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.
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.
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 ExperienceShe gained significant experience in politics and in government roles related to social reform, employment, workplace safety and other industrial matters. Along the way she got to know many powerful and influential politicians. During WWI, from 1917 to 1919 she was executive director of th New York Council of Organization for War Service. As a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the city of New York formed a citizen’s Committee on Safety in 1912. Theodore Roosevelt recommended her as executive secretary where she served until 1917. The Committee sought a state commission to investigate and make legislative recommendation. The Factory Investigating Commission resulted. It’s role included investigating both fire safety and threats to health and well-being of industrial workers and impacts on their families. Ms. Francis was an expert witness and investigator for the Commission and led legislators on visits to work sites and factories to learn of the dangers. That let to a broad set of state laws governing workplace health and safety. With the first opportunity for women to vote in 1918 for governor of New York, she campaigned for Al Smith, someone she knew quite well. The new governor appointed her to the New York State Industrial Commission, which focused on removing corruption and enforcing the new workplace laws. In Smith’s second term, he appointed Ms. Perkins as chair of the Industrial Commission. The next governor of New York was Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1929 he appointed her as the state’s Industrial Commissioner. Her focus was to reverse rising unemployment that occurred during the Great Depression. In that role she was active in programs to increase employment and expansion of state employment agencies. She was a proponent for unemployment insurance and gained the support of Roosevelt. He sent her to England to study their system. In 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States. With that Ms. Perkins’ roles in the state of New York ended.
National Work ExperienceIn February 1933, President Roosevelt appoint Frances Perkins to his cabinet as Secretary of Labor. This was the first time a woman served in a presidential cabinet. In considering the appointment, she created an outline of policy priorities and made them a condition for her accepting the appointment. President Roosevelt agreed with all of them. The priorities included:
- 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
DeathShe died of a stroke on May 15, 1945 at the age of 85. She and her husband are buried in the Glidden Cemetery in Newcastle, Maine, the town that was the original home of her father and where she spent many summers on the family farm with her grandmother.
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: