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Frances Perkins: Labor Secretary for FDR, and the brains behind the New Deal

OH Fast Facts - Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins with a kindly smile in a black hat and dress, sits at her desk among books and documents.
Frances Perkins, US Labor Secretary and creator of the New Deal (ca. 1938. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD)

While we take for granted the 40-hour work week and generally safe working conditions, not many know about the woman who spearheaded the effort to guarantee these under law. Frances Perkins (1880-1965) was the first woman U.S. Cabinet Secretary, serving under F.D.R, and she was the longest serving Secretary of Labor in U.S. History (1933-1945). Among her most notable achievements, Perkins established the 40-hour work week, Social Security, workplace safety standards in a time that had none, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, and a ban on child labor. She is credited as the force behind FDR’s New Deal. Perkins was also a pioneer in the field of Social Work, helping to legitimize it in its early days.

Frances’s world view was shaped while spending countless hours investigating the living and working conditions of the poor and immigrant communities. Frances (christened Fannie Coralie Perkins) was born in Boston in 1880 to a well-to-do New England family. The Perkins’s outlook was very similar to others of the same economic situation - that the poor were only poor as a result of their laziness and alcohol use, and not due to lack of options or opportunities. Fannie went to college at Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college in Hadley, Massachusetts. Here she majored in physics, and minored in chemistry and biology.

In her senior year, Fannie took “American Economic History” from Annah May Soule, which would redirect the course of her life. As she said of Annah May Soule:

“She was a considerable scholar and she had a brilliant idea of having a class of perfectly innocent girls - that is, innocent of the industrial process - go and look at some factories that were not too far distant from the college. We went to look at paper mills, textile mills, and so forth. I was astonished and fascinated by what I saw. I think she also opened the door to the idea that there were some people much poorer than other people; that not everybody had comfort and security; and that the lack of comfort and security in some people was not solely due to the fact that they drank, which had been the prevailing view in my parental society.” (Oral History)

She graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1902. Inspired by “Miss Soule” and despite protests from her father, Fannie went to New York City to speak with Mr. Edward T. Devine, then the head of the Charity Organizations Society. She wanted to learn more about what she could do to help the poor. Outside Devine's office, Frances demanded to see him, and didn’t take no for an answer: “I sometimes laugh when I think of how fresh and naive I was really,” she reflected. Devine kindly admitted her, and in that meeting he helped her see alternate avenues to helping the poor, such as rehabilitation and training, over the more traditional reliance on incarceration. He also recommended Jacob Riis’ revolutionary book of photography, How the Other Half Lives (1890), which documented the lives of the poor in New York City. This book had a profound impact on Fannie, and it would continue to resonate for her throughout her life.

Jacob Riis, "Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement--'Five Cents a Spot'" (Wikicommons)

After graduation, Fannie took a job teaching at an elite women’s school in Lake Forest, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. While here, she made great use of the library, reading everything she could about economics and social issues. During her breaks she worked at Chicago Hull House, helping women and children get the resources they needed. At this time she was drawn to the Episcopalian Church and its tenet of “making the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.” In June of 1905, Fannie was confirmed in the faith with the name of "Frances," leaving “Fannie” behind.

Now known as "Frances Perkins," she returned to New England in 1907, working as the general secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. In this role, she visited immigrant households and conducted research, with the intent of creating plans on how to “protect” immigrants - especially young women - from poor working conditions and from falling into prostitution. Additionally, at this time, New England saw an influx of Black migrants from the Southern states. Frances viewed this migration as another kind of “immigrant” population, with similar kinds of problems and which required protection. To this effort, Frances recruited “Mrs. Lanning,” a Black graduate from Cornell whose duty it was to patrol the docks and help the newly arrived young Black women to find good housing and jobs. (Oral History)

Frances took classes at Wharton School of Economics, and enrolled in a Masters program at Columbia University in 1909. Her research looked at truancy in New York City public schools, and she made a remarkable finding.

“What you got, of course, was […] a picture of what life was like in that community and why Johnny was truant. Johnny was very rarely a truant because he was naturally bad. He was bored - often bored - but often he took the opportunity to earn a few pennies.”

The economic reasons behind why students skipped school was another key in her growing understanding of the American family’s needs.

A tall office building with the upper floors on fire, and fire hoses spraying up to put it out.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (March 25, 1911). Wikicommons

In 1910, Frances took a job as Executive Secretary of the New York City Consumers League. Here she worked directly with government and politicians, trying to find solutions to the needs of the working class. On March 25, 1911, Frances was having tea in New York City, down the street from the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The factory was one of the largest in New York City, and it occupied the upper level floors of a factory building. Here, mostly young and female garment workers made clothing. Towards the end of the workday, it is thought that a lit cigarette ignited in a scrap bin, and it quickly swept through the factory. The exit doors were locked, and the fire escapes were in terrible repair. In this fire, 146 young factory workers died, many of them jumping to their deaths. Until that time, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had evaded unionization - and thus regulations to protect its workers - owing to its status as a large employer. But, Frances put herself on the Fire Investigation Committee to get to the bottom of the causes and she led the charge on how to make things better.

As a result of the investigation, New York State quickly passed a slew of regulations, including fire regulations, requirements about exit doors, waste disposal regulation, and banning smoking on work floors. A second round of regulations followed that included establishing a 54-hour work week, child labor regulations, and requirements for washrooms and fresh drinking water.

After establishing her credentials as a fighter for the rights of workers, in 1918, Frances campaigned for her colleague, Al Smith, for New York governor. This was also the first election in which women could vote. He won, and she was appointed by him to New York’s Industrial Commission. She continued working for Smith until he lost his bid for president in 1928. However, New York elected a new governor that same year: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As a result, Frances transitioned to working under FDR, and she worked closely with him on all his social initiatives, especially unemployment, a paramount concern in the Great Depression.

When FDR was elected president in 1932, Perkins was a natural fit for his Cabinet. He asked her to be his Secretary of Labor, and she agreed, but first they had a series of talks about what initiatives they would prioritize. She was first and foremost driven by her research and deployed theories with a proven track record. As she mentions in her oral history, “the Keynes theory of the purchasing power as being one of the large elements in a supporting economy was not commonly understood in the United States.” She used Keynes's theories to create the underlying language for her policies that provided unemployment insurance, Social Security, and the minimum wage. She also championed child labor laws, workplace protections, and a cap on how many hours a week could be worked. While she is credited for establishing the 40-hour work week, she initially proposed a 30-hour work week, as see in this clipping from March of 1933.

A news clipping that lists Perkins's 6-point agenda.
Times Union, March 1, 1933.

As a result of her work as U.S.

FDR signs the Social Security Act, with lawmakers and cabinet members around him. Frances Perkins stands behind his left shoulder, in a black dress and hat..
Signing of the Social Security Act, 1935. Wikicommons.

Labor Secretary, Congress passed the Social Security act, which was signed into law on August 14, 1935. In 1938, Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act. This later act banned child labor, established the minimum wage, and capped the number of hours worked, per week. She managed to accomplish all of her initiatives on establishing fair working standards, with the exception of universal health coverage.

Professionally, Frances Perkins was known as “Madam Secretary” or “Madam Perkins.” In 1913, she had married Paul Cadwell Wilson, an economist. Due to her work in government, Frances continued to use her maiden name in an effort to separate her work from her husband's. When she became cabinet secretary, many in government disdainfully asked how she was going to sign paychecks, as at the time, women were required by law to sign with their married name. She fought to keep her maiden name in court and won. She is the longest serving Labor Secretary in history, in office from 1933-1945.

Frances Perkins established labor laws that we now see as expected and unexceptional, and she championed the rights of workers everywhere. She worked through government to establish laws that were meant to support everyone, and she pioneered the field of social work in the process. Often self-deprecating about her innate drive to help others, she nearly always credited not knowing any better as a reason for getting so much accomplished. Later in life she reflected,

People sometimes ask me, “How did you get to the top?”

I say, “I don't know. I began at the top.” (Oral History)


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