Not only was Frances Perkins the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary, as Secretary of Labor, she was responsible for many of the hall mark programs of the New Deal, including unemployment benefits, public works programs, unemployment and old-age insurance, abolition of child labor, and the creation of a federal employment service(1).
She had been a supporter of workers’ rights since she was a student at Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University. While living in New York, she witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and was deeply affected by the scenes of young woman leaping to their deaths. She later said these images were “ ‘seared on my mind as well as my heart—a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.’ ”
As Secretary of Labor, she was responsible for the Wagner Act (which gave workers the right to unionize and collectively bargain) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (which established a minimum wage and maximum work week) and she chaired the committee that drafted what would become the Social Security Act(2).
Although labor leaders and politicians were initially dismissive of her, the head of the AFL later said she was one of the best secretaries of labor to ever serve. When asked if being a woman would be a disadvantage, she quipped “only when climbing trees.” Despite her dismissal of gendered criticism, Perkins was cognizant of her role as a trailblazer. In a 1933 speech she said she always felt that she alone was not appointed to the cabinet, but that it was all the women of America(3).
Today, her legacies, such as minimum wage, unemployment benefits, Social Security and workplace safety standards, benefit all Americans, regardless of gender.
1. “Frances Perkins.” U-S-History.com.
2. “Frances Perkins (1880 – 1965).” AFL-CIO.
3. Lunardini, Christine. “1932: Frances Perkins Becomes the First Woman Cabinet Officer” in What Every American Should Know about Women’s History. Pp. 232-233. Avon, Massachusetts: Adams Media Corporation, 1997.
Photo from American Picture Links
To learn more:
Downey, Kirstin. The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience. New York: Doubleday, 2009.
The Frances Perkins Center.
Cohen, Adam. Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America. London: Penguin Press, 2009.