Frances Perkins was a social reformer and U.S. secretary of labor. Perkins grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, where her father ran a stationery business. She was raised in comfortable, middle-class, Republican circumstances. Perkins attended Worcester Classical High School, a largely male institution, and then went to Mount Holyoke College, graduating as president of the class of 1902. (She cherished the Holyoke experience for the rest of her life, serving on the college’s board of governors and remaining involved in decisions affecting the school.) She taught physics and biology for several years, moving to Lake Forest, Illinois, in 1904. There she became involved in the social settlement movement, which kindled the interest in social reform that was to govern her life.
In 1907, Perkins moved to Philadelphia and then to New York City where she worked for social reform groups and simultaneously earned a master’s degree in sociology and economics from Columbia University. In 1910 she became secretary of the New York Consumers’ League where she investigated labor conditions and successfully lobbied the state legislature for a law to restrict the hours of women workers to fifty-four hours a week. Her association with Al Smith during those years led eventually to her appointment in 1918 as the first woman to serve on the New York State Industrial Commission. She became chair of the commission in 1926 and industrial commissioner of the state of New York in 1928. She was reappointed to that office by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1929 and retained it until her appointment by him as secretary of labor in 1933.
When she married Paul Caldwell Wilson in 1913, Perkins successfully fought to retain her own name. Until her husband lost much of his inheritance in 1918, Perkins was involved with volunteer work. Thereafter, she worked to support her husband and child, a task that was to become increasingly important as Wilson began exhibiting the mental irrationality that was to keep him institutionalized for much of his later years.
The first female cabinet member in U.S. history and one of only two Roosevelt cabinet appointees to serve throughout his tenure, Perkins brought to the job an unwavering devotion to social reform. She demanded, and got from Roosevelt, a commitment to support federal initiatives in the areas of unemployment relief and public works, insurance to guard workers from the hazards of old age and unemployment, and efforts to regulate child labor as well as wages and hours for adults. These became the cornerstones of the New Deal’s policies for depression relief and reform. Carefully conceived under Perkins’s watchful eyes and shepherded by her through the intricacies of the political process, the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act remain monuments to her ability to make progress through incremental steps and to her mastery of the art of compromise.
Although Roosevelt leaned heavily on her, Perkins’s strong attachment to social justice rendered her an unpopular figure in Congress and the press. She alienated business but won over the leaders of organized labor by resisting pressure from industrialists to intervene in strikes. She refused to succumb to threats of impeachment when right-wing congressional leaders urged her to deport Harry Bridges, leader of the Longshoremen’s Union and a suspected communist, without appropriate legal action.
Perkins resigned her position after Roosevelt’s death in 1945. Thereafter, she wrote a best-selling book, The Roosevelt I Knew, lectured widely, and accepted a professorship in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University.