Public Service Exemplars: A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement: Frances Perkins
Updated: Apr 25
Frances Coralie Perkins was a trailblazer, the first woman to serve in an American president’s cabinet. She was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor from 1933 until 1945, the longest serving cabinet officer in that position. Along with Harold Ickes, Perkins was the only person to serve in the cabinet for the entire Roosevelt presidency. I discuss her tenure in government in my forthcoming book, Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement."
She was born Fannie Coralie Perkins in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 10, 1880. Her father, Frederick, owned a stationery store. Perkins came of age in Worcester, Massachusetts, before she entered Mount Holyoke College. She graduated in 1902 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and physics.
During her time in college, Perkins first learned of progressive politics. She became interested in women’s suffrage as well. After graduation, she taught chemistry at an all-girls school in Lake Forest, Illinois. Perkins also volunteered at settlement houses, including Hull House, the famous institution founded by Jane Addams. In 1905, she changed her name from Fannie to Frances when she joined the Episcopal Church.
She was ambitious, recognizing that her path forward required additional formal education. In 1907, she enrolled at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to study economics. She worked as a social worker as well.
Perkins eventually moved to Greenwich Village and attended Columbia University, earning a master’s degree in economics and sociology in 1910. During those years, she became an active suffragette, often proselytizing for the cause on street corners. She became a strong advocate for better working conditions for the poor, especially women and children. When the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire on March 25, 1911, Perkins was a prominent lobbyist as with the New York office of the National Consumers League, seeking to improve working conditions as well as establish fewer hours in the standard day for the laboring classes. She arrived on the scene and witnessed the fire. One hundred and forty-six people perished, of whom 123 were women and girls. For the rest of her life, Perkins considered the tragedy as the pivotal event of her career.
She left her position as a lobbyist and, at Theodore Roosevelt’s suggestion, served as the executive secretary for the Committee on Safety of the City of New York, which was dedicated to improving fire safety. Perkins investigated a terrible fire at the Freeman plan in New York’s Binghamton plant, where 63 people died. She also helped to persuade the New York state legislature to enact a bill limiting the number of hours women and children could work in a week to 54. While she worked in that position, Perkins encountered a young Franklin D. Roosevelt. This relationship would prove to be crucial in her future career.
In 1913, Perkins married a New York economist, Paul Caldwell Wilson. She chose to retain her maiden name, which was unusual in that era. She and Paul had a daughter, Susanna, in December 1916. Both her husband and daughter manifested signs of mental illness later in life.
Perkins worked her way through the hierarchy of New York state government in the 1910s and 1920s. Governor Al Smith appointed her to the Industrial Commission of the State of New York. On the Industrial Commission, Perkins was one of three commissioners overseeing the industrial code. She was also the supervisor of both the Bureau of Information and Statistics as well as the Bureau of Mediation and Arbitration. During these years, she occasionally encountered biases from men who resented her appearance in the workplace. More than a few critics believed she was a dangerous radical because she would not take her husband’s name.
By 1929, Perkins’ relationship with Franklin Roosevelt paid dividends. That year, FDR became governor. He appointed Perkins to be the first New York state industrial commissioner. In this role, she supervised an agency of 1,800 employees. Perkins’ progressive sensibilities helped to make New York one of the most innovative states in the country. Her office expanded factory investigations, reduced the work week for women to 48 hours, and pushed through laws on minimum wage and unemployment insurance.
She was a Roosevelt partisan, her fortunes inextricably tied to his. Fortunately for her, he was an up-and-comer. In 1933, FDR was sworn in as the nation’s thirty-second president. He had been impressed with Frances Perkins, and he resolved to appoint her his secretary of labor.
Her nomination attracted support from the National League of Women Voters and various women’s organizations, but the American Federation of Labor voiced concerns about her lack of ties to labor. Nonetheless, the Senate confirmed Perkins to the cabinet. She served for the entirety of Roosevelt’s presidency—12 years—the longest tenure of any labor secretary as of this writing.
Perkins owed her longevity to her loyalty; she was fully committed to the president’s agenda. She helped to write New Deal legislation and was integral to the administration’s creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps and its female analogue, the She-She-She Camps. These programs employed single, destitute young people who had few other options during the Great Depression.
Her most notable contribution came when she assisted in drafting the Social Security Act of 1935, which established the Social Security program for elderly Americans. The act also established an unemployment insurance program administered by the states as well as the Aid to Dependent Children program to provide financial assistance to families headed by single mothers. Parts of the act were precursors to the Medicare and Medicaid programs of the 1960s.
Later in life, Perkins taught at various universities, including Cornell, and served on several government commissions. She also wrote a popular book about her long-standing association with Roosevelt. She died at age 85 on May 14, 1965.
Today Frances Perkins is remembered not only because she was the first female cabinet secretary, but because she was an exceptional public servant. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter renamed the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., after her. That same year, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a postage stamp in her honor. Later, her homes in Maine and Washington, D.C., were designated National Historic Landmarks.