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At a time when few women achieved prominence in national politics, Frances Perkins distinguished herself as a public official, a respected labor and industry expert, and an adviser to the president of the United States. When Perkins was named secretary of labor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, she became the first woman in U.S. history to hold a cabinet post. Perkins used her position to help launch the sweeping social and economic reforms of the New Deal.
Perkins was born April 10, 1880, in Boston, and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts. After graduating from Worcester Classical High School, Perkins attended Mount Holyoke College, where she studied physics and chemistry and was class president. As a senior at Mount Holyoke, Perkins was influenced by Jacob A. Riis's 1890 book How the Other Half Lives and by a speech given by Florence Kelley, the general secretary of the National Consumers League. Perkins's growing awareness of the plight of underprivileged U.S. citizens would lead to her life's work as a labor activist. After graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1902, Perkins pursued further studies in economics and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. She earned a master's degree from Columbia in 1910.
After graduate school, Perkins briefly taught biology and physics in a school in Lake Forest, Illinois. In her off-hours, she volunteered at Jane Addams's Hull House, in nearby Chicago, and at other settlement houses. There, Perkins witnessed the poverty and wretched working conditions endured by thousands of U.S. citizens. Determined to help improve the plight of workers, she returned to New York City to work as a lobbyist with her mentor, Kelley, at the New York Consumers League.
Perkins's task was formidable. Throughout the early twentieth century, U.S. businesses were unregulated: workers in sweatshops worked long hours for low pay in unsafe working conditions. There were no building codes to ensure the employees' safety, no regular inspections of equipment and machinery, and no limit to the number of hours employees could work. Children routinely were employed in factories, mills, and mines under the most miserable conditions. Some women worked nineteen hours a day with their children by their side.
An industrial tragedy heightened Perkins's resolve to force changes in the workplace. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, in New York City. Perkins happened to be in the neighborhood and watched as employees trapped on the top three floors of the burning ten-story building jumped
from windows to their death. The door to the only stairway in the building had been locked by employers, to halt break-ins. One hundred workers perished inside the building, and forty-seven jumped or fell to their death. The owners of the company were later absolved of criminal negligence for the disaster and collected $64,925 in property damage insurance.
In the fire's aftermath, the New York State Factory Commission was created, with Perkins named as chief investigator. She also became a member of the Committee on Safety of the City of New York and lobbied hard for legislation to make the workplace safer. She toured the state with Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner and documented the deplorable conditions faced by workers. An exhaustive investigation led to new laws to protect the labor force.
A major success for Perkins was the passage of a bill by the New York Legislature to limit the workweek to fifty-four hours for women and children. The bill was vigorously opposed by the employers of the four hundred thousand female factory workers throughout the state. While lobbying for the bill, Perkins became acquainted with Roosevelt, who was a New York state senator. Although Roosevelt's support of the fifty-four-hour bill was lukewarm, Perkins developed a professional relationship with him that grew stronger as Roosevelt's views on labor and government began to mirror her own.
In 1913 Perkins married Paul Caldwell Wilson and rejected prevailing social convention by retaining her maiden name for professional purposes. In 1918 she was appointed to the New York State Industrial Commission.
Perkins's work with Roosevelt in New York led to a position in the federal government. When Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he asked Perkins to become secretary of labor. Although she argued that a female trade unionist should be nominated for the post, she eventually accepted the position. Perkins became the only cabinet member to serve during all four of Roosevelt's terms of office.
When Roosevelt took office, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. About a third of the nation's workforce was unemployed. As labor secretary, Perkins helped shape the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C.A. § 301 et seq.), a key component of Roosevelt's New Deal. Passed by the U.S. Congress in 1935, the act allowed qualified workers in commerce and
industry to collect old-age, survivors, and disability insurance benefits. The new program required employers and employees to make contributions to a federal pension fund for aged and disabled persons. In this way, workers and their families were financially protected in the event of unemployment, old age, or the death of a wage earner. Although critics likened the plan to socialism, Social Security became a successful federal entitlement program.
Perkins also helped develop the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (29 U.S.C.A. § 201 et seq.), which limited the number of hours employees could work for minimum wage. The law also placed restrictions on child labor. It prohibited children under sixteen years of age from working in most jobs, and made hazardous occupations unavailable to workers under eighteen years of age. The Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department was also established by the act.
After Roosevelt's death in 1945, Perkins served briefly in the administration of President Harry S. Truman. She left Truman's cabinet to serve on the U.S. Civil Service Commission from 1946 to 1952. Perkins then taught courses at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She died in New York City on May 14, 1965, at the age of eighty-five.
Pasachoff, Naomi. 1999. Frances Perkins: Champion of the New Deal. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Pirro, Jeanine Ferris. 1999. "Reforming the Urban Workplace: The Legacy of Frances Perkins." Fordham Urban Law Journal 26 (May).
Whitney, Sharon, and Tom Raynor. 1986. Women in Politics. New York: Franklin Watts.