Frances Perkins: The First Female Cabinet Member
Born Fannie Coralie Perkins, Frances Perkins Wilson made history when she was appointed U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Not only was did she have that position longer than anyone else, but Perkins was the first woman to ever serve on the U.S. Cabinet. Along with Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, Perkins remained in Roosevelt’s cabinet throughout his entire presidency. She was apart of the creation of both the New Deal and the Social Security programs. Before becoming involved in politics and social reform, Perkins was a teacher and the first woman to serve on the New York State Industrial Commission.
On April 10, 1880, Fannie Coralie Perkins was born to Susan Bean Perkins and Frederick W. Perkins, a stationer’s business owner, in Boston, Massachusetts. She was christened Fannie Coralie Perkins, but in 1905 she changed her name to Frances upon joining the Episcopal church. Much of Perkins’ childhood was spent in Worcester, Massachusetts where she attended Classical High School in the city.
With a Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry and physics, Perkins graduated Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Perkins got her master’s degree from Columbia University in political science in 1910. For some time, she took up many different positions teaching such as teaching chemistry at Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois (Lake Forest Academy) from 1904-06. Perkins also volunteered at many settlement houses, one of them being Jane Addams’s Hull House, in Chicago. At University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, thirty-eight year old Perkins began studying in both economics and sociology in 1918.
Perkins became known around the state when she was head of the New York Consumers League in 1910. She began vigorously lobbying for better working hours and conditions while teaching sociology at Adelphi College in New York. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was a tragic fire in New York City, one of the deadliest industrial disasters in New York history, was a pivotal moment for her. Due to this, Perkins left the New York Consumers League to become the Committee on Safety of the City of New York’s executive secretary.
Defending her right in court to do so, Perkis kept her birth name when she married Paul Caldwell Wilson, an economist from New York, in 1913. The two of them had a daughter they named Susanna. However, often Wilson was institutionalized due to mental illness, leaving Perkins as the sole support for her household. Biographer Kirstin described Wilson and their daughter Susanna as both having “manic-depressive symptoms”.
Before moving to D.C. and being appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, Perkins was active in the New York government and held various positions. New Yorker political leaders had come to respect her as well. Governor Alfred Smith added her to the Industrial Commission of the State of New York, the first woman to do so. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been newly appointed as governor of New York in 1929 when he appointed Perkins as the inaugural Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor. Perkins was then able to assist New York in becoming the forefront of progressive return by earning respect and cooperation from various politicians in the state. She achieved many different things during her time on the New York State governor. Perkins expanded factory investigations, reduced workweek for women to forty-eight hours, and also championed minimum wage and unemployment insurance law. By working hard, she put an end to child labor and provided safety for working women.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Perkins onto his cabinet when he became president in 1933, giving her the position of Secretary of the Department of Labor, preceding William Doak. For twelve years, Perkins served on the cabinet and held the position longer than any other Secretary of Labor. Frances Perkins was the first woman to ever hold a position on the U.S. cabinet, making history. This also made her the first woman to enter the presidential line of succession. For the most part, Roosevelt supported Perkins in her work and goals to improve life for the working class.
Perkins played a key role in the U.S. cabinet by writing the New Deal legislation and minimum-wage laws. In 1934, only a year after her appointment, Perkins became Chairwoman of the President’s Committee on Economic Security, the most important contribution during her time as secretary. Perkins was involved in all aspects of reports in this new post, playing a part in creating the Civilian Conservation Corps and the She-She-She Camps. She drafted the Social Security Act of 1935, and on the day it was signed and became law, her husband Paul Wilson escaped a mental institution.
Some Congress members were angry with her when she refused to deport the communist head Harry Bridges of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in 1939. The Supreme Court eventually vindicated Bridges anyway.
After twelve years, Perkins left the cabinet on June 30, 1945, having served since March 4, 1933, with Lewis Schwellenbach as her successor. President Harry Truman requested she serve on the United States Civil Commission. Perkins did until her husband died in 1952 and she resigned from federal service. Before her husband’s death, Perkins published a memoir about Franklin Roosevelt and her time in his administration called The Roosevelt I Knew in 1946, giving the former president a sympathetic viewpoint.
At the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, Perkins taught and gave lectures after resigning from federal service. She continued to do so until her death. Frances Perkins died at eighty-five years old on May 14, 1965 in New York City. She was buried in Newcastle, Maine in the Glidden Cemetery. Today her legacy lives on as the first woman on the United States Cabinet along with her other accomplishments. Perkins’ work with creating social security, unemployment insurance, federal laws that regulated child, and federal minimum wage in the United States. During World War II, Perkins had been able to deal with and fix many labor related questions because of the war.