Frances Perkins: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Frances Perkins

In office
March 4, 1933 – June 30, 1945
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Harry S. Truman
Preceded by William N. Doak
Succeeded by Lewis B. Schwellenbach

Born April 10, 1880(1880-04-10)
Boston, Massachusetts
Died May 14, 1965 (aged 85)
New York
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Paul Caldwell Wilson
Alma mater Mount Holyoke College
Columbia University

Frances Perkins (born Fannie Coralie Davies, (April 10, 1880[1] – May 14, 1965) was the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. As a loyal supporter of her friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt, she helped pull the labor movement into the New Deal coalition. She and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes were the only original members of the Roosevelt cabinet who remained in offices for his entire presidency.

During her term as Secretary of Labor, Perkins championed many aspects of the New Deal, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and its successor the Federal Works Agency, and the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act. With The Social Security Act she established unemployment benefits, pensions for the many uncovered elderly Americans, and welfare for the poorest Americans. She pushed to reduce workplace accidents and helped craft laws against child labor. Through the Fair Labor Standards Act, she established the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers, and defined the standard 40-hour work week. She formed governmental policy for working with labor unions and helped to alleviate strikes by way of the United States Conciliation Service, Perkins resisted having American women be drafted to serve the military in World War II so that they could enter the civilian workforce in greatly expanded numbers.[2]



Perkins was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Susan Bean Perkins and Frederick W. Perkins, the owner of a stationer's business (both of her parents originally were from Maine).[3] She spent much of her childhood in Worcester. She was christened Fannie Coralie Perkins, but later changed her name to Frances.[4]

Perkins attended Worcester's Classical High School and was graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a BA degree in 1902, and from Columbia University with a master's degree in sociology in 1910. In the interim, she held a variety of teaching positions including a position teaching chemistry from 1904-06 at Ferry Hall School, now Lake Forest Academy, in Lake Forest, Illinois. In Chicago, she volunteered at settlement houses, including Hull House.

She achieved statewide prominence as head of the New York Consumers League in 1910 and in that position she lobbied with vigor for better working hours and conditions. The next year, she witnessed the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a pivotal event in her life.

Frances Perkins married Paul Caldwell Wilson in 1913. She kept her birth name, defending her right to do so in court. Prior to going to Washington D.C., Perkins held various positions in New York State government. In 1918, Perkins accepted Governor Al Smith's offer to join the New York State Industrial Commission, becoming its first female member. She became chairwoman of the commission in 1926.

In 1929 the newly-elected New York governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, appointed Perkins as the state industrial commissioner. Having earned the cooperation and respect of various political factions, Perkins ably helped put New York in the forefront of progressive reform. She expanded factory investigations, reduced the workweek for women to 48 hours, and championed minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws.

In 1933 Roosevelt appointed Perkins as Secretary of the Department of Labor, a position she held for twelve years, longer than any other Secretary of Labor. She became the first woman to hold a cabinet position in the United States and thus, became the first woman to enter the presidential line of succession.

With few exceptions, President Roosevelt consistently supported the goals and programs of Secretary Perkins. In an administration filled with compromise, the president's support for the agenda of Frances Perkins was unusually constant.

Frances Perkins wearing a veil following the death of President Roosevelt.

As Secretary of Labor, Perkins played a key role in the cabinet by writing New Deal legislation, including minimum-wage laws. Her most important contribution, however, came in 1934 as chairwoman of the President's Committee on Economic Security. In this post, she was involved in all aspects of the reports and hearings that ultimately resulted in the Social Security Act of 1935.

In 1939, she came under fire from some members of congress for refusing to deport the Communist head of the west coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Harry Bridges. Ultimately, Bridges was vindicated by the Supreme Court.

Al Smith, a machine politician from the old school, was an early social reformer with whom Frances Perkins made common cause. At Smith's funeral in 1944 two of his former Tammany Hall political cronies were overheard to speculate on why Smith had become a social crusader. One of them summed the matter up this way: "I'll tell you. Al Smith read a book. That book was a person, and her name was Frances Perkins. She told him all these things, and he believed her."

Following her tenure as Secretary of Labor, in 1945 Perkins was asked by President Harry Truman to serve on the United States Civil Service Commission, which she did until 1952, when her husband died and she resigned from federal service. During this period, she also published a memoir of her time in FDR's administration called The Roosevelt I Knew, which offered a sympathetic view of the president.

Following her government service career, Perkins remained active as a teacher and lecturer at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University until her death in 1965 at age 85.

The building that is the headquarters of the United States Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. is named in her honor.


Frances Perkins, the first female member of the Presidential cabinet, had an unenviable challenge: she had to be as capable, as fearless, as tactful, as politically astute as the other Washington politicians, in order to make it possible for other women to be accepted into the halls of power after her.[5]

Perkins would have been famous simply by being the first woman cabinet member, but her legacy stems from her accomplishments. She was largely responsible for the U.S. adoption of social security, unemployment insurance, federal laws regulating child labor, and adoption of the federal minimum wage.[6]

Perkins had a cool personality, which held her aloof from the crowd. Although her results indicate her great love of workers and lower-class groups, her Boston upbringing held her back from mingling freely and exhibiting personal affection. She was well-suited for the high-level efforts to effect sweeping reforms, but never caught the public's eye or its affection.[7]

Personal life

Perkins married Paul Wilson in 1913. The couple had a daughter, Susanna. Both father and daughter were described by biographer Kirstin Downey as having "manic-depressive symptoms."[8] Wilson was frequently institutionalized for mental illness.[9]


  1. ^ 1880 U.S. Census. Some references list her birth year as 1882, for reasons unknown
  2. ^ Downey, 2009, p. 337.
  3. ^ 1880 Census
  4. ^ Frances Perkins Collection. Mount Holyoke College Archives [1]
  5. ^ The Tennessean, Arts & Entertainment, 8 March 2009, "The Woman Behind the New Deal" (Kirstin Downey). Perkins ... not only had to do more than her male counterparts to prove herself, but she had to do it while dealing with rough-and-tumble labor leaders, a husband in and out of mental institutions, condescending bureaucrats and some Congress members hell-bent on impeaching her. p. 11.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Frances Perkins Collection. Mount Holyoke College Archives
  8. ^ Downey, 2009, p. 380.
  9. ^ Downey, 2009, p. 2.


External links

Political offices
Preceded by
William N. Doak
United States Secretary of Labor
Served under: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman

Succeeded by
Lewis B. Schwellenbach


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Frances Coralie "Fannie" Perkins (1882-04-101965-05-14) was U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. She was the first female Cabinet member.


  • The quality of his being one with his people, of having no artificial or naural barriers between him and them, made it possible for him to be a leader without ever being or thinking of being a dictator.
    • The Roosevelt I Knew (1946) , ch. 17
  • He didn’t like concentrated responsibility. Agreement with other people who he thought were good, right minded, and trying to do the right thing by the world was almost as necessary to him as air to breathe.
    • The Roosevelt I Knew (1946), ch. 12


  • But with the slow menace of a glacier, depression came on. No one had any measure of its progress: no one had any plan for stopping it. Everyone tried to get out of the way.
    • Sec IV, Ibid. (of what? The Roosevelt I Knew?)

External links

Wikipedia has an article about:


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address