeavor.
She organized women politically. As a campaign worker for Al Smith during his candidacy for Governor of New York, she urged him to speak to women voters seriously, and on the real issues.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as Governor of New York in 1929, he made Frances Perkins his chief labor officer — the State Industrial Commissioner. During her tenure, she pushed FDR towards the concept of unemployment insurance, and in 1931, she took a trip to the United Kingdom to see if that country’s systems of unemployment insurance and old-age assistance could be adopted in the United States. As Secretary of Labor, she immediately began pushing for those programs.
Frances Perkins was named Chairman of the Committee on Economic Security, established by FDR in 1934 to investigate social insurance and report on its findings in 6 months. That report recommended unemployment insurance and old-age insurance, but omitted health insurance only because, in the words of Frances Perkins, “the experts couldn’t get through with health insurance in time to make a report on it.” After the Report of the Committee, she campaigned for social security until its passage.
A Poignant Celebration
Frances Perkins’ husband, Paul Wilson, suffered from chronic mental illness and spent most of their married life confined to mental institutions. On the day of the signing of the Social Security Act, as she was leaving her office to go to the signing ceremony, she received a phone call breaking the news that her husband had wandered away from his hospital and was lost somewhere in New York City. She went to the White House for the signing and took her place immediately behind FDR for the photographers and newsreel cameramen. As soon as the ceremony ended she rushed to Union Station where she boarded the first train to New York City. There, several hours later, she finally located her confused and disoriented husband wandering the streets of the city.
In the remainder of her long tenure as Secretary of Labor, she kept the cause of women at heart. She opposed the ERA, however, even though she believed in equal treatment of women. Working conditions had been so bad that she felt women needed legislative protections in the workplace. She feared that ERA would unwittingly provide justification for reversing some of the labor protections for which she had struggled.
Frances Perkins quickly perceived that WW II meant a “most spectacular change” in drawing large numbers of women into the labor force, and into occupations previously held exclusively by men. She felt that the war pressures were leading to some breakdown of prejudices against certain types of women, such as married women, black women, and older women. And when the war was over, she warned that the gains made by women should not be reversed, but rather maintained and accelerated.
After Frances Perkins resigned as Secretary of Labor in 1945, she was quickly called back the following year to serve as one of three Federal Civil Service Commissioners, a post she held until 1952 when her husband died, and she resigned 10 days later.
Thereafter, she continued to lead an energetic life of teaching, public speaking and writing. At the age of 80 she gave a memorable speech to the employees of the Social Security Administration on “The Roots of Social Security.” She lectured at Cornell University, although her health was failing, until two weeks before she died.
The best way of getting some idea of what Frances Perkins was like is to let her speak for herself:
On machines and people:
“Whenever I see that picture which is becoming so familiar of the great mechanical man who does things automatically and can perform almost anything that a human being can perform, I confess to chills of horror lest we become like him. We are committed to the belief that the human race is not destined for that kind of efficiency, but for an efficiency of the spirit and of the mind. If this robot-man can release us from chores like turning off switches — all right, but let him release us to be human beings and let us not develop a race who are going to be patterned after him.” Source: Early speech as New York State Industrial Commissioner, 1929
On her family and friends:
“I have had the greatest blessing any one can have, man or woman. I have had a happy personal life. I have had the friendship of a husband who has put a brilliant mind to work on some of my knotty problems, and let me have the praise. I have had a good daughter, who has grown to girlhood without being a troublesome child. And I am thankful indeed for the women who have helped me bring up my child and take care of my home. There is no coin in which I can repay those fine and loyal helpers who have worked for me and with me in that intimate way.” Source: Early speech as New York State Industrial Commissioner, 1929
On her promise to the public:
“I promise to use what brains I have to meet problems with intelligence and courage. I promise that I will be candid about what I know. I promise to all of you who have the right to know, the whole truth so far as I can speak it. If I have been wrong, you may tell me so, for I really have no pride in judgment. I know all judgment is relative. It may be right today and wrong tomorrow. The only thing that makes it truly right is the desire to have it constantly moving in the right direction.” Source: Early speech as New York State Industrial Commissioner, 1929
On her first cabinet meeting:
“I was apprehensive and on guard at the first official cabinet meeting. As the only woman member, I did not want my colleagues to get the impression that I was too talkative. I resolved not to speak unless asked to do so … My colleagues looked at me with tense curiosity. I think some weren’t sure I could speak.” Source: The Roosevelt I Knew, p. 152
On the New Deal:
“What was the New Deal anyhow? Was it a political plot? Was it just a name for a period in history? Was it a revolution? To all of these questions I answer “No.” It was something quite different… It was, I think, basically an attitude. An attitude that found voice in expressions like “the people are what matter to government,” and “a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.” Source: Labor Under the New Deal and the New Frontier, p. 2.
“It is not the nature of man, as I see it, ever to be quite satisfied with what he has in life…. Contentment tends to breed laxity, but a healthy discontent keeps us alert to the changing needs of our time.” Source: Labor Under the New Deal and the New Frontier, p. 18.
On the common man:
“Very slowly there evolved from these conferences certain basic facts, none of them new, but all of them seen in a new light. It was no new thing for America to refuse to let its people starve, nor was it a new idea that man should live by his own labor, but it had not been generally realized that on the ability of the common man to support himself hung the prosperity of every one in the country.” Source: People at Work, p. 138
On decision-making in a democracy:
“This leads to a question — if a great many people are for a certain project, is it necessarily right? If the vast majority is for it, is it even more certainly right? This, to be sure, is one of the tricky points of democracy. The minority often turns out to be right, and though one believes in the efficacy of the democratic process, one has also to recognize that the demand of the many for a particular project at a particular time may mean only disaster.” Source: The Roosevelt I Knew, p. 156
On occupational health:
“No one except the man who has been exposed to noxious gases, dust, and fumes in a factory really knows what the dangers of factory life can be. The continued existence of industrial hazards, both accident and health, in our great American factories is one of our oldest disgraces. Much has been done to improve this situation but a great deal remains to be done, particularly as new techniques such as those involving nuclear energy are developed.” Source: Labor Under the New Deal and the New Frontier, p. 15
On public opinion:
“In America, public opinion is the leader. It is our American habit to arrive at what we think by talking things out together …. These discussion centers are the actual birth places of public opinion — they are where the American mind, harnessed to the American will, goes constructively and critically to work.” Source: People at Work, pp. 37-38.
On social good:
“Our idea of what constitutes social good has advanced with the procession of the ages, from those desperate times when just to keep body and soul together was an achievement, to the great present when “good” includes an agreeable, stable civilization accessible to all, the opportunity of each to develop his particular genius and the privilege of mutual usefulness.” Source: People at Work, p. 11.
On social justice:
“Out of our first century of national life we evolved the ethical principle that it was not right or just that an honest and industrious man should live and die in misery. He was entitled to some degree of sympathy and security. Our conscience declared against the honest workman’s becoming a pauper, but our eyes told us that he very often did.” Source: People at Work, p. 38.
“I had already had a conviction, a “concern”, as the Quakers say, about social justice; and it was clear in my own mind that the promotion of social justice could be made to work practically.”
Source: The Roosevelt I Knew, p. 10
“American sympathy is quickly stirred, and, furthermore, we have the natural and old American habit of using democratic and legislative processes to correct abuses and adversity. The town meeting system of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries used this method. They put it simply: “It is the sense of the meeting that the selectmen should provide for the Widow Jones.” Source: The Roosevelt I Knew, p. 16
On social security:
“I’ve always said, and I still think we have to admit, that no matter how much fine reasoning there was about the old-age insurance system and the unemployment insurance prospects — no matter how many people were studying it, or how many committees had ideas on the subject, or how many college professors had written theses on the subject — and there were an awful lot of them — the real roots of the Social Security Act were in the great depression of 1929. Nothing else would have bumped the American people into a social security system except something so shocking, so terrifying, as that depression. Source: The Roots of Social Security, p. 4
… and politicians:
“The beginnings of old-age insurance came about largely, I think, by the crisis of the times, by the studies of some intellectuals and through the impact of the old-age predicament, and of the Townsend organizations on the politicians. This, of course, is an important victory. Once you get the ear of a politician, you get something real. The highbrows can talk forever and nothing happens. People smile benignly on them and let it go. But once the politician gets an idea, he deals in getting things done. Many are extraordinarily able in devising political plans that hold water, not only in the matter of votes, but administratively … They are really the key to these situations in which we now deal. Source: The Roots of Social Security, p. 7
… and academics:
[In setting up the Committee on Economic Security, they borrowed personnel from other branches of government and from the universities:] “We borrowed university people who, beginning in July , were on summer vacation — quantities of them. I didn’t know as much about university people then as I do now, but university people — teachers and professors — are a problem in themselves. They have a great pride of opinion, and they are quite vocal. They can give voice to their opinions wonderfully, and they can write reports very readily. It takes comparatively little time to write a report, but it is a different thing to do what the report recommends.” Source: The Roots of Social Security, p.14
… and the American people:
[Speaking to employees of the Social Security Administration in October 23, 1962, at the age of 80, she concluded her talk:] “And then began the great problem which you have taken over — the administration of this act. Thousands of new problems arose in the Administration which had not been foreseen by those who did the planning and the legal drafting. Of course, the Act had to be amended, and has been amended, and amended, and amended, and amended, until it has now grown into a large and important project, for which, by the way, I think the people of the United States are deeply thankful. One thing I know: 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. It is safe. It is safe forever, and for the everlasting benefit of the people of the United States. Source: The Roots of Social Security, p. 19
For further reading and research:
Downey, Kirstin. The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009.
Frances Perkins papers, ca.1895 – 1965. Columbia University Libraries.
Frances Perkins Collection, ca. 1933. Mount Holyoke College. Five College Archives and Manuscript Collections.
Frances Perkins obituary. The New York Times (May 15, 1965). http://blog.francesperkinscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/FP-obit.pdf
“Her Life: The Woman Behind the New Deal.” Frances Perkins Center http://francesperkinscenter.org/life-new/
Keller, Emily. Frances Perkins: First Woman Cabinet Member. Greensboro: Morgan Reynolds Publishing, 2006.
Perkins, F. (1946). The Roosevelt I Knew. New York: Viking Press.
“Primary and Secondary Source Material on Frances Perkins” Frances Perkins Center http://francesperkinscenter.org/resources/
Social Security Pioneers: Frances Perkins https://www.ssa.gov/history/fperkins.html
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2012). Frances Perkins (1882-1965) – Secretary of Labor in President Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration, First Woman Cabinet Member, Advocate for Working People. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/social-security/perkins-frances-2/