Frances Perkins Biography

(United States Secretary of Labor (1933-45))

Birthday: April 10, 1880 (Aries)

Born In: Boston, Massachusetts, United States

Frances Perkins was an American activist, sociologist, stateswoman, and the fourth US Secretary of Labor. Her tenure lasted for 12 years, from 1933 to 1945, which effectively made her the longest-serving secretary of labor in the history of the United States. She also has the distinction of being the first woman to be included in the US Cabinet. A staunch loyalist and friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Perkins played a crucial role in leading the labor movement to the New Deal coalition. Alongside Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, she remained part of the cabinet throughout Roosevelt’s presidency. As the secretary of labor, Perkins implemented a number of aspects of the New Deal, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and its successor the Federal Works Agency, and the labor section of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Through the Social Security Act, she set up unemployment benefits, pensions for the many uncovered elderly Americans, and welfare for the poorest Americans. During World War II, at a time when skilled labor was quintessential and women were migrating towards traditionally male jobs, Perkins provided responses to several labor queries. Following Roosevelt’s death, she submitted her resignation from the cabinet but maintained her association with the government as a US civil service commissioner until 1953.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Frances Coralie Perkins

Died At Age: 85


Spouse/Ex-: Paul Caldwell Wilson (m. 1913–1952)

father: Frederick W. Perkins

mother: Susan Bean Perkins

children: Susanna Wilson Coggeshall

Born Country: United States

Lawyers Activists

Died on: May 14, 1965

place of death: New York, New York, United States

Notable Alumni: Mount Holyoke College

U.S. State: Massachusetts

More Facts

education: Columbia University, Mount Holyoke College, University of Pennsylvania

  • 1

    What were Frances Perkins' major accomplishments?

    Frances Perkins was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet as Secretary of Labor, where she played a crucial role in establishing many New Deal programs during the Great Depression.
  • 2

    How did Frances Perkins impact labor rights in the United States?

    Frances Perkins is known for her work in improving labor conditions and advocating for workers' rights, including the establishment of Social Security, minimum wage laws, and the 40-hour work week.
  • 3

    What role did Frances Perkins play in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire?

    Frances Perkins witnessed the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, which motivated her to advocate for workplace safety and ultimately influenced her career in labor reform.
  • 4

    How did Frances Perkins contribute to the creation of Social Security?

    Frances Perkins played a key role in the development and implementation of Social Security, a landmark program that provides financial support to retirees, the disabled, and survivors of workers.
  • 5

    What was Frances Perkins' approach to addressing unemployment during the Great Depression?

    Frances Perkins focused on implementing policies to create jobs and provide relief to those suffering from unemployment, leading to the establishment of numerous public works programs and initiatives.
Childhood & Early Life
Born Fannie Coralie Perkins on April 10, 1880, in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, Perkins was the daughter of Susan Bean Perkins and Frederick W. Perkins. Her father owned a stationery business. She grew up with a sister, Ethel Perkins Harrington.
Perkins was a student of the Classical High School in Worcester before enrolling at Mount Holyoke College, from where she earned her B.A. degree in chemistry and physics in 1902.
During her time at Mount Holyoke, Perkins developed an active interest in progressive politics and the suffrage movement. She studied under the renowned academic Annah May Soule, who sent her students for a visit to a factory to witness and assess the working conditions. In later years, Perkins would come to view Soule’s class as a significant influence.
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Career in Academia & Further Studies
After leaving college, Perkins did a number of teaching jobs. When she became a member of the Episcopal Church in 1905, she adopted a new name, Frances, and discarded the old, Fannie.
In 1907, she relocated to Philadelphia and began attending University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, pursuing a degree in economics. Two years later, she went to Greenwich Village to enrol at Columbia University.
During this period, she joined the suffrage movement, taking part in protests and meetings, and defending the cause on street corners. In 1910, she earned her master’s degree in political science from Columbia.
Career in the Public Service
Frances Perkins gained state-wide recognition when she was appointed the executive secretary of the Consumers League of New York in 1910. She held that position until 1912, and during this period, she played a pivotal role in securing improved wages and working conditions, particularly for women and children.
She was also associated with Adelphi College as a professor of sociology. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took place, which had a drastic effect on her.
Between 1912 and 1917, she served as the executive secretary of the New York Committee on Safety, and then as the executive director of the New York Council of Organization for War Service between 1917 and 1919.
In 1919, Frances Perkins was made a member of New York’s State Industrial Commission by Governor Alfred E. Smith. She joined the State Industrial Board in 1923. Three years later, she was appointed its chairwoman.
Smith’s successor was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who made her the state industrial commissioner in 1929. Even before the advent of the Great Depression of the 1930s, she was an ardent proponent of unemployment insurance and intimate government supervision of fiscal policy and continued to be so during and after what came to be regarded as the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world.
The US Secretary of Labor
In 1933, Roosevelt requested Frances Perkins to join his cabinet as the secretary of labor. They had previously worked together in Albany, so each was well aware of how the other person operated.
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Perkins showed Roosevelt a long list of labor programs that she wanted to implement, and FDR promised to support her. In the ensuing 12 years, he kept that promise for the most part.
Her nomination had the backings of the National League of Women Voters and the Women's Party, but the American Federation of Labor opposed it, believing that she did not have any significant connection to labor. Being the first woman to occupy a place in the US Cabinet, she was also effectively the first woman to join the presidential line of succession.
During her tenure, Frances Perkins played a pivotal role in directing the labor movement towards the New Deal coalition. She advocated for and was able to introduce acts that ensured a minimum wage and maximum workweek, a restriction on hiring children under 16, the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and unemployment compensation.
In 1934, as the chairwoman of the President's Committee on Economic Security (CES), she performed her most prolific task through her contribution in every aspect of the reports, particularly in the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the She-She-She Camps.
In 1935, Frances Perkins created the Social Security Act. Her husband ran away from a mental institution on the day the Social Security Bill became a law.
In 1939, she was heavily criticised by a few members of the Congress for not agreeing to the proposed deportation of the Communist leader of the west coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Harry Bridges, who was ultimately exonerated by the Supreme Court.
After FDR’s death in April 1945, Vice-President Harry S. Truman assumed the presidential office. He wanted his own cabinet. Perkins stepped down as the secretary of labor on June 30, 1945. Truman subsequently made her a US civil service commissioner, a post she held until 1953.
Family & Personal Life
In 1913, Frances Perkins exchanged wedding vows with New York economist Paul Caldwell Wilson. She did not take her husband’s name as she wanted to keep him safe from the repercussions from her actions in Albany. Her husband was a public figure himself and was serving as the secretary to the New York City mayor. Appearing in court, she advocated for her right to keep her maiden name.
Perkins gave birth to their daughter, Susanna, in December 1916. Less than two years after that, Wilson started demonstrating signs of mental illness and would often be admitted to institutions for the rest of his life.
After her daughter was born, Perkins had stepped back from public life but returned following her husband’s illness to support her family. Biographer Kirstin Downey writes that Susanna showed signs of manic depressions as well.
While Perkins and Wilson remained married until his death in 1952, their relationship deteriorated. Perkins was secretly involved in a romantic relationship with Mary Harriman Rumsey, who founded The Junior League. The women resided together in Washington, D.C. until Rumsey's passing in 1934.
Later Years & Death
Although Frances Perkins concluded her career as a public servant in 1953, she continued to teach at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University until her death. During her time at Cornell, she resided at the Telluride House. She also delivered guest lectures at other universities.
On May 14, 1965, Perkins passed away in New York City. She was 85 years old at the time. She is interred in the Glidden Cemetery in Newcastle, Maine.
Facts About Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins played a key role in the creation of the Social Security Act, which established the Social Security system in the United States.

Perkins was known for her dedication to improving working conditions and advocating for labor rights, earning her the nickname "the woman behind the New Deal."
She was a trailblazer for women in government and paved the way for future generations of women to pursue leadership roles in public service.
Perkins was a lifelong champion for social justice and equality, leaving a lasting impact on American society through her advocacy and policy work.
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