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.
US Secretary of Labor