Friday, April 10, 2009

April 10: "…poverty was preventable, destructive, wasteful and demoralizing.”

Do you know who this is?

-She went to court to keep her maiden name as her last name when she married.
-She attended a predominately male high school.
-Here’s the give-away: She was the first female U.S. Cabinet member.

"I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen."
With these words, Frances Perkins changed forever the role of women in high governmental positions.

Fannie Coralie Perkins was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 10, 1880, to Frederick and Susan Bean Perkins. When she was two her family moved to Worchester, where she would grow up. It was there that the Perkins’ owned a profitable stationery business, providing the family with a comfortable upper middle class background. Her parents instilled in Frances a strong desire to "live for God and to accomplish something in life." Fannie would later change her name to Frances.

Frances would, with the approval and support of her father, attend the mostly-male Worcester Classical High School. In 1902 she would graduate from Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, with a BA degree. At Mount Holyoke she was exposed to the rising movement toward social reform – lectures that would give guidance and direction to her life and career. While attending Mount Holyoke College, Frances read Jacob Riis's How The Other Half Lives, studied economics, and met National Consumers League secretary Florence Kelley – who would open a door of opportunity for her later.

She would hold a variety of teaching positions in and around Chicago – including teaching at the Young Ladies’ Seminary at Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois – which has been described as ‘the liberal alter ego’ to conservative Lake Forest, and invited such reformist speakers as Eugene Debs and Jacob Riis. During this time she also worked as a volunteer in settlement houses, including the famous Hull House. Frances would attend Columbia University, New York, graduating with a master’s degree in Sociology in 1910. That same year she was appointed the head of the NCL (National Consumer’s League) in New York – where she would lobby for better hours and working conditions for America’s laborers. She successfully lobbied the New York state legislature to enact legislation limiting women to a 54-hour week.

She had an intense interest in the working poor, and her reformist attitude toward helping the women and the poor intensified on March 25, 1911, after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire where she saw women jumping to their death to escape from the flames. The building lacked fire escapes, resulting in the deaths of 146 garment workers.

In 1913 Frances would marry Paul Caldwell Wilson. However, she kept her maiden name, and would ultimately defend her right to do so in court.

Wilson was an economist and budget expert in the New York Bureau of Municipal Research. She would briefly withdraw from public service after her marriage and the birth of her daughter. After Frances resumed her professional career, her husband suffered an emotion breakdown, from which he never fully recovered.

Her incessant work for minimum hours legislation encouraged Al Smith to appoint her to the Committee on Safety of the City of New York under whose authority she visited workplaces, exposed hazardous practices, and championed legislative reforms. In 1918 Frances accepted Governor Al Smith’s offer to become the first female member of the New York Industrial Commission, and would become chairman of the commission in 1926.

In 1929 Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted Frances to the position of Industrial Commissioner of New York. This was the top position in the state labor department, allowing her to investigate factories and labor conditions, and to reduce the work-week to 48-hours for women. She also was able to encourage the development of minimum wage standards and unemployment insurance legislation.

"I promise to use what brains I have to meet problems with intelligence and courage. I promise that I will be candid about what I know. I promise to all of you who have the right to know, the whole truth so far as I can speak it. If I have been wrong, you may tell me so, for I really have no pride in judgment. I know all judgment is relative. It may be right today and wrong tomorrow. The only thing that makes it truly right is the desire to have it constantly moving in the right direction."
Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1933, and he appointed Frances as the nation’s first woman cabinet member as Secretary of Labor. Roosevelt agreed to her terms that 1) she expected the administration to side with liberal labor practices; and 2) she wanted to spend weekends in New York with her family. She would serve in that position from March 1933 to July 1945.

"What was the New Deal anyhow? Was it a political plot? Was it just a name for a period in history? Was it a revolution? To all of these questions I answer "No." It was something quite different... It was, I think, basically an attitude. An attitude that found voice in expressions like "the people are what matter to government," and "a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life."
As FDR’s key labor advisor, she helped shape and drive the New Deal. She was instrumental in creating the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

When President Truman ascended to office, she resigned in order to all Truman to appoint his own nominee – Lew Schwellenbach – to the position. In the fall of 1945 Truman appointed her to the Civil Service Commission, a position she would occupy until 1953. In 1957, Frances – now age 77 – joined the faculty of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She held that position until her death on May 14, 1965.

She is buried in Newcastle Cemetery, Maine.

Whether one agrees with her policies or not, there is no denying that Frances Perkins left an indelible mark on American society, standards, and history.


Adam Cohen, Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America


Department of Labor
Frances Perkins Center
National Park System
National Women’s Hall of Fame
Social Security Administration


01. Portrait: US Department of Labor
02. Perkins at Desk: Flickr
03. Gravesite: Find A Grave, by Keith Reed

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