Frances Perkins (1880 - 1965)
“The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered….”
The first female U.S. Cabinet member, and the longest-serving labor secretary in history, Frances Perkins served under President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1945. Through the years of recovery from the Great Depression, Perkins championed many of the most significant innovations in social welfare that comprised the New Deal. Unemployment benefits, pensions, welfare, minimum wages and overtime pay came out of legislation Perkins helped imagine and draft. The Federal Emergency Relief Act, the Civil Conservation Corps Act, the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act were all enacted under her watch. She resisted including American women in the military draft for World War II so they could enter the civilian workforce in greatly expanded numbers.
Perkins was first drawn to the plight of workers during her years at Mount Holyoke College. Later, teaching in Chicago, she spent her free hours at settlement houses, particularly Hull House. She visited the homes of the poor and became familiar with labor unions.
From Chicago, she moved to New York City where her years as secretary of the New York Consumers League exposed her to sweatshops. After she watched 146 workers die in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City, she advocated for restrictions on the number of hours worked in a week (successfully lobbying for fifty-four) and for employee safety. Years later, she remarked that the New Deal really began on March 25, 1911, the day of the fire.
Perkins became a key instrument in turning the tragedy into the progressive legislation enacted by NY Governor Al Smith’s administration. When FDR succeeded Smith as governor, Perkins became his Commissioner of Labor, paving the way for her role in the FDR White House. After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, she served in President Truman’s administration and, later, became a professor at Columbia University.