–by Joanna Hallac
To further commemorate Women’s History Month, it is always nice to look at some of the “firsts,” those brave women who broke through the glass ceiling to allow women like me to live the life I am living today. One of these extraordinary women was Frances Perkins. Perkins never served in Congress, but she was the first woman to serve in a cabinet position, which means her appointment needed and received Senate approval, not to mention the fact that she helped guide through Congress some of the most important and historic legislation to be passed in both the New Deal era and in American history. So, join us as we take a break from only looking at those who served in the Congress and examine the life of one of the greatest American women to ever serve in government.
Born Fannie Coralie Perkins on April 10, 1880 in Boston, Massachusetts—Perkins would legally change her first name to Frances in 1913—Perkins was raised in the suburb of Worcester and had parents who were very supportive of her education, something she pursued avidly. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College, Perkins would spend the next five years teaching in and around the Chicago area, spending her free time at the famous Hull House and other settlement houses in the area (Hull House was started by Jane Addams where newly arrived European immigrants could stay and take classes that would help them get work and get acclimated to America; it was a vehicle for social reform modeled on Toynbee Hall in London). Perkins would later head to New York to attend Columbia University where she earned her Master’s degree in economics and sociology in 1910 (she would also spend time at Wharton studying economics and sociology in 1918-1919).
In 1911, Perkins, still living and working in New York, would witness an event that would both haunt her and fuel her throughout the remainder of her career. On March 25, 1911, the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took place, and Perkins, who was nearby when someone relayed news of the fire that was taking place, rushed over to the scene on the lower east side of Manhattan; what she witnessed horrified her. The factory employed mostly young Eastern European Jewish immigrant girls; the factory owners, to prevent workers from slipping out for breaks during the long and grueling work days, began locking the factory doors every day. When a cigarette that someone apparently put out on the factory floor sparked a fire on that day, most of the workers were trapped inside, left to either burn to death or, to the horror of those witnessing the event, choosing to leap out of the windows of the building to their death rather than stay trapped in the burning, smoke-filled factory—in all, 146 people perished in the fire. Having witnessed this horrific event and subsequently learning of the conditions in the factory that led to this tragedy, Perkins was driven to fight for the rights of workers to have safe working conditions and to organize, a path that would catapult her first to local government work and then to becoming the first female cabinet secretary.
Following the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Perkins would serve as the secretary of the New York City Committee on Safety, where she helped to pass an unprecedented 36 new state labor laws aimed at protecting the welfare of workers. From there, she would campaign for Al Smith in his New York gubernatorial bid, which led Smith to appoint Perkins to the state industrial commission. Her relationship with FDR began during his tenure as the governor of New York, when in 1929 he appointed Perkins the state industrial commissioner. Finally, once FDR won the presidency in 1932, he rewarded her incredible efforts on behalf of workers with her appointment to serve as the Secretary of Labor in his administration, making Perkins the first woman to ever serve as a cabinet secretary. In her role as the head of the Department of Labor, Perkins would oversee much of the New Deal’s most important legislation, including the National Labor Relations Act or Wagner Act in 1935, as well as essentially being the architect of the Social Security Act in 1935, which FDR called the “cornerstone of his administration.”
Frances Perkins resigned from her post as Secretary of Labor in 1945 after overseeing landmark legislation that would most significantly impact the lives of America’s working class by helping to eliminate child labor, establish the minimum wage, making the right to collectively bargain a legal right, and limiting the hours and regulating the conditions for all of the country’s workers. She would continue on to lecture at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations until her death in 1965. Perkins’ legacy is one of fighting for working class Americans and her achievements are almost unmatched by subsequent any other labor secretary. There is simply no doubt about the positive impact that Frances Perkins had upon millions of Americans over the generations since the Great Depression, and her legacy will continue to impact generations more in the future.
Frances Perkins Center website
Columbia University Libraries Oral History Research Office
Social Security Online