Frances Perkins: The First Woman to Serve in a Presidential Cabinet

An instrumental figure in the New Deal and the Social Security Act

Photograph of Frances Perkins at her desk
Frances Perkins in 1932.

 Bettmann/Getty Images

Frances Perkins (April 10, 1880 — May 14, 1965) became the first woman to serve in a president's cabinet when she was appointed the Secretary of Labor by Franklin D. Roosevelt. She played a prominent public role throughout Roosevelt's 12-year presidency and was instrumental in shaping New Deal policies and major pieces of legislation such as the Social Security Act.

Early Life and Education

Fannie Coralie Perkins (she would later adopt the first name Frances) was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 10, 1880. Her family could trace its roots back to settlers in the 1620s. When she was a child, Perkins' father moved the family to Worcester, Massachusetts, where he operated a store that sold stationery. Her parents had little formal education, but her father, in particular, read widely and had educated himself about history and the law.

Perkins attended Worcester Classical High School, graduating in 1898. At some point in her teen years, she read How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, the reformer and pioneering photojournalist. Perkins would later cite the book as an inspiration for her life's work. She was accepted to Mount Holyoke College, though she was fearful of its rigorous standards. She had not considered herself to be very bright, but after working hard to pass a challenging chemistry class, she gained self-confidence.

As a senior at Mount Holyoke, Perkins took a course on American economic history. A field trip to local factories and mills was a requirement of the course. Witnessing firsthand the poor working conditions had a profound effect on Perkins. She realized that workers were being exploited by dangerous conditions, and came to see how injured workers could find themselves forced into a life of poverty.

Before leaving college, Perkins helped found a chapter of the National Consumers' League. The organization sought to improve working conditions by urging consumers not to purchase products manufactured in unsafe conditions. 

Career Beginnings

After graduation from Mount Holyoke in 1902, Perkins took teaching jobs in Massachusetts and lived with her family in Worcester. At one point, she rebelled against her family's wishes and traveled to New York City to visit an agency which dealt with helping the poor. She insisted on getting a job interview, but wasn't hired. The director of the organization thought she was naive and presumed that Perkins would be overwhelmed working among the urban poor.

After two unhappy years in Massachusetts after college, Perkins applied and was hired for a teaching job at Ferry Academy, a girls' boarding school in Chicago. Once settled in the city, she began visiting Hull House, a settlement house founded and led by noted social reformer Jane Addams. Perkins changed her name from Fannie to Frances and devoted all the time she could to her work at Hull House.

After three years in Illinois, Perkins took a job in Philadelphia for an organization that researched social conditions faced by young women and African Americans working in the city's factories.

Then, in 1909, Perkins earned a scholarship to attend graduate school at Columbia University in New York City. In 1910, she completed her masters thesis: an investigation of undernourished children attending a school in Hell's Kitchen. While completing her thesis, she began working for the New York office of the Consumers' League and became active in campaigns to improve working conditions for the city's poor.

Political Awakening

On March 25, 1911, a Saturday afternoon, Perkins was attending a tea at a friend's apartment on Washington Square in New York's Greenwich Village. The sounds of a terrible commotion reached the apartment, and Perkins raced a few blocks to the Asch Building on Washington Place.

A fire had broken out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a clothing sweatshop that employed mostly young immigrant women. Doors kept locked to prevent workers from taking a break trapped the victims on the 11th floor, where ladders of the fire department couldn't reach them.

Frances Perkins, in the crowd on a nearby sidewalk, witnessed the horrible spectacle of young women falling to their deaths to escape the flames. The conditions in the factory cost 145 lives. Most of the victims were young working class and immigrant women.

The New York State Factory Investigation Commission was formed within months of the tragedy. Frances Perkins was hired as an investigator for the commission, and she was soon leading inspections of factories and reporting on safety and health conditions. The job was aligned with her career goal, and it brought her into a working relationship with Al Smith, a New York City assemblyman who served as the vice-chair of the commission. Smith would later become governor of New York and eventually the Democratic nominee for president in 1928.

Political Focus

In 1913, Perkins married Paul Caldwell Wilson, who worked in the office of the mayor of New York City. She kept her last name, partly because she was often giving speeches advocating better conditions for workers and she didn't want to risk that her husband would be embarrassed. She had a child that died in 1915, but a year later gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Perkins assumed she would ease away from her work life and devote herself to being a wife and mother, perhaps volunteering for various causes.

Perkins' plan to withdraw from public service changed for two reasons. First, her husband began to suffer bouts of mental illness, and she felt compelled to stay employed. Second, Al Smith, who had become a friend, was elected governor of New York in 1918. It seemed to Smith that women would soon get the vote, and it was a good time to hire a woman for a substantial role in the state government. Smith appointed Perkins to the industrial commission of the New York State Department of Labor. 

While working for Smith, Perkins became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, and her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt. As Roosevelt was recuperating after contracting polio, Perkins helped him keep in touch with labor leaders and began to advise him on the issues.

Appointed by Roosevelt

After Roosevelt was elected governor of New York, he appointed Perkins to head the New York State Department of Labor. Perkins was actually the second woman to be in a New York governor's cabinet (in Al Smith's administration, Florence Knapp had served briefly as secretary of state). The New York Times noted that Perkins was being promoted by Roosevelt as he believed she had "made a very fine record" in her post in the state government.

During Roosevelt's term as governor, Perkins became nationally known as an authority on laws and regulations governing labor and business. When an economic boom ended and the Great Depression began in late 1929, less than a year into Roosevelt's term as governor, Perkins faced a startling new reality. She immediately began making plans for the future. She took actions to deal with the impact of the Depression in New York State, and she and Roosevelt essentially prepared for how they could take action on a national stage.

After Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he appointed Perkins to be the nation's secretary of labor, and she became the first woman to serve in a president's cabinet. 

Role in The New Deal

Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, stating Americans had "nothing to fear but fear itself." The Roosevelt administration immediately went into action to battle the effects of the Great Depression.

Perkins led the effort to institute unemployment insurance. She also pushed for higher wages for workers as a measure to stimulate the economy. One of her first major actions was to oversee the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which became known as the CCC. The organization took young unemployed men and put them to work on conservation projects throughout the nation.

Frances Perkins' greatest achievement is generally considered her work devising the plan that became the Social Security Act. There was great opposition in the country to the idea of social insurance, but the act successfully passed through Congress and was signed into law by Roosevelt in 1935.

Decades later, in 1962, Perkins gave a speech titled "The Roots of Social Security" in which she detailed the struggle:

"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."

In addition to her work shaping legislation, Perkins was at the center of labor disputes. In an era when the labor movement was approaching its peak of power, and strikes were often in the news, Perkins became extremely active in her role as labor secretary.

Impeachment Threat

In 1939, conservative members of Congress, including Martin Dies, the leader of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, launched a crusade against her. She had prevented the speedy deportation of an Australian-born leader of the West Coast longshoreman's union, Harry Bridges. He had been accused of being a communist. By extension, Perkins was accused of communist sympathies.

Members of Congress moved to impeach Perkins in January 1939, and hearings were held to decide whether impeachment charges were warranted. Ultimately, Perkins' career withstood the challenge, but it was a painful episode. (While the tactic of deporting labor leaders had been used before, evidence against Bridges fell apart during a trial and he remained in the United States.)

Outbreak of World War II

On December 7, 1941, Perkins was in New York City when she was told to return to Washington immediately. She attended a cabinet meeting that night at which Roosevelt told his administration about the severity of the attack on Pearl Harbor

At the beginning of World War II, American industry was transitioning from producing consumer goods to the material of war. Perkins continued as secretary of labor, but her role was not as prominent as it had been previously. Some of her major goals, such as a national health insurance program, were abandoned. Roosevelt felt he could no longer spend political capital on domestic programs.

Perkins, exhausted by her long tenure in the administration, and feeling that any further goals were unattainable, planned to leave the administration by 1944. But Roosevelt asked her to stay after the election of 1944. When he won a fourth term, she continued on at the Labor Department.

On April 12, 1945, a Sunday afternoon, Perkins was at home in Washington when she received an urgent call to go to the White House. Upon arrival, she was informed of President Roosevelt's death. She became determined to leave government, but continued in a transition period and stayed in the Truman administration for a few months, until July 1945.

Later Career and Legacy

President Harry Truman later asked Perkins to return to government. She took a post as one of three civil service commissioners overseeing the federal workforce. She continued in that job until the end of the Truman administration.

Following her long career in government, Perkins remained active. She taught at Cornell University, and often spoke about government and labor topics. In 1946, she published a book, The Roosevelt I Knew, which was a generally positive memoir of working with the late president. However, she never published a full account of her own life.

In the spring of 1965, at age 85, her health began to fail. She died on May 14, 1965 in New York City. Notable political figures, including President Lyndon Johnson, issued tributes to her and to her work that helped bring America back from the depths of the Great Depression.

France Perkins Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Fannie Coralie Perkins
  • Known As: Frances Perkins
  • Known For: First woman in a president's cabinet; major figure in the passage of Social Security; trusted and valued adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  • Born: April 10,1880 in Boston, Massachusetts.
  • Died: May 14,1965 in New York, New York
  • Spouse's Name: Paul Caldwell Wilson
  • Child's Name: Susana Perkins Wilson

Sources

  • "Frances Perkins." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 12, Gale, 2004, pp. 221-222. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Perkins, Frances." Great Depression and the New Deal Reference Library, edited by Allison McNeill, et al., vol. 2: Biographies, UXL, 2003, pp. 156-167. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Perkins, Frances." American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., vol. 5: 1940-1949, Gale, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Downey, Kirstin. The Woman Behind the New Deal. Doubleday, 2009.