Frances Perkins’s Labor Legacy

Ground Floor of Dwight Hall
February 28th - March 31st

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that took place in New York City on March 25th and in celebration of Women’s History Month in March and, Mount Holyoke College’s Archives and Special Collections has assembled an exhibition of  items from its Frances Perkins Papers collection. Perkins, a graduate of the class of 1902, witnessed the horrific fire and dedicated her life to social reforms including labor standards. In 1933 Perkins was appointed Labor Secretary under President Roosevelt.

Exhibited are photographs, articles, and press releases that pay tribute to this remarkable Mount Holyoke College woman. Included are excerpts from an oral history conducted with Perkins that shares her memories of the horrific 1911 factory fire and her involvement with the investigative body. Also on display, is a photograph of Perkins standing with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he signs the 1935 Social Security Act into law, as well as other items which serve as evidence of her lasting legacy as Labor Secretary.

Being Fannie Corelie

Frances Perkins was born April 10, 1880 in Boston, Massachusetts and christened with the name Fannie Corelie. She attended Mount Holyoke College and graduated in 1902 majoring in Chemistry and Physics.

Perkins began to serve the public upon graduation, working as a teacher in Massachusetts and Illinois and volunteering with social organizations and settlement houses like Hull House.

Returning the East coast in 1909, Perkins pursued a graduate degree in Economic and Sociology from Columbia University. It was after completing this degree that in 1911 Perkins witnesses an event that would encourage her to devote her life to public service:

“It was a most horrible spectacle”: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On March 25, 1911, Perkins was having tea with a friend of hers when they heard sirens race by the house. Following the sirens as Perkins recalls in an oral history “Without saying much of anything, we all went down the steps and just went toward the fire. It was just about that time that they began to jump. It was the most horrible sight. The firemen were in great confusion. Of course you couldn't get into fire lines... The firemen appeared to be shouting to them not to jump.” 146 factory workers died as a result of the fire and inadequate safety standards. Most of the victims were young, immigrant women and girls.

This event led Perkins to serve on the New York State Factory Investigating Commission to reform industrial regulations for workers.

Serving in FDR’s Cabinet

Perkins’s years of public service culminated in her appointment to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cabinet in 1933 as Labor Secretary. Among many other victories, Perkins witnessed the signing of the 1935 Social Security Act providing much needed aid to economically depressed Americans.

Serving Mount Holyoke College

During her time as Labor Secretary and continuing until 1944, Perkins also gave back to her alma mater. Serving on the Board of Trustees, Perkins once again became a part of the College’s active community.


Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor, poses with Honoree Dr. Arnold Wolfers and President Mary E. Woolley on Founder's Day.  November 8, 1934.

A Lasting Legacy

In 1956 Perkins lent her many years of experience in public service holding a professorship at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Today, the Frances Perkins Center, is an organization dedicated to the history of Frances Perkins' career and the New Deal era, to remembering and carrying on her work on New Deal programs, and to interpreting her vision for a healthy and productive workforce at her family homestead in Newcastle, Maine.