Perkins, Frances, 1880-1965

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1880-04-10
Death 1965-05-14
Gender:
Female
Americans
English

Biographical notes:

Frances Perkins was born on April 10, 1880 (some sources say 1882) in Boston, Massachusetts. She was christened Fannie Coralie Perkins but later changed her name to Frances. She was the daughter of Frederick W. Perkins, the owner of a stationer's business, and Susan Bean Perkins. The family moved to Worcester, Massachusetts in 1882. After attending Worcester Classical High School, Perkins entered Mount Holyoke College in 1898. She was president of her class and majored in chemistry and physics, receiving her B.A. degree in 1902. She became interested in labor issues after studying working conditions in Massachusetts and Connecticut factories for two political economy courses taught by Annah May Soule. After graduation, Perkins taught at Monson Academy in Massachusetts and at the Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois. In 1907 she became the General Secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. During her time in Philadelphia she joined the Socialist Party and took classes at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1909 she received a fellowship from the Russell Sage Foundation and earned her M.A. in economics and sociology from Columbia University. From 1910-1912 Perkins served as Secretary of the New York Consumers' League and taught at Adelphi College. She worked for industrial reform, women's suffrage, and the passage of a fifty-four hour work week bill in the New York legislature. After witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911 in which 146 workers died, Perkins took a position with the Committee on Safety of the City of New York and worked there until 1915. On September 26, 1913 she married Paul Caldwell Wilson, an economist for the Bureau of Municipal Research in New York. During the 1920s Wilson suffered increasingly mental illness. From 1930 until his death in 1952 he spent most of his time in institutions. The couple had two children; the first died in infancy and the second was a daughter born in 1916 named Susanna Winslow Wilson. In 1918 Perkins was appointed to the New York State Industrial Commission, becoming the highest paid state employee in the United States with a salary of $8,000. From 1920-1922 she served as Executive Secretary of the Council on Immigrant Education before returning to work for the Industrial Commission from 1922-1928. From 1928-1933 Perkins was Industrial Commissioner for New York State. From 1933-1945 Perkins was the Secretary of Labor in Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet. She was the first woman to hold a position in a presidential cabinet. She helped draft the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the Civilian Conservation Act, the Social Security Act, and other important legislation. Perkins was the target of much criticism in her position. Because of her pro-labor stance, employers often accused her of encouraging union violence. In 1939 Representative J. Parnell Thomas proposed a resolution instructing the House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether she should be impeached for refusing to deport Harry Bridges, a longshoremen's leader and suspected communist. The resolution failed. From 1934-1944 Perkins also was a trustee of Mount Holyoke College. From 1946-1956 she served on the United States Civil Service Commission and lectured widely. From 1957 until her death, Perkins held a professorship at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She died on May 14, 1965 in New York City at the age eighty-five.

From the guide to the Perkins papers MS 0632., ca. 1884-1965., (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)

Frances Perkins was born on April 10, 1880 (some sources say 1882) in Boston, Massachusetts. She was christened Fannie Coralie Perkins but later changed her name to Frances. She was the daughter of Frederick W. Perkins, the owner of a stationer's business, and Susan Bean Perkins. The family moved to Worcester, Massachusetts in 1882. After attending Worcester Classical High School, Perkins entered Mount Holyoke College in 1898. She was president of her class and majored in chemistry and physics, receiving her B.A. degree in 1902. She became interested in labor issues after studying working conditions in Massachusetts and Connecticut factories for two political economy courses taught by Annah May Soule. After graduation Perkins taught at Monson Academy in Massachusetts and at the Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois. In 1907 she became the General Secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. During her time in Philadelphia, she joined the Socialist Party and took classes at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1909 she received a fellowship from the Russell Sage Foundation and earned her M.A. in economics and sociology from Columbia University. From 1910-1912 Perkins served as Secretary of the New York Consumers' League and taught at Adelphi College. She worked for industrial reform, women's suffrage, and the passage of a fifty-four hour work week bill in the New York legislature. After witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911 in which 146 workers died, Perkins took a position with the Committee on Safety of the City of New York and worked there until 1915. On September 26, 1913 she married Paul Caldwell Wilson, an economist for the Bureau of Municipal Research in New York. During the 1920's Wilson suffered increasingly from mental illness. From 1930 until his death in 1952, he spent most of his time in institutions. The couple had two children; the first died in infancy and the second was a daughter born in 1916 named Susanna Winslow Wilson. In 1918 Perkins was appointed to the New York State Industrial Commission, becoming the highest paid state employee in the United States with a salary of $8,000. From 1920-1922 she served as Executive Secretary of the Council on Immigrant Education before returning to work for the Industrial Commission from 1922-1928. From 1928-1933 Perkins was Industrial Commissioner for New York State. From 1933-1945 Perkins was the Secretary of Labor in Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet. She was the first woman to hold a position in a presidential cabinet. She helped draft the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the Civilian Conservation Act, the Social Security Act, and other important legislation. Perkins was the target of much criticism in her position. Because of her pro-labor stance, employers often accused her of encouraging union violence. In 1939 Representative J. Parnell Thomas proposed a resolution instructing the House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether she should be impeached for refusing to deport Harry Bridges, a longshoremen leader and suspected communist. The resolution failed. From 1934-1944 Perkins also was a trustee of Mount Holyoke College. From 1946-1956 she served on the United States Civil Service Commission and lectured widely. From 1957 until her death Perkins held a professorship at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She died on May 14, 1965 in New York City at the age eighty-five.

From the guide to the Frances Perkins Collection MS 0766., ca. 1933-, 1976-, (Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)

Government executive; interviewee married Paul Wilson.

From the description of Reminiscences of Frances Perkins : oral history, 1955. (Columbia University In the City of New York). WorldCat record id: 309726136

Government official for New York State and the federal government, including Industrial Commissioner of the State of New York, 1929-1932, and United States Secretary of Labor, 1933-1945.

From the description of Papers, 1932-1944. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 155524541

Labor reformer and cabinet officer.

From the description of Papers, ca. 1884-1965. (Lewis & Clark Library). WorldCat record id: 45579156

Perkins was Secretary of Labor. Kirkbride was chair of the Ellis Island subcommittee on social welfare activities.

From the description of TLS, 1934 July 24 : Washington, [D.C.] to Franklin Kirkbride. (Haverford College Library). WorldCat record id: 52849578

Frances Perkins (1882-1965) was the first woman ever appointed to a cabinet position in the United States. As Secretary of Labor during all of President Franklin D. Roosevelt''s administrations she was instrumental in shaping government recognition of the American labor movement. By rebuilding a nearly defunct department she was able to enforce the sweeping legislation that emerged from the New Deal, which aimed to impart rights and dignity ordinary working people never before enjoyed. As an expert on the health and safety of workers, especially women and children, Perkins left an indelible stamp upon the Labor Department and contributed to widespread public support for fair and safe workplaces. Born in Boston on April 10, 1882, to a prosperous upper-middle-class family, in 1902 Perkins graduated from Mount Holyoke College, where she adopted the social activism characteristic of privileged educated women during the era. A few years after graduation she began working closely with Jane Addams of Chicago''s Hull House, where she observed firsthand the tremendous problems of poverty and social isolation endured by the many immigrants flowing into America at the turn of the century. Perceiving that America was becoming increasingly polarized into a nation of "haves" and "have-nots," she became a reform leader seeking legislation to protect children and improve unsafe working conditions. After moving to New York to earn a master''s degree in social economics from Columbia University, she was profoundly moved in 1911 when she witnessed the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, in which locked doors in an eighth-floor garment sweatshop led to the deaths of 146 workers, mostly women and children. Over the next two decades Perkins committed herself to reforming the horrendous conditions under which the working poor of New York labored. From 1912 to 1917 Perkins served as a member of the Committee on Safety of the City of New York, where she met Roosevelt. In 1918 Gov. Alfred E. Smith appointed Perkins to the New York State Industrial Commission, where she headed the Bureau of Mediation and Arbitration and worked to settle strikes. She lost that post when Smith was defeated in the 1920 gubernatorial election, but when Smith was elected governor again in 1922, she regained her job on the renamed New York State Industrial Board and took over the handling of workmen''s compensation cases. Smith made her head of the board in 1926, and in 1928 he named her state industrial commissioner. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became governor in 1929 he reappointed Perkins, who became a trusted adviser. She worked tirelessly for the eight-hour day, stricter factory-safety laws, and protective labor laws for women and children. When the Depression struck in 1929, Perkins was among the first to call for unemployment compensation, then a rarely considered remedy for joblessness. Hers was a prominent voice arguing for direct government intervention in the workings of the private economy to ensure justice and equity for the unemployed. She was opposed by many industrialists for her reformism and by many labor organizers for her gender, but her competence, integrity, and commitment made her Roosevelt''s first choice for labor secretary when he was elected president in 1932. Perkins immediately went to work to revive a virtually moribund department to meet the challenge of the Depression, and she was the guiding force behind the Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act, minimum-wage laws, welfare, and public works. As labor secretary she was responsible for enforcing the Fair Labor Standards Act and became a scourge of those in private industry who sought to circumvent the law. Once the New Deal legislation was safely passed, Perkins devoted her energies to bolstering the power of the Labor Department to oversee fair labor practices and made the Bureau of Labor Statistics one of the most vital sources of information to economists and political scientists while ensuring that the bureau also gauged the economic health of the American worker. Perkins''s tenure as labor secretary was fraught with controversy. Because she took labor''s side in its struggle with management she was sometimes labeled a Communist, foreshadowing the anticommunist hysteria of the late 1940s and the 1950s. In 1934 she refused to initiate proceedings to deport Harry Bridges, the Australian-born leader of the West Coast Longshoremen''s Union. An alleged Communist, Bridges led a long and costly general strike in San Francisco. Her critics were further outraged in 1937 when she refused to condemn the sit-down strikers in Flint, Michigan, for their takeover of General Motors auto plants, and she argued against sending in troops to oust the workers. One of her enemies, Rep. J. Parnell Thomas, offered a bill of impeachment against her in 1939. In hearings held before the House Judiciary Committee she defended her record, stating that she had refused to initiate procedures to deport Bridges because he had rights of due process no committee of Congress could override. Her impeachment was halted. Labor has seldom had a better friend in government than Perkins. Two months after Roosevelt''s death she resigned from the Labor Department, believing that President Harry S Truman should have his own cabinet, and she published her memoir The Roosevelt I Knew (1946). President Truman appointed her to the U.S. Civil Service Commission, where she served until 1953. She lectured widely on the problems of working people, continuing to champion progressive social legislation until her death in New York on May 14, 1965.

From the description of Perkins, Frances, 1882-1965 (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). naId: 10679506

Government official for New York State and the federal government, including Industrial Commissioner of the State of New York, 1929-1932, and United States Secretary of Labor, 1933-1945. She was actually born in 1880.

From the description of Papers, ca.1895-1965. (Columbia University In the City of New York). WorldCat record id: 122575508

United States Secretary of Labor, 1933-1945; lecturer at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University.

From the description of Frances Perkins. Correspondence and Memorabilia. (Cornell University Library). WorldCat record id: 64059035

From the description of Frances Perkins. Letter, 1948. (Cornell University Library). WorldCat record id: 64059050

From the description of Frances Perkins letter, 1958. (Cornell University Library). WorldCat record id: 77010808

From the guide to the Frances Perkins. Letter, 1948., (Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Martin P. Catherwood Library, Cornell University.)

From the guide to the Frances Perkins. Correspondence and Memorabilia., (Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Martin P. Catherwood Library, Cornell University.)

Social reformer Perkins was the first woman appointed to the Cabinet. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College (1902), was a teacher and a volunteer for social organizations, and worked for various agencies concerned with labor issues before being appointed Secretary of Labor by Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933). For further biographial information, see Notable American Women: The Modern Period (1980).

From the description of Papers, 1937-1961 (inclusive). (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 232007406

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Subjects:

  • Civil defense
  • Physics--Study and teaching (Higher) - Massachusetts
  • Psychology--Study and teaching (Higher) - Massachusetts
  • Women teachers
  • Strikes and lockouts
  • Social reformers--United States
  • Emigration and immigration law
  • Zoology--Study and teaching--Massachusetts
  • Chemistry--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • English language--Study and teaching (Higher) - Massachusetts
  • Ethics--Study and teaching (Higher) - Massachusetts
  • Women social reformers
  • World War, 1939-1945
  • Arts--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Government executives--Interviews
  • Women's colleges--United States--Administration--History - 20th century--Sources
  • History--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • World War, 1939-1945--Economic aspects
  • New Deal, 1933-1939
  • Emigration and immigration
  • Mathematics--Study and teaching
  • Cabinet officers--United States--Biography
  • Labor and laboring classes
  • Physics--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Sociology--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Logic--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Mount Holyoke College--Student life - 1898-1902
  • Latin language--Study and teaching
  • Friendship--History--Sources
  • Sociology--Study and teaching (Higher) - Massachusetts
  • Friendship--United States--History--Sources
  • Labor movement--United States
  • Ethics--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Women social reformers--United States
  • Social reformers--United States--Biography
  • Women social reformers--Interviews
  • State government--Officials and employees
  • Teachers--Massachusetts
  • Chemistry--Study and teaching (Higher) - Massachusetts
  • Women--Political activity--Interviews
  • Women government executives
  • Women in civil service
  • Education--Study and teaching (Higher) - Massachusetts
  • Mount Holyoke College--Student expenses - 1898-1902
  • Logic--Study and teaching (Higher) - Massachusetts
  • Bible study and teaching(Higher) - Massachusetts
  • Latin language--Study and teaching--Massachusetts
  • Women social reformers--United States--Biography
  • Mount Holyoke College--Student papers - 1898-1902
  • Unemployment
  • Women cabinet officers--United States--Biography
  • English literature--Study and teaching (Higher) - Massachusetts
  • Aged--Employment--United States
  • Women in politics--United States
  • German language--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Working class
  • Women--Employment--United States
  • Astronomy--Study and teaching
  • Labor movement
  • Botany--Study and teaching (Higher) - Massachusetts
  • Mount Holyoke College--Traditions
  • Astronomy--Study and teaching--Massachusetts
  • Art--Study and teaching (Higher) - Massachusetts
  • Industrial relations--United States
  • Mount Holyoke College--Recollections
  • English literature--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Botany--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Zoology--Study and teaching
  • Women teachers--Massachusetts
  • Equal rights amendments
  • Women--Political activity
  • History--Study and teaching (Higher) - Massachusetts
  • Women college students--Massachusetts
  • Industrial relations
  • German language--Study and teaching (Higher) - Massachusetts
  • Geography--Study and teaching
  • Labor unions
  • Education--Study and teaching (Higher)
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  • Psychology--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Women college students
  • Mathematics--Study and teaching (Secondary) - Massachusetts
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  • College students--Massachusetts

Occupations:

  • Cabinet officers
  • Women social reformers
  • Government executives
  • Women in civil service
  • Women government executives
  • Women public officers
  • Public officers

Places:

  • New York (State), NY, US
  • United States, 00, US
  • Boston, MA, US