How reformer Frances Perkins found her calling.

Frances Perkins, a key champion of the New Deal, watches President Roosevelt sign the Social Security Act. Photo MHC Archives

A new article in the Atlantic chronicles how Frances Perkins—the 1902 Mount Holyoke College graduate who became the first female U.S. cabinet member—turned what had been a career into a vocation.

According to author and commentator David Brooks, the deciding moment was when Perkins witnessed the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, one of the nation's worst industrial tragedies. Seeing dozens of people leaping from the burning skyscraper to their deaths galvanized Perkins to redouble her efforts helping poor and working people.

Spurred, according to Brooks, by the moral indignation the Shirtwaist fire ignited, Perkins braved the overwhelmingly male world of politics and started making her mark on regional and then national policies.

Brooks traces her trajectory from a job on the New York State Industrial Commission to her role, while U.S. secretary of labor, as tireless champion of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Brooks, a conservative, and Perkins, a progressive in her time, might seem an odd pairing, but he praises her selfless commitment to a cause.

"You don’t ask, ‘What do I want from life?’ " Brooks writes. "You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do? Your job is to figure certain things out," he continued. "What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, 'At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?' "

Watch related video: In this excerpt from David Brooks's talk at the Council of Independent Colleges' 2014 Presidents Institute, the New York Times columnist praises Frances Perkins as a moral champion who was transformed by her Mount Holyoke College experience.

—By Emily Harrison Weir

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