Frances Perkins Appointed Secretary of Labor, 1933

Happy Women’s History Month! To kick things off, today I will write about the first woman appointed to the United States Cabinet, Frances Perkins.

Perkins was born on April 10, 1882 in Boston and spent most of her childhood in Worcester, Massachusetts. Perkins attended college at Mount Holyoke where she studied physics and chemistry.  After that, she began to engage more in social work and earned a degree in sociology from Columbia University in 1910. The following year, she was witness to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, a devastating event in which 146 workers died. Perhaps the most tragic part of the fire was that these deaths could have been avoided with better working conditions. As a result, Perkins became a champion for workers’ rights. Years later, Perkins said that the New Deal itself had begun “in that terrible fire, on March 25th, 1911.”

Perkins was a part of the Factory Investigating Commission which was formed after the Triangle Fire. Perkins later said that the commission “made an investigation that took four years” and passed “laws the likes of which have never been seen in any four sessions of any state legislature.”  In 1919, Perkins was appointed to the Industrial Commission of the State of New York by Governor Al Smith, with whom she had previously worked for reformative legislation. In 1929, Franklin D. Roosevelt became governor of New York and appointed Perkins as the first Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor. Roosevelt was later elected president and on this day in 1933, he appointed Perkins as the Secretary of Labor.

Perkins played an integral role in the establishment of the New Deal programs under Roosevelt. In addition, Perkins helped reduce the 54-hour work week for women to 48 hours, promoted a minimum wage law, contributed to the creation of the Social Security system, fought for laws regulating child labor, and helped establish unemployment insurance.

As former Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz said, “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.”

Perkins served as Secretary of Labor until 1945, and then joined the U.S. Civil Service Commission. She stepped down from public service in 1952 after her husband died, and then started a teaching career at Cornell University. On May 14, 1965, Perkins passed away, leaving behind a legacy of progressive reform.

Finally, I highly recommend the book The Woman Behind the New Deal by Kirstin Downey (or here is an NPR review of the book which provides some insight into Perkins’ character). I feel like I can only summarize Perkins’ accomplishments, while this book illustrates how hard Perkins fought for the change she instilled. Her accomplishments are impressive in their own right, but Perkins also had to work extra hard simply to be taken seriously in many situations because of her gender. Learning about Perkin’s accomplishments is inspiring, but I believe learning about her struggles is even more so.

The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats.

-Frances Perkins,

US Secretary of Labor

Berthe Morisot, 1841

On this day in 1841, Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot was born in Bourges, France. Her father was a high-ranking government official and her grandfather was a Rococo painter.

Berthe Morisot With a Bouquet of Violets, Edoaurd Manet, 1872, via

At the time, upper-class women were under rigid social rules. They were encouraged to study the fine arts, such as painting, which could be practiced with other women, but were not encouraged to become famous painters or sell their art in shows. Despite their traditional upbringing, Morisot and her sister Edma moved to Paris to study and copy paintings at the Louvre in the late 1950s under Joseph Guichard. They also studied with Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, a landscape painter for several years. Corisot encouraged Morisot to paint en plein air, or “outdoors.”

At one point, Corot wrote in a letter to the Morisot sisters’ mother, “With characters like your daughters, my teaching will make them painters, not minor amateur talents. Do you really understand what that means? In the world of the grande bourgeoisie in which you move, it would be a revolution. I would even say a catastrophe.”

Sure enough, Morisot exhibited her work for the first time in the prestigious show, the Salon, in 1864. The Salon was the official show of the state-run organization the Academie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts) in Paris.

Vue du petit port de Lorient (The Harbor at Lorient), 1869, via

Over the years, Morisot’s paintings became more Impressionistic. Impressionism is a painting style that originated in France in the 19th century. It focuses on natural light, features bold colors, and utilizes short, visible brush strokes. This style of painting was revolutionary at the time because it rejected the conventional painting style, which was very detailed and realistic. Impressionism, on the other hand, gave more of an “impression” of a scene than a painstakingly detailed depiction. Furthermore, Impressionist painters often depicted “snapshots” of daily life such as dreamy landscapes or scenes from domestic life. Because Impressionism was unconventional, many Impressionist painters were rejected from showing in the Salon.

In 1868, Morisot met Impressionist artist Edouard Manet, with whom she had a lasting friendship. Morisot became even more involved in the Impressionist community, marrying Manet’s brother, Eugene, in 1874 and becoming friends with other influential Impressionist painters such as Edgar Degas and Frederic Bazille.

Le Berceau (The Cradle), 1872, was shown at the first Impressionist exhibition, via

Morisot had a regular spot in the Salon, but in 1874, she chose to exhibit her work at the first independent Impressionist show instead. She continued to show her work in every show except for 1877 when she was pregnant with her daughter Julie. After Julie’s birth, she soon became Morisot’s favorite subject.

Julie Rêveuse (Julie Daydreaming), 1894, via

Although Morisot’s style was modern for the time, she enjoyed the support of many critics during her lifetime. Here is Charles Ephrussi’s beautiful description of Morisot’s work from the Gazette des Beaux-Arts:

Berthe Morisot is very French in her distinction, elegance, gaiety and nonchalance. She loves painting that is joyous and lively; she grinds flower petals onto her palette, in order to spread them later on her canvas with airy, witty touches, thrown down a little haphazardly. These harmonise, blend, and finish by producing something vital, fine, and charming.

Eugene Manet died in 1892, and Morisot continued to paint. While never attaining commercial success during her lifetime, she outsold many of her contemporaries including Monet and Renoir, had a solo exhibition in 1892, and had one of her paintings purchased by the government in 1894.

Morisot died from pneumonia on March 2, 1895 at the age of 54.

Psyché, 1876, via 

I’m fascinated by Morisot, because she not only broke the rules of conventional French painting, she also broke expectations for her gender by pursuing a career in painting.

I love learning about French art movements. In fact, one of my first posts was about Rene Magritte, my favorite surrealist painter.

Thanks for reading!



Simone de Beauvoir, 1908

On this day in 1908, Simone Lucie-Ernestine-Marie-Bertrand de Beauvoir- or Simone de Beauvoir as she was later known- was born in Paris, France. De Beauvoir was a writer, feminist, intellectual, political activist, and existentialist philosopher, best known for her feminist text, Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex), which was about the oppression of women throughout history.

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir was raised Catholic but later became an atheist and existentialist. At 21 years old, de Beauvoir went to the Sorbonne to study philosophy. In 1929, she graduated from the Sorbonne and met French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she had a lifelong relationship. The two never married because de Beauvoir did not agree with the social institution of marriage.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, 1963

Influenced by World War II, de Beauvoir became interested in the social and political issues of her age. Along with Sartre and a few of their contemporaries, she founded and edited Les Temps Modernes, a left-wing political journal, in 1945. In 1946, she published The Ethics of Ambiguity (Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté), an essay about existential ethics.

In 1949, she published The Second Sex in France, a feminist treatise so controversial it was banned by the Vatican. One of her most famous quotes from the work is:

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

The unabridged English translation of Le Deuxieme Sexe by Simone de Beauvoir.

De Beauvoir died in April 14, 1986 in Paris and shares a grave with partner Jean-Paul Sartre, who died six years before.

Simone de Beauvoir


National Women’s Rights Convention, 1850

Because I haven’t talked enough about women’s rights or the lovely state of Massachusetts, I decided to write about an event that combines the two subjects!

Brinley Hall

Today in 1850, the first National Women’s Rights Convention was held at Brinley Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts.

At the convention, there were representatives from eleven states including the newly admitted state of California. Among the 1000 plus guests were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Lucretia Mott, true rockstars in my book.

Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lucy Stone helped organize the convention. On the final evening of the convention, Stone gave a speech that Susan B. Anthony later said converted her to to the cause of women’s rights.

That’s right.

Stone delivered a speech so moving, so epic, that she inspired Susan B. Anthony to become one of the most famous- if not the most famous- suffragettes in the country! Let’s all take a moment to let that sink in.

lucy stone

Curious as to what Stone said in her speech? Here’s an excerpt:

We want to be something more than the appendages of Society; we want that Woman should be the coequal and help-meet of Man in all the interest and perils and enjoyments of human life. We want that she should attain to the development of her nature and womanhood; we want that when she dies, it may not be written on her gravestone that she was the ‘relict’ of somebody.

-Lucy Stone

If I had a time machine and could go back in time to witness any event in history, this might be the one I would choose because many of the most famous figures in abolition and women’s rights (in America) were there.

Marie Antoinette Executed, 1793

On this day in 1793, Marie Antoinette was guillotined for treason.

Portrait of Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun

Marie Antoinette was the archduchess of Austria, and she married future king Louis XVI in a diplomatic marriage. She was well-liked at first, though her and Louis’ inability to consummate their marriage for eight years was criticized. She soon began to build up a reputation for her court’s opulence and her affairs with other men.

This is Marie Antoinette at 12 years old. At age 10, her mother arranged for her to marry Louis XVI. At 15, she married Louis and became Dauphine of France.


As a queen, the French hated her. She was accused of representing Austrian interests above French interests. Furthermore, Marie Antoinette became known as “Madame Deficit” for her reckless spending, and she was blamed for the country’s economic ruin. Her reputation was further tainted by stories such as her conspiring to steal a diamond necklace (false) and her declaring, “Let them eat cake!” when told that peasants were starving from lack of bread (also false).

At 20 years old, Marie Antoinette had just become Queen of France after the death of Louis XV.

The French Revolution began in 1789, and because Marie Antoinette was accused of forcing Louis XVI to refuse every revolutionary’s decision, she was nicknamed “Madame Veto” (apparently, the French only had one joke back then).

After a change of power, the National Convention was in control of France. King Louis XVI was executed in January of 1793. Marie Antoinette was tried on October 14 of the same year and found guilty of treason. She was executed by the guillotine on October 16.

It is said that Marie Antoinette faced her execution with dignity and poise. Her last words were supposedly, “Monsieur, I beg your pardon” after she stepped on the executioner’s foot.

Executioner Henri Sanson guillotining Marie Antoinette.

The Nineteenth Amendment, 1920

Although I’m one year away from America’s voting age, I am so excited to cast my first presidential vote in 2016! The freedom to vote has always been a reality for me, but this has not always been the case for women.

Since the early 19th century, women (and men) in favor of suffrage have campaigned for an amendment to the United States Constitution allowing women to vote. What is now the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was first introduced to Congress in 1878. The amendment was ratified in 1920, meaning it took 42 long years to be realized! President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to support the amendment in 1917 was a game-changer for the women’s suffrage movement.

Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919. However, it wasn’t until August 18, 1920 that three-fourths of the states agreed to the amendment (a requirement for ratification). On this day in 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, thus sending the amendment into effect.

Early women voters at Pitt. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

And to think this was all less than a century ago!

Further reading: Here is some info about suffragist Lucretia Mott

When I read about how hard the suffragettes fought for the freedom to vote, it makes me want to never take for granted  my right to vote. What about you?

Coco Chanel, 1883

A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.
-Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel (née Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel) was born on this day in 1883– or 1893 as Chanel later claimed– in Saumur, France.

This style icon known for luxury had a very unfortunate childhood. Her mother died when she was very young. Consequently, her father, who made his living as a peddler, sent her to an orphanage where she learned how to sew.

Before she became a designer, however, she was a singer who became known by her nickname, “Coco.” In her 20s, Chanel was in a relationship with Etienne Balsan, and then his friend, Arthur “Boy” Capel. Her relationships with these men helped give Chanel her start in fashion.

Chanel claims the turning point in her career was when she fashioned a dress out of jersey on a cold day. Jersey had been previously used primarily for men’s fashion. However, Chanel’s jersey dress piqued the interest of many women who asked her where she got the dress. Since then, Chanel has been known for her chic, simple, and comfortable designs that have revolutionized fashion by incorporating elements from menswear. And one cannot forget her famous perfume “Chanel No. 5” which is still popular today.

Chanel was born into poverty, but overcame it through her creativity and connections. Although rags-to-riches stories are popular today, Chanel lied about her past because of her era’s stigma of poverty.

Coco Chanel was no doubt a talented and iconic designer, but many people tend to glorify her and overlook the fact that she was a Nazi sympathizer. That’s right. During World War II, Chanel became involved with a Nazi officer. She lost a lot of face for this, as her relationship was seen as a betrayal of France (part of France was, of course, occupied by Germany at the time). She had already shut down her business due to the depression and outbreak of war, but fled to Switzerland for a couple of years as a sort of self-imposed exile.

Chanel returned to fashion in the 70s and eventually achieved great success. And the rest, as they say, is history.


Further reading:

Did you know that Chanel was a Nazi sympathizer or that she was born into poverty? Do you wear Chanel?