Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins, the daughter of Susan Bean Perkins and Frederick W. Perkins, the owner of a stationer's business, was born in Boston on 10th April, 1882. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College, she worked as a social worker in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a teacher in Chicago.

Perkins was deeply influenced by the writings of investigative journalists such as Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Jacob A. Riis and Upton Sinclair. While in Chicago she became involved in Hull House, a settlement house founded by Jane Addams. Later she moved to Philadelphia, where she worked with immigrant girls. Perkins later explained that during this period attitudes changed towards poverty: "Proposals began to be made for laws to overcome social disadvantages. Societies and voluntary agencies, aiming to prevent abuses and promote remedies, sprang up. There was a sincere effort on the part of the American people to find the way of social justice. Shorter hours and better wages, removal of slums, new tenement house laws for sanitation, fire safety, and decency; reforms to prevent child labour, prevention of the use of hazardous chemicals in industry began to be mentioned in political speeches and legislation in some states. Foremost was the idea that poverty is preventable, that poverty is destructive, wasteful, demoralizing, and that poverty in the midst of potential plenty is morally unacceptable in a Christian and democratic society."

Perkins took a master's degree in political science at Columbia University in 1910 before becoming the executive secretary of the National Consumer's League (NCL). This work also brought her into contact with progressive politicians in New York City such as Robert Wagner and Alfred Smith. In 1919, Smith, the new governor of New York, appointed Perkins to the Industrial Board. She became chairman of the board in 1924 and while in this post she managed to obtain a reduction in the working week for women to 54 hours.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt became governor of New York in 1929, he appointed Perkins as his Industrial Commissioner. The former governor, Alfred Smith, warned against this as he argued that "men will take advice from a woman, but it is hard for them to take orders from a woman." Perkins recalled: "Roosevelt derived not only from intellectual convictions, but also from a new idealism and humanitarianism in which the economic and cultural aspirations of the common man were beginning to play a part in the political program. These concepts began to come alive in this country in the late nineties and early 1900s and found expression in literature, poetry, drama, and the graphic arts. The pity and terror of the slums, mills, and work shops, with their low wages and long hours, were used for artistic effect as in Greek tragedy."

In 1933 President Roosevelt selected Perkins as his Secretary of Labor. She therefore became the first woman in American history to hold a Cabinet post. As she revealed later, her first proposals included: "immediate federal aid to the states for direct unemployment relief, an extensive program of public works, a study and an approach to the establishment by federal law of minimum wages, maximum hours, true unemployment and old-age insurance, abolition of child labour, and the creation of a federal employment service." Although it was a very radical programme, Roosevelt accepted it with enthusiasm.

Hugh S. Johnson joined with Bernard Baruch and Alexander Sachs, an economist with Lehman Corporation, to draw up a proposal to help stimulate the economy. The central feature was the the provision for the legalization of business agreements (codes) on competitive and labour practices. Johnson believed that the nation's traditional commitment to laissez-faire was outdated. He argued that scientific and technological improvements had led to over-production and chronically unstable markets. This, in turn, led to more extreme methods of competition, such as sweatshops, child labour, falling prices and low wages.

Hugh S. Johnson pointed out that he had leant a lot from his experiences with the War Industries Board (WIB) He hoped that businessmen would cooperate out of enlightened self-interest, but discovered they had trouble looking beyond their own immediate profits. Despite appeals to patriotism, they had hoarded materials, charged exorbitant prices and given preference to civilian customers. Johnson explained that the WIB had dealt with these men during the First World War by threatening to commandeer their production or to deny them fuel and raw materials. These threats usually won co-operation from the owners of these companies.

Johnson therefore argued any successful scheme would need to inject an element of compulsion. He told Frances Perkins: "This is just like a war. We're in a war. We're in a war against depression and poverty and we've got to fight this war. We've got to come out of this war. You've got to do here what you do in a war. You've got to give authority and you've got to apply regulations and enforce them on everybody, no matter who they are or what they do.... The individual who has the power to apply and enforce these regulations is the President. There is nothing that the President can't do if he wishes to! The President's powers are unlimited. The President can do anything."

On 9th March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a special session of Congress. He told the members that unemployment could only be solved "by direct recruiting by the Government itself." For the next three months, Roosevelt proposed, and Congress passed, a series of important bills that attempted to deal with the problem of unemployment. The special session of Congress became known as the Hundred Days and provided the basis for Roosevelt's New Deal.

Hugh S. Johnson became convinced that his plan should play a central role in encouraging industrial recovery. However, its original draft was rejected by Raymond Moley. He argued that the proposed bill would give the president dictatorial powers that Roosevelt did not want. Moley suggested he worked with Donald R. Richberg, a lawyer with good relationship with the trade union movement. Together they produced a new draft bill. Richberg argued that business codes would increase prices. If purchasing power did not rise correspondingly, the nation would remain mired in the the Great Depression. He therefore suggested that the industrial recovery legislation would need to include public works spending. Johnson became convinced of this argument and added that the promise of public spending could be used to persuade industries to agree to these codes.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggested that Johnson and Richberg should work with Senator Robert F. Wagner, who also had strong ideas on industrial recovery policy and other key figures in his administration, Frances Perkins, Guy Tugwell and John Dickinson. He told them to "shut themselves up in a room" until they could come up with a common proposal. According to Perkins it was Johnson's voice that dominated these meetings. When it was suggested that the Supreme Court might well rule the legislation as unconstitutional, Johnson argued: "Well, what difference does it make anyhow, because before they can get these cases to the Supreme Court we will have won the victory. The unemployment will be over and over so fast that nobody will care."

The draft legislation was finished on 14th May. It went before Congress and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) was passed by the Senate on 13th June by a vote of 46 to 37. The National Recovery Administration (NRA) was set up to enforce the NIRA. President Franklin D. Roosevelt named Hugh Johnson to head it. Roosevelt found Johnson's energy and enthusiasm irresistible and was impressed with his knowledge of industry and business.

Huey P. Long was totally opposed to the appointment. He argued that Hugh S. Johnson was nothing more than an employee of Bernard Baruch and would permit the most conservative elements in the Democratic Party to do as they pleased with American industry. Guy Tugwell also had his concerns about his relationship with Baruch: "It would have been better if he had been further from Baruch's special influence." He was concerned about other matters: "I think his tendency to be gruff in personal matters will be an handicap and his occasional drunken sprees will not help." However, overall he thought it was a good appointment: "Hugh is sincere, honest, believes in many social changes which seem to me right, and will do a good job." Surprisingly, Baruch himself had warned Frances Perkins against the appointment: "Hugh isn't fit to be head of the NRA. He's been my number-three man for years. I think he's a good number-three man, maybe a number-two man, but he's not a number-one man. He's dangerous and unstable. He gets nervous and sometimes goes away without notice. I'm fond of him, but do tell the President to be careful. Hugh needs a firm hand."

Some people argued that Johnson had pro-fascist tendencies. He gave Frances Perkins a copy of The Corporate State by Raffaello Viglione, a book stressed the achievements of Benito Mussolini. Johnson told Perkins that Mussolini was using measures that he would like to adopt. Perkins later claimed that Johnson was no fascist but was worried that comments like this would lead to his critics claiming that he "harbored fascist leanings."

Johnson told Perkins that he intended to draft a code for an industry simply by meeting with the representatives of its trade association. This would follow the pattern of the way the War Industries Board worked during the First World War. Perkins recognized that this approach could be justified in times of war but saw no compelling reason for them in 1933. She informed him that everything must be done in public hearings at which anyone, particularly representatives of labour and the public, could make objections or suggest modifications.

In 1933, Robert F. Wagner, chairman of the National Recovery Administration, introduced a bill to Congress to help protect trade unionists from their employers. With the support of Perkins, Wagner's proposals became the National Labor Relations Act. It established a three man National Labor Relations Board empowered to administer the regulation of labour relations in industries engaged in or affecting interstate commerce.

Perkins was sceptical of the value of a 30-hour week unless it included provision for maintaining wages for those paid by the hour. So she suggested amendments to combine minimum wages with reduced hours. Although this was supported by the trade unions, it was opposed by the employers. Roosevelt eventually agreed to the establishment of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). This allowed industry to write its own codes of fair competition but at the same time provided special safeguards for labor. Section 7a of NIRA stipulated that workers should have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing and that no one should be banned from joining an independent union. The NIRA also stated that employers must comply with maximum hours, minimum pay and other conditions approved by the government.

Perkins was a strong advocate of government involvement in the economy and played an important role in many aspects of the New Deal including the Civilian Conservation Corps. She wrote: "In one of my conversations with the President in March 1933, he brought up the idea that became the Civilian Conservation Corps. Roosevelt loved trees and hated to see them cut and not replaced. It was natural for him to wish to put large numbers of the unemployed to repairing such devastation. His enthusiasm for this project, which was really all his own, led him to some exaggeration of what could be accomplished. He saw it big. He thought any man or boy would rejoice to leave the city and work in the woods. It was characteristic of him that he conceived the project, boldly rushed it through, and happily left it to others to worry about the details."

Some leading figures in the Roosevelt administration, including Perkins, Harold L. Ickes, Rex Tugwell, and Henry A. Wallace, became highly suspicious of Johnson's policies at the NRA. They believed that Johnson was permitting the larger industries "to get a stranglehold on the economy" and suspected that "these industries would use their power to raise prices, restrict production, and allocate capital and materials among themselves". They decided to closely monitor his actions.

On 27th August, the automobile manufacturers, except for Henry Ford, who believed the NIRA was a plot instigated by his competitors, agreed terms of a deal. Ford announced he intended to meet the wage and hour provision of the code or even to improve on them. However, he refused to sign up to the code. Johnson reacted by urging the public not to purchase Ford vehicles. He also told the federal government not to purchase vehicles from Ford dealers. Johnson commented: "If we weaken on this, it will greatly harm the Blue Eagle principle and campaign." Johnson's actions resulted in a decline in sales of Ford cars and trucks in 1933. However, it only had a short-term impact and in 1934 the company had increased sales and profits.

On 7th March, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a National Recovery Review Board to study monopolistic tendencies in the codes. This was in response to criticism of the NRA by influential figures such as Gerald Nye, William Borah and Robert LaFollette. Johnson, in what he later said was "a moment of total aberration," agreed with Donald Richberg that Clarence Darrow should head the investigation. Johnson was furious when Darrow reported back that he "found that giant corporations dominated the NIRA code authorities and this was having a detrimental impact on small business". Darrow also signed a supplementary report which argued that recovery could only be achieved through the fullest use of productive capacity, which lay "in the planned use of America's resources following socialization".

Johnson was furious with the report and wrote to President Roosevelt that it was the most "superficial, intemperate and inaccurate document" he had ever seen. He added that Darrow had given the United States a choice between "Fascism and Communism, neither of which can be espoused by anyone who believes in our democratic institutions of self-government." Johnson advised Roosevelt that the National Recovery Review Board should be abolished immediately.

Hugh S. Johnson was also having financial problems. His $6,000-a-year salary did not meet his outgoings. Between October 1933 and September 1934 he borrowed $31,000 from Bernard Baruch, who told Perkins, "I like him. I'm fond of him. I'll always see that he has work to do and a salary coming in one way or another." Perkins took this opportunity to try and get rid of Johnson and asked Baruch "to say to Hugh that you need him badly and want him back.... tell him you need him and have a good post for him".

Baruch said this was impossible: "Hugh's got so swell headed now that he sometimes won't even talk to me on the telephone. I've called him up and tried to save him from two or three disasters that I've heard about. People have come to me because they knew that I knew him well, but sometimes he won't even talk to me. When he does talk to me, he doesn't say anything, or he isn't coherent... He's just pushing off. I never could manage him again. Hugh has got too big for his boots. He's got too big for me. I could never manage him again. My organization could never absorb him. He's learned publicity too, which he never knew before. He's tasted the tempting, but poisonous cup of publicity. It makes a difference. He never again can be just a plain fellow working in Baruch's organization. He's now the great General Hugh Johnson of the blue eagle. I can never put him in a place where I can use him again, so he's just utterly useless."

On 9th May 1934, the International Longshoremen's Association went on strike in order to obtain a thirty-hour week, union recognition and a wage increase. A federal mediating team, led by Edward McGrady, worked out a compromise. Joseph P. Ryan, president of the union, accepted it, but the rank and file, influenced by Harry Bridges, rejected it. In San Francisco the vehemently anti-union Industrial Association, an organization representing the city's leading industrial, banking, shipping, railroad and utility interests, decided to open the port by force. This resulted in considerable violence and on 13th July the San Francisco Central Labor Council voted for a general strike.

Hugh S. Johnson visited the city where he spoke to John Francis Neylan, chief counsel for the Hearst Corporation, and the most significant figure in the Industrial Association. Neylan convinced Johnson that the general strike was under the control of the American Communist Party and was a revolutionary attack against law and order. Johnson later wrote: "I did not know what a general strike looked like and I hope that you may never know. I soon learned and it gave me cold shivers."

On 17th July 1934 Johnson gave a speech to a crowd of 5,000 assembled at the University of California, where he called for the end of the strike: "You are living here under the stress of a general strike... and it is a threat to the community. It is a menace to government. It is civil war... When the means of food supply - milk to children, necessities of life to the whole people - are threatened, that is bloody insurrection... I am for organized labor and collective bargaining with all my heart and soul and I will support it with all the power at my command, but this ugly thing is a blow to the flag of our common country and it has to stop.... Insurrection against the common interest of the community is not a proper weapon and will not for one moment be tolerated by the American people who are one - whether they live in California, Oregon or the sunny South."

Johnson's speech inspired local right-wing groups to take action against the strikers. Union offices and meeting halls were raided, equipment and other property destroyed, and communists and socialists were beaten up. Johnson further inflamed the situation when he turned up for a meeting with John McLaughlin, the secretary of the San Francisco Teamsters Union, on 18th July, drunk. Instead of entering into negotiations, he made a passionate speech attacking trade unions. McLaughlin stormed out of the meeting and the strike continued.

The New Republic urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to "crack down on Johnson" before he destroys the New Deal. Perkins was also furious with Johnson. In her opinion he had no right to become involved in the dispute and made it look like the government, in the form of the National Recovery Administration, was on the side of the employers. Demonstrations took place at NRA headquarters with protestors carrying placards claiming that it was biased against the trade union movement.

On 21st August 1934, the National Labor Relations Board ruled against Johnson and rebuked him for "unjustified interference" in union activity. Henry Morgenthau informed Roosevelt that in his opinion Johnson should be removed from the NRA. Rex Tugwell and Henry Wallace also told Roosevelt that Johnson should be sacked. Harry Hopkins, the head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Civil Works Administration, advised Roosevelt that 145 out of 150 of the highest officials in the government believed that Johnson's usefulness was at an end and that he should be retired.

Within the NRA many officials resented the power of Frances Robinson. One official reported to Adolf Berle that as many as half of the men in the agency were in danger of resigning "because of the affair between Johnson and Robby". He had also lost the confidence of many of his colleagues. Donald Richberg wrote in a memo dated 18th August 1934: "The General himself is, in the opinion of many, in the worst physical and mental condition and needs an immediate relief from responsibility."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked to see Hugh S. Johnson. He wrote in his autobiography that he knew he was going to be sacked when he saw his two main enemies in Roosevelt's office "when Mr. Richberg and Madam Secretary did not look up" I realised they had "been skinning a cow". Roosevelt asked him to go on a tour and make a report on European recovery. Sensing that this was "the sugary lipstick smeared over the kiss of death" he replied: "Mr. President, of course there is nothing for me to do but resign immediately." Roosevelt now backed down and said he did not want him to go.

Johnson believed that Donald Richberg was the main person behind the plot to get him removed. He wrote to Roosevelt on 24th August: "I was completely fooled by him (Richberg) until recently but may I suggest to you that if he would double-cross me, he would double-cross you.... I am leaving merely because I have a pride and a manhood to maintain which I can no longer sustain after the conference of this afternoon and I cannot regard the proposal you made to me as anything more than a banishment with futile flowers and nothing more insulting has ever been done to me than Miss Perkins' suggestion that, as a valedictory, I ought to get credit for the work I have done with NRA. Nobody can do that for me."

Hugh S. Johnson continued to make controversial attacks on those on the left. He accused Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party of America, of inspiring the United Textile Workers to carry out an illegal strike. The charge against Thomas was without foundation. It was also not an illegal strike and he was later forced to apologize for these inaccurate statements.

Johnson also made a speech on the future of the NRA. He said it needed to be scaled back. Johnson added that Louis Brandeis, a member of the Supreme Court, agreed with him: "During the whole intense experience I have been in constant touch with that old counselor, Judge Louis Brandeis. As you know, he thinks that anything that is too big is bound to be wrong. He thinks NRA is too big, and I agree with him." Brandeis quickly told Roosevelt that this was not true. It also implied that Brandeis had prejudged NRA even before the Supreme Court had ruled on the NRA's constitutionality.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that Johnson must now resign. He was unable to do it himself and asked Bernard Baruch to do it for him. Baruch contacted Johnson and bluntly told him he must go. He later recalled that "Johnson kicked up a bit" but he made it clear that he had no choice. "When the Captain wants your resignation you better resign." On 24th September, 1934, Hugh S. Johnson submitted his resignation.

Three days later, Roosevelt appointed Richberg as Executive Director of the National Industrial Recovery Board, that had replaced the National Recovery Administration. Richberg had difficulty running this new organization. Arthur M. Schlesinger, the author of The Age of Roosevelt: The Coming of the New Deal (2003) has argued that "Richberg engaged in double-dealing, lying to the President about the views of his subordinates and agreeing to his staff's requests that he raise issues with the President and later refusing to do so."

On 27th May 1935 the Supreme Court declared the National Industrial Recovery Board as unconstitutional. The reasons given were that many codes were an illegal delegation of legislative authority and the federal government had invaded fields reserved to the individual states. Donald Richberg resigned on 16th June, 1935.

In June, 1938 Perkins managed to persuade Congress to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act. The main objective of the act was to eliminate "labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency and well-being of workers". The act established maximum working hours of 44 a week for the first year, 42 for the second, and 40 thereafter. Minimum wages of 25 cents an hour were established for the first year, 30 cents for the second, and 40 cents over a period of the next six years. The act also prohibited child labour in all industries engaged in producing goods in inter-state commerce and placed a limitation of the labor of boys and girls between 16 and 18 years of age in hazardous occupations.

Perkins remained as Secretary of Labor until the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. Her book, The Roosevelt I Knew, was published in 1946. President Harry Truman, appointed her to the United States Civil Service Commission. After leaving office in 1953 she taught at Cornell University.

Frances Perkins died in New York on 14th May 1965.

Roosevelt derived not only from intellectual convictions, but also from a new idealism and humanitarianism in which the economic and cultural aspirations of the common man were beginning to play a part in the political program.

These concepts began to come alive in this country in the late nineties and early 1900s and found expression in literature, poetry, drama, and the graphic arts. The pity and terror of the slums, mills, and work shops, with their low wages and long hours, were used for artistic effect as in Greek tragedy.

The feelings and minds of people responded to the exposure of degraded living and working conditions in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Experiences as a Factory Girl by Mary Van Vorst, How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis and Ernest Poole's novel of the working class, The Harbor.

The muckraking magazine writers, like Will Irwin, Sam Merwin, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Baker, startled the American people with documents of American life that showed deep suffering, social injustice and indifference to it in large areas of our population.

Proposals began to be made for laws to overcome social disadvantages. Shorter hours and better wages, removal of slums, new tenement house laws for sanitation, fire safety, and decency; reforms to prevent child labour, prevention of the use of hazardous chemicals in industry began to be mentioned in political speeches and legislation in some states.

Foremost was the idea that poverty is preventable, that poverty is destructive, wasteful, demoralizing, and that poverty in the midst of potential plenty is morally unacceptable in a Christian and democratic society. One began to see the "poor" as people, with hopes, fears, virtues, and vices, as fellow citizens who were part of the fabric of American life instead of as a depressed class who would be always with us.

When she is Commissioner she will have charge of administering the whole Department of Labor - all the men who work as factory inspectors and on the compensation boards. I have always thought that, as a rule, men will take advice from a woman, but it is hard for them to take orders from a woman.

I proposed immediate federal aid to the states for direct unemployment relief, an extensive program of public works, a study and an approach to the establishment by federal law of minimum wages, maximum hours, true unemployment and old-age insurance, abolition of child labour, and the creation of a federal employment service.

In one of my conversations with the President in March 1933, he brought up the idea that became the Civilian Conservation Corps. He thought any man or boy would rejoice to leave the city and work in the woods.

It was characteristic of him that he conceived the project, boldly rushed it through, and happily left it to others to worry about the details. And there were some difficult details. The attitude of the trade unions had to be considered. They were disturbed about this program, which they feared would put all workers under a "dollar a day" regimentation merely because they were unemployed.

It ought to be on the record that the President did not take part in developing the National Labor Relations Act and, in fact, was hardly consulted about it. It was not a part of the President's program. It did not particularly appeal to him when it was described to him. All the credit for it belongs to Wagner.

The proposed bill, it must be remembered, was remedial. Certain unfair practices which employers had used against workers to prevent unionization and to cripple their economic strength had been uncovered by Wagner. The bill sought to correct these specific, known abuses, and did not attempt to draw up a comprehensive code of ethical behaviour in labor relations. Such a comprehensive code, however, was needed. Roosevelt supported my suggestion that labor leaders who wanted to distinguish themselves should draw up such a code and let us take a look at it.


Woman's History Month: Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary, was the principal architect of the New Deal, credited with formulating policies to shore up the national economy following the nation’s most serious economic crisis and helping to create the modern middle class. She was in every respect a self-made woman who rose from humble New England origins to become America’s leading advocate for industrial safety and workers’ rights.

“From the time I was in college I was horrified at the work that many women and children had to do in factories. There were absolutely no effective laws that regulated the number of hours they were permitted to work. There were no provisions which guarded their health nor adequately looked after their compensation in case of injury. Those things seemed very wrong. I was young and was inspired with the idea of reforming, or at east doing what I could, to help change those abuses.” Perkins said.

Fanny’s fellow students organized a chapter of the National Consumers League and, in February of 1902, invited its executive secretary, Florence Kelley, to speak at Mount Holyoke. Later Frances Perkins told a friend that Kelley’s speech “first opened my mind to the necessity for and the possibility of the work which became my vocation.”

In 1907, Frances Perkins accepted a position as general secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association, a new organization whose goal was to thwart the diversion of newly arrived immigrant girls, including black women from the South, into prostitution. She studied sociology and economics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School with the progressive economist Simon N. Patten. In 1909, she began a fellowship with the New York School of Philanthropy, investigating childhood malnutrition among school children in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and enrolled as a Master’s Degree candidate in sociology and economics at Columbia University. Her research project, entitled “A Study of Malnutrition in 107 Children from Public School 51,” became her Master’s thesis.

In 1910, fulfilling an objective she set for herself eight years before, Frances Perkins became Executive Secretary of the New York City Consumers League, working directly with Florence Kelley, the woman whose speech at Mount Holyoke had set the course of her career. Her work focused on the need for sanitary regulations for bakeries, fire protection for factories, and legislation to limit the working hours for women and children in factories to 54 hours per week. Much of her work was in Albany, in the halls and committee rooms of the state capitol. There, with the guidance and counsel of Assemblyman Al Smith, Senator Robert Wagner and newfound Tammany Hall allies, Frances Perkins learned the skills of an effective lobbyist for labor and social reforms.

At the suggestion of Theodore Roosevelt, Frances Perkins was hired as the group’s executive secretary. One of the Committee’s first actions was to seek a state commission to investigate and make legislative recommendations. The Factory Investigating Commission’s mandate was much broader than originally contemplated: to study not only fire safety, but other threats to the health and well-being of industrial workers and the impact of those threats upon families. Frances Perkins, by that time a recognized expert in the field of worker health and safety, served as expert witness, investigator and guide, leading legislators on inspections of the state’s factories and worksites to view first-hand the dangers of unfettered industrialism. The Commission’s work resulted in the most comprehensive set of laws governing workplace health and safety in the nation.

The gubernatorial election of 1918 was the first in which women in New York had the right to vote. Frances Perkins campaigned hard to capture the women’s vote for Al Smith, her friend and ally during her prior work in Albany. Shortly after his election as governor, Smith appointed her to a vacant seat on the New York State Industrial Commission. She was the first woman to be appointed to an administrative position in New York state government and, with an annual salary of $8000, the highest paid woman ever to hold public office in the United States. Smith’s goal was to weed out the incompetence and corruption in the state labor department so that Frances and her fellow commissioners would enforce the laws the Factory Investigating Commission had brought about. For Smith’s four terms as governor, Frances Perkins served as his closest labor advisor, working with him to build on the legislative accomplishments of the prior decade. In his final term, he appointed her to chair the Industrial Commission.

In the election of 1928, Smith lost his bid to become the nation’s president, and New York elected a new governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt asked Frances Perkins to become the state’s Industrial Commissioner, with oversight responsibilities for the entire labor department. Soon, she became the most prominent state labor official in the nation, as she and Roosevelt searched for new ways to deal with rising unemployment. “We have awakened with a shock to the frightful injustice of economic conditions which will allow men and women who are willing to work to suffer the distress of hunger and cold and humiliating dependence. We have determined to find out what makes involuntary employment,” she said.

“I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen.”

When, in February, 1933, President-elect Roosevelt asked Frances Perkins to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of Labor, she outlined for him a set of policy priorities she would pursue: a 40-hour work week a minimum wage unemployment compensation worker’s compensation abolition of child labor direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief Social Security a revitalized federal employment service and universal health insurance. She made it clear to Roosevelt that his agreement with these priorities was a condition of her joining his cabinet. Roosevelt said he endorsed them all, and Frances Perkins became the first woman in the nation to serve in a Presidential cabinet.


Frances Perkins: The Unsung Creator of U.S. Social Security

The first time author Kirstin Downey heard about Frances Perkins, it was within the context of a joke — a pretty lame one at that. "I worked as a reporter at The Washington Post for 20 years and when I got there, I took a bus tour of the city," she recalls. "We had a guide who was making little jokes and when we passed one big building he said, 'What American woman had the worst childbirth experience?' It was quiet for a moment, there was a pause. Then he said, 'Frances Perkins. She spent 12 years in labor.'"

This is where you'd cue the "ba dum tss" sound of a cheesy comedy club rimshot. Except to even politely guffaw at the tour guide's joke requires some basic understanding of who Frances Perkins was — and as Downey soon found out, that piece of history has largely been omitted from the books. "I thought it was kind of a funny, stupid joke even though the feminist part of me got really irritated," says Downey, an award-winning journalist and author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience." "But I remembered that because FDR [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] got elected four times, she was our secretary of labor for 12 years."

The joke may have fallen flat, but it got Downey thinking. And as the world prepares for the economic aftermath of the current COVID-19 crisis, many others are thinking about the work of Perkins as well — even if they're unaware that she's the one responsible for some of the most important programs currently keeping Americans afloat. "Her name stuck in my head as someone who was interesting and it bothered me that she was just a joke," Downey says, noting that during her time at the Post, she covered a diverse range of business news stories that all seemed to lead back to one single person. "I got assigned to cover all kinds of things about Social Security and unemployment and I noticed over a period of time that when I'd write a paragraph in each news story about how current Social Security and unemployment insurance programs started, Frances Perkins was responsible for all the key parts of our social safety net — but no one had ever heard of her."

Perkins, née Fannie Coralie Perkins, was born in Boston in 1880 but had roots in Maine. Yet as Downey learned while reporting her book over the course of a decade, even residents of Perkins' hometown of Damariscotta, Maine, didn't seem familiar with her legacy. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1902, Perkins pursued a career as a social worker and later continued her education at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce of the University of Pennsylvania and then at Columbia University, where she earned an M.A. in social economics in 1910. For the next two years, she served as the executive secretary of the Consumers' League of New York where she successfully lobbied for improved wages and working conditions, particularly for women and children.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

It was during that time that Perkins witnessed a life-changing event that would shift the course of her own professional life, as well as the future of American labor conditions. On March 25, 1911, Perkins was having tea with a friend in Manhattan when a commotion broke out nearby. It turned out to be what is now known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, one of the deadliest U.S. workplace disasters of all time. The fire claimed the lives of 146 workers, many of whom were immigrant women who were burned alive or jumped to their deaths.

"She had already been investigating workplace problems as a young social worker in Manhattan but was in the neighborhood having tea with a friend when the fire broke out," Downey says. "They ran across Washington Square Park and got there just as the first people started jumping out of the windows and hitting the ground. She was already thinking about workplace abuses and, because she was the key person administering the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, that led to the creation of all our fire codes. By the time she was in her early 30s, she had crafted legislation in New York that led to exit signs, occupancy limits on rooms, sprinklers, fire escapes, and how wide doors had to be to escape safely."

Following the horrific fire, Perkins grew even more resolute about revolutionizing the country's dysfunctional labor system. From 1912 to 1917, she served as the executive secretary of the New York Committee on Safety and from 1917 to 1919, worked as the executive director of the New York Council of Organization for War Service. In 1919, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith appointed Perkins to New York's State Industrial Commission and four years later, she was named to the State Industrial Board, becoming chairman in 1926.

First Female Cabinet Member — FDR's Secretary of Labor

It was Smith's successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who partnered with Perkins to push for lasting changes to the labor system. In 1929, he appointed Perkins as the Industrial Commissioner of the State of New York and when the stock market crashed that year, Perkins was the one who encouraged FDR to take swift and serious action. When FDR created a committee on employment, he appointed Perkins to head up the efforts. "So it made perfect sense that when FDR was elected president [in 1933], she went to be his secretary of labor," Downey says. By the time he became president, she had already known him for 20 years. She was a close, trusted friend of FDR's."

However, despite Perkins' impressive achievements over the course of her career to that point, the American public was less than welcoming when she arrived in Washington. "When FDR picked her, there was a huge backlash," Downey says. "A lot of people were appalled that he named a woman to his cabinet. Remember, women didn't get the right to vote until 1920 when Frances Perkins was 40 years old. So she had a whole career to age 40 doing all these important things and didn't even have the right to vote. When FDR was elected president, it was only 12 years after women got the right to vote, so you can see why people were shocked about it."

According to Downey, one particular group was especially turned off by the prospect of Perkins serving as the secretary of labor. "The unions opposed FDR naming her because a lot of unions didn't permit female members, and were particularly insulted because they wanted a 'good union man' to be secretary of labor," she says. "Frances Perkins had a background as a government administrator and a social worker and they were suspicious. But in fact, because of the things she did, she was able to essentially reshape the labor movement, which was dying when she became secretary of labor. By the time she died, unionized employees made up one-third of the American workforce."

The Social Security Act

Perkins had a lot on her agenda when she made the move to D.C., but one of her biggest ideas has proven to have a lasting impact on Americans to this day — especially today. "She went to Washington with a set of plans in her head and things she wanted enacted," Downey says. "Among them was Social Security and unemployment insurance and within two years of getting to Washington, the Social Security Act passed. Enacted in 1935, the Social Security Act created a system of transfer payments that relies on younger, working people supporting older, retired people. Since it passed during FDR's administration, the law has been responsible for providing aid for jobless citizens through unemployment insurance, dependent mothers and children, victims of work-related accidents, the blind and physically disabled and more. The law was part of FDR's Second New Deal initiatives to help Americans cope with social and economic changes in the wake of the Great Depression.

"Perkins had a particular approach to public service and was not a politician and never held public elective office," Michael Chaney, executive director of the Frances Perkins Center, dedicated to preserving the Perkins Family Homestead in Newcastle, Maine, says via email. "She was a policy expert in the field of worker safety, just compensation, and the safety net when injured or no longer able to work because of age — her lasting legacy, Social Security."

"She is the one human being — and everyone involved in the legislation, and even the people administering it say it — most responsible for the Social Security Act passing," Downey says. "FDR didn't run saying he'd do that and it wasn't anything he really cared about hugely as he had a bunch of things on his plate. Without Frances Perkins, Social Security would've never happened and that means both traditional pension and unemployment insurance. Basically Frances Perkins created the lifeline we're using today.

Unemployment Insurance, Fair Labor, Minimum Wage and Child Labor Laws

"Unemployment insurance is a national network of state unemployment systems and is the mechanism we're using to get money to people across America who've lost their jobs [through] no fault of their own," Downey says. "We've got 50 states and some territories using the same basic mechanism. Even if the federal government authorizes additional money, the first line of defense was this state unemployment insurance system that was organized into a federal confederation because of legislation that Frances Perkins got enacted. So almost all of the existing social safety network has her imprint. She set up all these programs that spun off into other departments but were [there] because of her handiwork."

Perkins also helped craft the Fair Labor Standards Act, which Congress enacted in 1938, a law establishing a minimum wage and maximum work hours and banning child labor. By the time FDR died in 1945, Perkins was the longest-serving labor secretary and one of only two cabinet secretaries to serve the entire length of the Roosevelt presidency. "Frances Perkins wrote in 1945: 'These social and economic reforms of the past 12 years will be regarded in the future as a turning point in our national life — a turning from careless neglect of human values and toward an order — of mutual and practical benevolence within a free competitive industrial economy,'" Chaney says.

The next year, Perkins published a bestselling biography of FDR titled "The Roosevelt I Knew," and served as head of the American delegation to the International Labor Organization in Paris. President Harry Truman then appointed her to the United States Civil Service Commission, a position she held until 1953. According to the Frances Perkins Center, by that point, Perkins "had accomplished all but one of the items on the agenda she had presented to the newly elected President in February of 1933: universal access to health care."

After leaving government service, Perkins was 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 Resurgent Legacy of Frances Perkins

So if Perkins is responsible for such significant, lasting change, why have so few of us ever heard of her? "A lot of men were writing New Deal histories in the '70s and '80s and wrote her out entirely," Downey says. "I went back to the archives to recreate what actually happened. In fact, some New Deal histories don't even mention her name at all. It was wild — there are maybe two references reflecting on something about her work with FDR, but it's extraordinary how quickly she was neglected and written out of the story."

Part of the reason for her glaring absence from history may be due to Perkins' reluctance toward life in the spotlight. "Frances Perkins didn't run around currying favor or chasing publicity — she got things done and moved on to the next thing," Downey says. "Many of the men who wrote books about events in which Frances Perkins was a key player don't even mention her name."

"Frances Perkins was a pioneer," Downey says. "She was the first woman to hold a high profile position in Washington and blazed the trail for Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom have said she's inspired them every day by what she did. Elizabeth Warren even had campaign events in Washington Square Park to remind people of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. People casting votes to give more money to unemployment insurance are voting in support of Frances Perkins' handiwork."

As for the ways in which America will adjust to life in a post-pandemic world, Downey says Perkins' legacy will continue to have a major impact and leave a lasting legacy. "One thing that's super cool about it is that one of the first economic bills that just passed to give people money in addition to the money from the federal government's unemployment insurance was passed almost unanimously," she says. "So what we ended up with in 2020 was this incredible ringing bipartisan endorsement of her handiwork. When seeking out ways to help people through misery, Republicans and Democrats both turned to the tool crafted by the person who I think is the single most important progressive in American history — male or female. That's the thing I learned in the book, is that she did more to create a social safety net than anyone else."

Perkins' lost legacy is finding new life, thanks to the social and economic similarities to post-Great Depression America that may emerge as the world continues to cope with COVID. "Frances Perkins' handiwork is the system we're using right now to relieve the distress of hundreds of millions of people," Downey says. "The bottom line is that Frances Perkins' life's work was recognizing that in the course of human events, bad stuff happens, and it's predictable that it happens, and what you want to do is create a system of elasticity that helps you have a solution to fix it."

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Her Life: The Woman Behind the New Deal

Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary, was the driving force behind the New Deal, credited with formulating policies to shore up the national economy following the nation’s most serious economic crisis and helping to create the modern middle class. She was in every respect a self-made woman who rose from humble New England origins to become America’s leading advocate for industrial safety and workers’ rights.

Frances Perkins was born Fannie Coralie Perkins in Boston in 1880, but her roots were in Maine. Her mother, Susan E. Bean, came from Bethel, and her father Frederick Perkins, was born and raised in Newcastle, on land along the Damariscotta River his ancestors first settled in the 1750s. The family farmed the land and also operated a brickyard at the river’s edge. After the Civil War, economic times became more difficult in rural Maine, and the brickyard began to falter. Frederick and his younger brother moved to Massachusetts for better prospects, while the oldest son remained in Newcastle to manage the farm. In 1882, Frederick Perkins moved his young family from Boston to Worcester, where he opened a paper goods business – a business that remains successful to this day. He maintained close ties to Newcastle, however, and Fanny, as she was known to the family, spent her childhood summers with her grandmother on the farm in Newcastle. Frequently in winters, her grandmother and uncle would stay with the Perkins family in Worcester.

Cynthia Otis Perkins, then a widow in her seventies, was the center of the family, “an extremely wise woman – worldly wise, as well as spiritually wise,” Frances later explained. “I am extraordinarily the product of my grandmother,” whose wisdom guided her throughout her life.

It was at the Brick House, built in 1837 as a wedding gift for her grandparents, that Fanny heard stories about the French and Indian War, when the Perkins family maintained a garrison by the river to shelter the community in case of trouble. She also learned of life before the Revolution and of her Otis family relatives who had played a major part in the colonists’ fight for independence. These stories were passed down by Cynthia’s mother Thankful Otis, who spent her last years in the house. In the summer following Fanny’s fifteenth birthday, Cynthia’s cousin, Union General Oliver Otis Howard, first head of the Freedmen’s Bureau and founder of Howard University, visited the Brick House. Because Howard had lost his right arm in the war, Fanny was enlisted as his secretary.

Thus, Fanny was raised with a deep appreciation of history and pride in her patriot ancestry. She came of age understanding her New England heritage and adopting the Yankee values that were the core of that heritage – frugality, ingenuity, tenacity and self-reliance – as well as a belief that the new nation, only a century old at her birth, held opportunities for all who sought and were willing to work for them. Her life would take her far beyond the humble Maine farm, but it is there that she returned year after year for rest and renewal.

The Perkins household in Worcester was strict, conservative and Republican. Fanny and her sister Ethel, four years her junior, were restricted largely to the people and events within their house and the nearby Plymouth Congregational Church. It was only when Fanny entered school that she encountered poverty. When she asked her parents why nice people could be poor, they gave her the accepted answers of the day: that poverty was the result of alcohol or laziness. Her father told her that little girls shouldn’t concern themselves with such things. Frederick Perkins read to the family in Greek and gave Fanny lessons in Greek grammar when she was only eight. He also taught her to read at an early age and encouraged her interest in classical literature. Although it was unusual for young women to attend college at that time, it was always assumed that Fanny would do so. She graduated from the college preparatory curriculum at Worcester’s Classical High School and then enrolled in Mount Holyoke College, fifty miles away in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

Founded in 1837, Mount Holyoke is the nation’s oldest continuing institution of higher education for women. Its founder, Mary Lyon, believed that women should be educated, but with education came responsibility. “Education was to fit one to do good.” “Go where no one else will go, do what no one else will do,” she advised Mount Holyoke’s young women. This sense of purpose clearly foretold the remarkable career that Fanny Perkins would eventually pursue.

At Mount Holyoke, Fanny Perkins, known as “Perk” to her classmates, came under the demanding tutelage of professors who insisted she enroll in only the most rigorous courses. Fanny majored in physics, with minors in chemistry and biology. She was a popular student, became class president her senior year and permanent class president upon graduation. It was in her final semester, however, that she took a course in American economic history that would have the most profound impact on her life. Taught by historian Annah May Soule, the course concerned the growth of industrialism in England and America. Professor Soule required her students to visit the mills along the Connecticut River in neighboring Holyoke to observe working conditions there.

Of this experience, Frances Perkins later said, “From the time I was in college I was horrified at the work that many women and children had to do in factories. There were absolutely no effective laws that regulated the number of hours they were permitted to work. There were no provisions which guarded their health nor adequately looked after their compensation in case of injury. Those things seemed very wrong. I was young and was inspired with the idea of reforming, or at east doing what I could, to help change those abuses.”

Fanny’s fellow students organized a chapter of the National Consumers League and, in February of 1902, invited its executive secretary, Florence Kelley, to speak at Mount Holyoke. Later Frances Perkins told a friend that Kelley’s speech “first opened my mind to the necessity for and the possibility of the work which became my vocation.”

When Fanny Perkins graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1902, her parents intended that she live at home and take a teaching position, or perhaps find work with the church, until a suitable marriage prospect appeared. Fanny had other ideas. When her efforts to seek employment in social work were unsuccessful, she began reading materials in the field, including Jacob Riis’ 1890 depiction of life in New York’s slums, How the Other Half Lives. Ultimately, she left Worcester for a teaching position at Ferry Hall, an elite school for girls in Lake Forest, Illinois. Further demonstrating her independence, she changed her name and her religious affiliation from the Congregational Church of her forebears. In June of 1905, she was confirmed in the Episcopal faith as Frances Perkins. The church and her belief in the need to make the Kingdom of God in this world would be a source of strength and commitment throughout her life.

While in Chicago, Frances Perkins spent her free time and vacations working at Chicago Commons and Hull House, two of the oldest and most well known settlement houses in the country. Working with the poor and the unemployed, she became convinced of her vocation. “I had to do something about unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty. It was sort of up to me. This feeling … sprang out of a period of great philosophical confusion which overtakes all young people.”

In 1907, Frances Perkins accepted a position as general secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association, a new organization whose goal was to thwart the diversion of newly arrived immigrant girls, including black women from the South, into prostitution. She studied sociology and economics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School with the progressive economist Simon N. Patten. In 1909, she began a fellowship with the New York School of Philanthropy, investigating childhood malnutrition among school children in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and enrolled as a Master’s Degree candidate in sociology and economics at Columbia University. Her research project, entitled “A Study of Malnutrition in 107 Children from Public School 51,” became her Master’s thesis.

In 1910, fulfilling an objective she set for herself eight years before, Frances Perkins became Executive Secretary of the New York City Consumers League, working directly with Florence Kelley, the woman whose speech at Mount Holyoke had set the course of her career. Her work focused on the need for sanitary regulations for bakeries, fire protection for factories, and legislation to limit the working hours for women and children in factories to 54 hours per week. Much of her work was in Albany, in the halls and committee rooms of the state capitol. There, with the guidance and counsel of Assemblyman Al Smith, Senator Robert Wagner and newfound Tammany Hall allies, Frances Perkins learned the skills of an effective lobbyist for labor and social reforms.

On March 25, 1911, Frances Perkins was having tea with friends in New York City’s Washington Square when the group heard fire engines. Running to the scene of the fire, Frances Perkins witnessed in horror as 47 workers – mostly young women – jumped from the eighth and ninth floors of the building to their deaths on the street below. In all, 146 died as flames engulfed the upper three stories of the building. The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was, she later proclaimed, “the day the New Deal was born.” In response to the fire, a citizen’s Committee on Safety was established to recommend practices to prevent a further tragedy in the city’s factories.

At the suggestion of Theodore Roosevelt, Frances Perkins was hired as the group’s executive secretary. One of the Committee’s first actions was to seek a state commission to investigate and make legislative recommendations. The Factory Investigating Commission’s mandate was much broader than originally contemplated: to study not only fire safety, but other threats to the health and well-being of industrial workers and the impact of those threats upon families. Frances Perkins, by that time a recognized expert in the field of worker health and safety, served as expert witness, investigator and guide, leading legislators on inspections of the state’s factories and worksites to view first-hand the dangers of unfettered industrialism. The Commission’s work resulted in the most comprehensive set of laws governing workplace health and safety in the nation.

These new laws became a model for other states and the federal government. Reflecting on her years as lobbyist, investigator and researcher, Frances Perkins later said, “The extent to which this legislation in New York marked a change in American political attitudes and policies toward social responsibility can scarcely be overrated. It was, I am convinced, a turning point.”

The gubernatorial election of 1918 was the first in which women in New York had the right to vote. Frances Perkins campaigned hard to capture the women’s vote for Al Smith, her friend and ally during her prior work in Albany. Shortly after his election as governor, Smith appointed her to a vacant seat on the New York State Industrial Commission. She was the first woman to be appointed to an administrative position in New York state government and, with an annual salary of $8000, the highest paid woman ever to hold public office in the United States. Smith’s goal was to weed out the incompetence and corruption in the state labor department so that Frances and her fellow commissioners would enforce the laws the Factory Investigating Commission had brought about. For Smith’s four terms as governor, Frances Perkins served as his closest labor advisor, working with him to build on the legislative accomplishments of the prior decade. In his final term, he appointed her to chair the Industrial Commission.

In the election of 1928, Smith lost his bid to become the nation’s president, and New York elected a new governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt asked Frances Perkins to become the state’s Industrial Commissioner, with oversight responsibilities for the entire labor department. Soon, she became the most prominent state labor official in the nation, as she and Roosevelt searched for new ways to deal with rising unemployment. “We have awakened with a shock to the frightful injustice of economic conditions which will allow men and women who are willing to work to suffer the distress of hunger and cold and humiliating dependence. We have determined to find out what makes involuntary employment,” she said.

Boldly, Perkins challenged the Hoover Administration’s prediction in January of 1930 that employment was on the rise and recovery from the depression was in sight. Angry at what she considered a heartless deception, she called a press conference and announced that Hoover had been wrong. Figures from the New York Bureau of Labor Statistics showed a steady decline in employment, with that January’s unemployment slated to be the worst in sixteen years. Her confrontation with the White House made front-page news throughout the country. As the Hoover Administration continued to make reassuring statements about the economy, she countered with statistical evidence of growing unemployment. “It is cruel and irresponsible to issue misleading statements of improvement in unemployment, at a time when the unemployed are reaching the end of their resources,” she said.

From her position in New York State, Frances Perkins worked with representatives of labor and industry to explore long-range programs to increase employment. She helped organize a conference on unemployment of the seven industrial states of the Northeast. She reorganized and expanded the state’s employment agencies, but increasingly, her focus was on devising a program of unemployment insurance. With her encouragement, Roosevelt became the first public official in the country to commit himself to unemployment insurance, and in 1930, he sent Perkins to England to study the British system. In October, she returned, armed with recommendations for an American version of that program.

With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as President in 1932, Frances Perkins’ years in public service in New York were over. Soon, however, the policies and programs Frances Perkins had advanced for the State of New York were about to be tested for all the nation.

When, in February, 1933, President-elect Roosevelt asked Frances Perkins to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of Labor, she outlined for him a set of policy priorities she would pursue: a 40-hour work week a minimum wage unemployment compensation worker’s compensation abolition of child labor direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief Social Security a revitalized federal employment service and universal health insurance. She made it clear to Roosevelt that his agreement with these priorities was a condition of her joining his cabinet. Roosevelt said he endorsed them all, and Frances Perkins became the first woman in the nation to serve in a Presidential cabinet.

From her earliest days in the Roosevelt cabinet, Frances Perkins was a forceful advocate for massive public works programs to bring the nation’s unemployed back to work. Within a month of Roosevelt’s inauguration, Congress enacted legislation establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps, which Roosevelt asked Perkins to implement. Roosevelt also asked her to present a plan for an emergency relief program, and she delivered a young social worker from New York named Harry Hopkins who had visited Frances in Washington with his own proposal. That proposal became embodied in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which Hopkins led. Before Roosevelt presented his final One Hundred Days legislation to the Congress, the National Industrial Recovery Act, Perkins convinced him to allocate $3.3 billion for public works from the moneys appropriated. Serving as a member of the Special Board for Public Works, Perkins helped to ensure that money was spent on socially useful projects: schools, roads, highway, housing projects and post offices. Public works construction employed a many as 1.5 – 2 million people in 1934.

In 1934, Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins to head a Committee on Economic Security, where she forged the blueprint of legislation finally enacted as the Social Security Act. Signed into law by the President on August 14, 1935, the Act included a system of old age pensions, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation and aid to the needy and disabled.

In 1938, Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act, also crafted with the support of Perkins, establishing a minimum wage and maximum work hours and banning child labor.

At the time of Roosevelt’s death in April of 1945, Frances Perkins was the longest serving labor secretary and one of only two cabinet secretaries to serve the entire length of the Roosevelt Presidency. In 1944, a piece portraying Frances Perkins in Collier’s magazine described her accomplishments over the previous twelve years as “not so much the Roosevelt New Deal, as … the Perkins New Deal.” She had accomplished all but one of the items on the agenda she had presented to the newly elected President in February of 1933: universal access to health care.

Before leaving the Department of Labor in June of 1945, Frances Perkins stood in the department’s auditorium, and while a full orchestra played, she shook the hands, and personally thanked every one, of the department’s 1800 employees. The following evening, she was honored at the Mayflower Hotel. The months that followed were busy, as she began writing The Roosevelt I Knew, a best-selling biography of FDR published in 1946, and serving as head of the American delegation to the International Labor Organization in Paris.

The following year, President Truman appointed her to the United States Civil Service Commission, a position she held until 1953. She then began a new career of teaching, writing and public lectures, ultimately serving until her death as a lecturer at Cornell University’s new School of Industrial Relations.

Frances Perkins suffered a stroke and died at Midtown Hospital in New York City on May 14, 1965, at the age of 85. She is buried alongside her husband, Paul Wilson, in the Glidden Cemetery on the River Road in Newcastle, Maine, a short distance from the Brick House, the place she always considered her home.

Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall at the grave of his grandparents. Glidden Cemetery, Newcastle, Maine.


Franklin D. Roosevelt

In 1929, New York State Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as the Industrial Commissioner of the State of New York. FDR recognized her intelligence, wit, and no-nonsense attitude and knew she was right for the job. She took full advantage of her new position to help the impoverished.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Perkins persistently encouraged FDR to take action. FDR became the first American governor to stress that unemployment was a major national problem (Downey 110). He created a committee on employment, and appointed Perkins to be in charge. She traveled to England to study their unemployment compensation program in order to construct a similar program in the United States.

In January 1930, Ms. Perkins made news when she publically contradicted President Herbert Hoover about the severity of the nation’s economic and unemployment problems. FDR admired her courage. The admiration was mutual: “Frances saw that Roosevelt treated her as a peer, and in return she devoted to him her skills, diplomacy, and remarkable emotional intelligence” (Downey 303).


Contributions to Public Administration: Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins was the first woman Cabinet member and the longest serving Secretary of Labor (1933 -1945) in US history. Although she might be notable for that alone, her legacy is much greater. She has had a large and continuing impact on the lives of all Americans. She served for 40 years in public service at the local, state and federal levels, contributing significantly both to the creation of new policies and to their effective implementation. Among other accomplishments, Frances Perkins lowered the barriers for women in the workforce, while also setting a high standard for effectiveness in public service.

Already a teacher and active in both women’s suffrage and workers’ rights issues, in 1910 Perkins joined the New York office of the National Consumers League. Greatly affected by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 women, she entered government as the executive secretary of the Committee on Safety of the City of New York in 1912.

In 1919, Perkins was nominated by New York Governor Al Smith for the state’s Industrial Commission, as a voice for women in the workforce. She became one of three commissioners overseeing the industrial code. This job involved supervising both the bureau of information and statistics and the bureau of mediation and arbitration. In 1929, newly elected Governor Franklin Roosevelt appointed her to be the first New York state industrial commissioner. There she supervised an agency with 1,800 employees and achieved numerous workforce reforms.

Early In 1933, now President Roosevelt selected Perkins as his Secretary of Labor, and Time magazine put her face on its cover. She played a key cabinet role in writing and later implementing New Deal legislation. She was intimately involved with the Civilian Conservation Corps and other public works agencies and the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act. She also played a major role in crafting the Social Security Act of 1935, which established national unemployment benefits, pensions for the elderly, and welfare for the poorest Americans.

In addition, Frances Perkins had a major impact on the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established the first minimum wage and overtime laws, defined the standard 40 hour work week, and restricted the use of child labor. She also developed governmental policy for working with labor unions, and dealt with many labor questions during World War II, including issues related to women moving into previously male jobs. Although President Truman selected his own Secretary of Labor in 1945, he appointed Perkins to the US Civil Service Commission, where she served until 1952.

Following her years of public service, Perkins returned to a teaching career until her death in 1965 at age 85. She taught and lectured primarily at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, while also giving guest lectures at other universities. The headquarters building of the Department of Labor was renamed in her honor in 1980, and in 2019 she was an inaugural member of Government Executive magazine’s Government Hall of Fame.


San Diego Gay and Lesbian News

(Editor's note: October is LGBT History Month, celebrated annually to recognize the notable achievements of LGBT people throughout time. Each day this month, Equality Forum will feature one LGBT icon who has made notable contributions to society and SDGLN will publish the story here in the Causes section. View previous LGBT History Month icons HERE.)

Frances Perkins was the first woman appointed to the U.S. cabinet, serving as U.S. secretary of labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1945—longer than anyone else who held the post.

As the principal architect of FDR’s New Deal, Perkins helped write and lobby for legislation in response to the Great Depression. Her myriad achievements include establishing pensions, unemployment and workers’ compensation, a minimum wage and overtime, the 40-hour workweek, child labor laws, new jobs through public works programs, and the blueprint for the Social Security Act—considered her greatest accomplishment.

During Hitler’s rise to power, Perkins facilitated the entry of tens of thousands of immigrants to the United States, two thirds of whom were European Jews fleeing the Nazis.


Perkins, Frances: The Roosevelt Years

The previous entry (Frances Perkins: Change Agent) covered Frances Perkins life up until the time Roosevelt ran for president. It showed how this very bright girl turned from her family’s Republican background to make a commitment to social reform. She became a woman who sought out and worked with leading reformers. She learned the ins and outs of machine politics and became an expert on labor statistics. In each step forward she had to contend with being a woman who was doing things women of her status did not do. Nothing attests more to her brilliance than the way she overcame these obstacles even though she was not a glad hander.

Roosevelt took office in March 1932. The depression was almost three years old. In terms that are startlingly similar to today Downey describes the social conditions that brought this on, “Homes rose markedly in value, especially in hot markets like Florida and New York City. Borrowers believed that home purchases were no-risk ventures certain to escalate, and they went out on a limb to buy a home. Lenders who had once required large down payments now permitted home purchasers to combine two and three loans to buy a home. People took out what they called “bullet” loans which were interest-only loans that buyers were told they could refinance in three years or five years. Lenders told home buyers not to worry homes were rising so fast in value that it would always be easy to refinance into another loan. Developers built larger homes. They needed the space to hold all the things they were buying (Downey 2009, p. 106).”

When Roosevelt assumed the presidency the country was frightened and angry. The ringing tones of his inaugural address live on, “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” There was social unrest. Early in his term the Bonus March by WWI veterans was broken up by Chief of Staff Douglas McArthur and his aide Captain Dwight Eisenhower. McArthur thought it was a Communist conspiracy.

Roosevelt needed the best help he could get. He created the famous “Brain Trust.” This was a mens club and Perkins was not a part of it. But he decided to make her the Secretary of Labor. This was to be the first woman cabinet member. He did this against tremendous opposition. Labor had supported him but they wanted one of their own in the position. The Baltimore Sun said in an editorial about her, “A woman smarter than a man is something to get on guard about. But a woman smarter than a man and also not afraid of a man, well, good-night.”

The Labor department that Perkins found called into play all her research and political skills. It was corrupt and inefficient and hadn’t accomplished much. Many were removed and some eventually went to jail. No detail was too small. In her shabby offices cockroaches were found. This was because black employees were not allowed to use the department cafeteria and brought their lunches to work. She and her secretary cleaned the office and soon ordered the cafeteria to be integrated.

At the time that she was getting the office in order she was also playing a major role in initiating legislation and programs which fundamentally changed social welfare in this country. Labor statistics were made respectable and she started the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Other efforts included protecting immigrant labor through championing the International Labor Organization (ILO), starting the WPA arts projects, and creating the important Federal Home Owners Loan Corporation. She was heavily involved in launching the National Recovery Act (NRA) which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional.

When she first arrived in Washington she lived with Mary Harriman, a wealthy widow. This was another friend who provided support. Frances’s salary could not cover the payments she was making for her family and living in Washington. One activity that occupied a lot of her time was dealing with labor factions that were in conflict. John L. Lewis moved to organize labor along industrial and not craft lines. This became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). This was resisted by the craft organized American Federation of Labor (AFL). She worked hard to promote labor peace. This was difficult because especially AFL labor leaders still did not like her because she was a woman.

One incident which showed how easily she could be attacked concerned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It was known to be biased toward labor and to have Communist members on the board. She was blamed for this even though the Board was not under her control.

What she did do was play a significant role in getting the Social Security bill through Congress. Developing unemployment insurance is less mentioned but is an equally significant program. All of this required that FDR back it. And he did even though by nature he was not that liberal. He did think that the Depression required fundamental change in society.

All this social progress caused great distress among American conservatives. Given the social causes she had championed she became a target. In 1939 an effort was made to impeach her. She was charged by Martin Dies’ House Un-American Activities committee with protecting communists. J. Parnell Thomas, another well known Communist hunter, introduced the motion to impeach her, another first for a cabinet officer. The initiating cause for this effort was her defense of Harry Bridges’s rights. He was a longshoreman labor leader on the West Coast who had won a strike in 1934. This did not sit well with influential shipping industry leaders. An effort was made to deport him as a Communist. Perkins did not like Bridges. Among other things he was a woman chaser and this offended this very moral woman. Still, she insisted that proper procedures be followed and this is what got her into trouble with Congress. She was charged with protecting Communists. The attacks on her were widespread and underhanded. Records were produced that purported to show that she was born a Russian Jew. Rumors were circulated that she was a lesbian and also that she had an affair with Bridges. People questioned why a woman should be in such a position. Since Bridges was CIO the AFL did nothing to support Frances. The Committee finally unanimously concluded that the charges were not warranted. Still the 10 Republicans issued a minority report saying she should be censured.

Throughout all of this Roosevelt did not do anything to defend Perkins and kept cabinet members from doing so also. When it came to playing the political odds friendship and loyalty meant nothing to Roosevelt. She paid a price for this. In 1939 war was imminent. Extremism of all forms was also in evidence there were America Firsters, the anti-Semitic Father Coughlin, Fritz Kuhn and the German American Bund, and other brands of conservatives. She made attempts to bring more refugees here, labor leaders in particular. This was blocked, especially by a conservative State Department. Control of the Immigration and Naturalization Service was transferred from Labor to Justice ostensibly out of concern for national security. The one thing she did salvage from this was to help support and build the International Labor Organization (ILO). This group played a significant role in rescuing European labor leaders. They were one of the first groups Hitler went after when he came to power. To top all of this off the Supreme Court decided a case which upheld the procedures Frances said should be used in deportation cases.

Being proved right brought little solace to Perkins. Roosevelt was her friend and he relied on her in personal relationships. He would not fire her, but he also saw her as a pacifist and as the war approached he relied on her advice less. She continued to lose power and agencies such as employment and unemployment were transferred to the Federal Security Agency. With the end of the war and Roosevelt’s death she was ready to resign but Truman persuaded her to stay on. She wanted to take over Social Security but he persuaded her to stay in the cabinet. She wrote a good book about Roosevelt, The Roosevelt I Knew , but refused to take book tours so sales were low. She also had to endure new rumors as the McCarthy era commenced.

The end of the Truman era left her at age 77 without a job and needing money. She did short term university teaching and was a good teacher but couldn’t get a permanent job. Her reputation as a radical left most universities leery of her. Then in 1957 Maurice Neufeld hired her to teach at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. She was to teach labor history and the New Deal Legacy, courses for which she was eminently prepared. This began what may be the most amazing phase in her career. She still had to struggle to find living arrangements she could afford. She visited the endowed Telluride House in which selected students lived in an intellectual atmosphere. Visiting scholars lived there for short periods. Frances had so charmed the students she was invited to live there permanently. Among the students there were Alan Bloom and Paul Wolfowitz. She quickly became a legend. It is quite a picture, a woman in her eighties getting along famously with undergraduate college students. In the spring of 1965 when she had an eye problem she came to Hopkins and lived at the All Saints Convent in Catonsville, Md. where she had previously come on retreats. She was not a Catholic but religion played a large role in her life. She was still making plans to travel abroad when she died on May 14, 1965.

Downey says, “The secret of Frances’s success was that she had done what she did selflessly, without hope of personal gain or public recognition from those who would come afterward. It was a perpetuation of the Hull House tradition of the old teaching the young how to advocate for the yet unborn.” She was also tough, not aggressive or hostile but she always moved from personal strength. Neither the depth nor scope of her contribution to American society is truly appreciated. The list is long and includes helping pass legislation for fire prevention and safety occupancy codes for offices and factories, Social Security, unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation for job injuries, minimum wages, and maximum work-hours , workplace safety regulations, a ban on child labor—the Fair Labor Standards Act. Her only major failure was in her desire to get universal health insurance. To accomplish what she did she mastered concrete political and research skills. Her tragic personal life did not prevent her from being one of the most important individuals in American history. Perkins demonstrated that the way to achieve change is through understanding and working with politics and politicians. To her politics and compromise were not dirty words but rather, the way to get things done in American society.

Sources: Downey, K. (2009). The woman behind the New Deal: The life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and his moral conscience. New York Doubleday.

Note: This entry first appeared as a column in The Maryland Social Worker (Spring 2012)


Frances Perkins - History


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“Conscience and Courage: Little Known Heroes Who Saved Lives”

Here at the Frances Perkins Center, the Coronavirus hasn’t changed our work so much as it has made it even clearer why it matters. New Deal principles, intelligently implemented, rescued millions of Americans in earlier generations. Applied to twenty-first century challenges, we believe that New Deal principles can make the difference today. And, like our namesake, the Frances Perkins Center is committed to being part of the solution.

July 2021: We are delighted to announce the re-opening of our Exhibit Center located at 170A Main Street in Damariscotta by appointment beginning in July. Call us in advance to schedule a visit Tuesday through Fridays from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM. We do ask, for now, to please wear a mask as our space is small and we want to ensure we are protecting everyone in our community. We also encourage you to watch for new news and updates via the Frances Perkins Center Facebook page and our regular e-newsletter.

Frances Perkins Documentaries

A 30-minute documentary created by the Frances Perkins Center to accompany its traveling exhibit.

Summoned: Frances Perkins and the General Welfare
Documentary premiered by PBS in March 2020. Watch a quick video clip here.

Access Summoned on a variety of media platforms.

Frances Perkins Center Purchases National Historic Landmark

January 3, 2020: the Frances Perkins Center purchased the Frances Perkins Homestead to preserve and protect this National Historic Landmark as an educational resource for Maine and the nation. The generosity of hundreds of donors who seek to honor the principles and legacy of Frances Perkins made this achievement possible.

We are now working on preservation efforts to ready the Homestead for safe public access.
To learn more about how you help, visit Homestead Campaign.

Mission Statement

The Frances Perkins Center honors the legacy of Frances Perkins by sharing her commitment to the principle that government should provide all its people with the best possible life, and by preserving the place that shaped her character. The Center convenes leaders and future leaders in public policy, labor and related fields to generate creative solutions to today’s social and economic problems and teaches students of all ages about a remarkable woman whose work continues to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.


Meet Frances Perkins

Originally named Fannie Coralie Perkins, Frances Perkins was born April 10, 1882 in Boston, MA. She spend most of childhood in Worcester and attended Worcester’s Classical High School. Her father was a partner in a stationary and supply store. He began to teach her Greek at age 8 and to read and appreciated classical literature. She was raised in a strict, conservative, religious, middle class family environment.

Education

In 1902 she graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a BA and also served as president of her class. She majored in physics and had minors in chemistry and biology.

During her last semester she took a course in economic history. The instructor required students to visit the nearby mills along the Connecticut River to observe working conditions. Later she wrote: “While in college I was horrified at the work that many women and children had to do in factories. There were no effective laws that regulated the number of hours they could work. There were no provisions to guard their health nor offer compensation in case of injury. I was inspired to help change those abuses.”

Her fellow students organized a chapter of the National Consumers League and invited the executive secretary, Florence Kelley, to speak at Mount Holyoke. Ms. Perkins later noted that “the speech opened my mind regarding work that became my vocation.”

In 1910 she earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in sociology and economics.

Early Employment and Roles

In 1902 she moved to Lake Forrest, IL near Chicago and became a science teacher at Ferry Hall, a college oriented toward wealthy young women. There she formally changed her name. She also was involved with Hull House in Chicago.

In 1907 she took a job in Philadelphia as general secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association, which was concerned with immigrant women who were forced into sexual slavery. In 1910 she became executive secretary of the Consumer’s League of New York. She investigated labor conditions and successfully lobbied the state legislature to restrict the hours of women workers to 54 hours per week.

During her early academic and employment roles, she became sensitive to the plight of immigrants and the poor. She had learned political skills in conflict resolution that often resolved differences between employers and workers.

A Mind Opening Experience

By chance on March 25, 1911, Ms. Perkins experienced a life-changing event. She was having tea with a wealthy friend who lived at Washington Square in New York City. They learned that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was on fire only a short distance away. They rushed to the scene and witnessed the horror. It changed Ms. Perkins forever and created her permanent commitment to worker rights and safety.

Family

In 1913 she married Paul Caldwell Wilson. He was an economist. She had one child, a daughter. Later, he began exhibiting mental issues that kept him institutionalized for much of his later life.

City and State Work Experience

National Work Experience

  • A 40-hour work week
  • A minimum wage
  • Unemployment compensation
  • Worker’s compensation
  • Abolition of child labor
  • Direct federal aid to states for unemployment relief
  • Social Security
  • A revitalized federal employment service
  • Universal health insurance

FDR Asks Perkins to Head Committee on Economic Security

Death

Frances Perkins Stamp – 1980

References

Several books have been written about Frances Perkins, her work and accomplishments. Here are a few:

  • Kristin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, Anchor, 2009
  • Penny Colman, A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements Of Frances Perkins, iUniverse, 2010.
  • S. Miller, The New Deal as a Triumph of Social Work: Frances Perkins and the Confluence of Early Twentieth Century Social Work with Mid-Twentieth Century Politics and Government, Palgrave Pivot, 2015.
  • Naomi Pasachoff, Frances Perkins: Champion of the New Deal, Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Bill Severn, Frances Perkins: A Member of the Cabinet, Hawthorn Books, 1976.

There are numerous Internet web sites covering many details about Frances Perkins. Below is a partial list:


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