Who is Frances Perkins?
The first female Cabinet member in the nation's history, Frances Perkins was a woman who was not afraid to go wherever she was needed in order to accomplish great things. Long before women's liberation was a part of our vocabulary, Frances was a trailblazer for generations of women who would follow her. Always an example of dignity and integrity, this remarkable woman tussled with politicians, industrial management, and labor leaders in her capacity as Secretary of Labor, fighting for the rights of working people everywhere.
Frances' life changed forever as the result of an economic history course that she took while she was an undergraduate student at Mount Holyoke College. Frances' class toured factories in the nearby city of Holyoke and Frances was appalled by the working conditions she saw there. This experience awakened a concern for the lives of working people which led Frances to pursue graduate studies in economics and sociology at Columbia University. Frances went on from Mount Holyoke College to earn an M.A. degree from Columbia upon winning a fellowship from the Russell Sage Foundation.
Before completing her master's work Frances volunteered at social service agencies in Philadelphia and settlement houses in Chicago. After she moved to New York to complete her graduate studies, Frances witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in 1911 in which 146 workers, many of whom were women and children, died needlessly because doors were locked in order to prevent employee theft, blocking the worker's escape. The image of women poised on window ledges with their hands folded in prayer, leaping to their deaths, solidified what would become a lifelong ambition within Frances to lobby for industrial reform. (Portrait of Frances Perkins 1902 graduation is courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Archives, copyright @ 2002.)
Frances worked with many powerful politicians during her career. After securing some professional social work experience, Frances was selected by Governor Al Smith as the first woman to serve on the New York State Industrial Commission. By the time Frances was appointed Secretary of Labor by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, she brought with her three decades of commitment to social reform, and the experience to back up that commitment. During her career in politics Frances helped change the 54 hour work week for women to 48 hours, fought for a minimum wage law, and helped draft the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Social Security Act.
Frances never allowed her gender to limit her horizons. Although we might think of Frances as revolutionary today, Frances herself had this to say about her role as a woman in history: "You might say," she cryptically suggested to an interviewer once, "that I happened to be a woman, born in my own time." In fact, before she left her position as Secretary of Labor, Frances had indeed become the "best man in the Cabinet."
The crowning achievements of her life and career are succinctly summed up by former Secretary of Labor, Willard Wirtz, who pays tribute to Frances in this statement: "Every man and woman who works at a living wage, under safe conditions, for reasonable hours, or who is protected by unemployment insurance or social security, is her debtor."
This illustrious Mount Holyoke College alumna, who died in 1965, has been the object of numerous posthumous awards and honors. The United States Postal Service created a 15 cent stamp in April of 1980 with her image. That same year, the U.S. Department of Labor headquarters in Washington, D.C. dedicated their building as the Frances Perkins Building. Frances has also been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and the Labor Hall of Fame. At Mount Holyoke College, women over the age of 24 are able to pursue their education thanks to the Frances Perkins Program, also created in 1980 in honor of this remarkable woman.
Signing of the Social Security Act 1935
More information about Frances Perkins can be found in the collection of her papers which are kept in the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections.
Papers ca. 1884-1965
Manuscript Collection: MS 063
Written by Linda Benoit, FP 2000