Frances Perkins:

The People’s Reformer

Cailin McCaffrey

Senior Division, NHD 2015


“I came to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain, common working men.”


Frances Perkins

American society has undergone a major social change due to the work of numerous great leaders and their legacies that live on today. Over the course of the last century, there has been a shift in federal government supports of its citizens. A major contributing factor for this can be attributed to strong female leadership, including that of Fannie “Frances” Perkins. While perhaps not the most well known, she had a substantial impact as a spokesperson for the less fortunate. A conservative, quiet leader, she sought to help the poor and destitute; her ideals shaped some of the most important legislation of the United States.

Perkins was born on April 10, 1880 in Boston; however, she spent most of her childhood in Worcester, Massachusetts and Maine visiting her grandmother. Perkins’ grandmother had a significant impact on her values, especially pertaining to her preference of a private lifestyle. Perkins involvement with social justice began while she was a college student at Mt. Holyoke (MA). She went to meetings of the college National Consumers’ League, which was dedicated to the elimination of child labor and sweatshops. She also studied American Colonial History. One of her course requirements was to visit factories and observe working conditions. This was the first time Perkins became aware of the social needs of Americans (Berg). This eventually became the foundation of the legislation she was involved with as part of the New Deal.

After graduating from college, Perkins worked in the Boston area before moving to Chicago. While there, she changed her name, faith, and political alignment. Born Coralie Perkins, she chose the gender-neutral name of Frances Perkins. She converted from Congregationalist to Episcopalian. And she began working at “Hull House”, one of the nation’s largest settlement houses. Perkins spent time with the families of Hull House, many of whom worked long hours for low wages. She witnessed hungry children, dependent on donated food baskets. Perkins’ time at Hull House exposed her to the obstacles of the working class, and formed her life’s work, focused on improving the conditions for the working poor. (Downey 16-18). Perkins’ work at Hull House would later prove to be an advantage as she had direct experience and understanding of the population at the center of important social justice legislation. 

In 1907 Perkins applied for a job in Philadelphia that would help immigrant women forced into sexual slavery. These women were lured in by companies for jobs at boarding houses, and were often drugged and forced into prostitution. From this work, she came to understand first-hand about the inequalities that women faced; generally women made less money and had fewer opportunities than men. Around this time, Perkins went back to school at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where she further studied these situations (Downey 22). She briefly joined the Socialist Party and debated with her classmates over how to “save” America.

In 1909 Perkins returned to New York and studied at Columbia. Here she lived in a diverse community known as Greenwich Village. People in this section of New York were extremely liberal and had ideas that at the time were considered provocative. This period was instrumental in shaping Perkins’ beliefs: she supported birth control (which helped Americans have only the number of children that they could support); she became an advocate for the rights of women and a strong supporter of the suffrage movement; and she became an activist, where she stood on street corners and podiums. This experience taught her skills that would prove essential to her future as part of the labor movement (Downey 28).

Perkins eventually began working for the National Consumers League (NCL). Where her main focus was the reform and elimination of child labor through the government. She was outspoken in her beliefs that the only people who could regulate working conditions were those above the employers, the lawmakers. While the NCL struggled to persuade politicians to pass laws limiting work hours in New York, Perkins had friends introduce her to influential people and received a letter from Theodore Roosevelt who expressed his support of her work (Pasachoff).

In March 1911 Perkins witnessed an event that cemented her interest in securing proper protection for laborers. She was eating lunch at a townhouse just a few blocks away from North Washington Square. Perkins and her companions heard a commotion and learned that a massive fire had erupted across the square. Perkins rushed from the restaurant outside where she saw people jumping to their deaths. The owners had locked the factory doors to prevent the girls from taking unauthorized breaks, so there was no escape (Colman). This fire would come to be known as the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire and resulted in the death of 146 workers (Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire). Perkins reflected on what she could do for the working poor (Downey). She understood that she needed to do more than just volunteer work; this tragedy could be turned into something positive. Reforms needed to be made and, it was at this time, she made a lifelong commitment to herself to achieve them.

Perkins became a regular presence at Tammany Hall, a settlement house that politicians frequented to obtain votes. She met with legislators and attempted to induce them to pass a bill limiting the workweek to 54-hours. She befriended Al Smith, who was Speaker of the House. It took multiple attempts, but an amended version of the bill eventually would pass. Shortly after this success, Perkins announced that she was shifting her political alliances, and decided if women ever won the right to vote, she would vote as a Democrat (Sprague). “When the Republicans are in power in this state, we don’t get any social legislation at all. When the Democrats are in power, we make some progress (Perkins).” Perkins wanted to work with the party that would work the hardest. 

In 1912 Perkins was named chief officer of the Committee of Safety, appointed by Al Smith (Colman). Perkins was now actively involved in writing legislation on the Factory Investigation Commission, which was formed after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Here she pushed through 36 bills passed dedicated to laborers (Downey).

Perkins married Paul Wilson in September 1914. Married in an Episcopal church, neither individual had any family or friends at the wedding. Following her marriage, Perkins chose to maintain the use of her maiden name, as she had achieved a level of professional success associated with her name (Martin). In 1915, Perkins gave birth to a baby that lived a short while before dying. Her father died the following year. A few months later, Perkins gave birth to Susanna Winslow Wilson. Shortly after the birth of her daughter, women in New York finally won the right to vote (Cannizzaro). Despite accepting the social standards of her time, Perkins continued to be a trailblazer.

In January 1919, Perkins made history by becoming a member of the state of New York Industrial Commission. She was the first woman to hold this high office in New York; just one of the many “firsts” she would have for women. Perkins main focus for the majority of Smith’s first term was eliminating corruption, as well as avoiding discrepancies in the use of laws. In 1923 she became a member of the Industrial Board, and in 1926 Chairwoman of the Industrial Board. She started to coordinate the work of different divisions in order to create a system where claims caused changes. She formed the National Safety Council and the National Fire Protection Association to nationally study the problem of factory fires. Perkins worked on everything from laundry codes, to Silicosis prevention during her time in this position (Paschoff).

In 1928 Perkins toured the country to help then Governor Al Smith in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency. When Smith lost, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became Governor of New York from 1929 to 1932. FDR asked Perkins to serve as the Industrial Commissioner of his administration; initially, she was hesitant to accept due to familial obligations, but she ultimately accepted (Moher). In January 1929, she officially became the Industrial Commissioner of the New York State. She continued the work she started as Chairwoman of the Industrial Board, using FDR’s assistance to help improve the dysfunctional New York State Public Employment Service (Downey). Her work helped to prevent total destruction of the job market on Black Thursday, October 24, 1929 (Pasachoff 63).

The Great Depression affected many other countries as well as the United States, and as time went on, conditions worsened. Countless banks could not meet the demand for withdrawals. Thousands of people were out of work. Families struggled to put food on the table. In New York, Perkins worked with Governor Roosevelt to create a committee to help the unemployment crisis. The Committee of Stabilization of Industry for the Prevention of Unemployment was formed. It recommended that New York City use construction work such as repairing roads and building schools to put the unemployed back to work. The commissioners also agreed that there needed to be a system in order to assure that the basic needs of every American were met, despite their work status (Downey).

During this time of economic uncertainty, FDR was elected President in 1932. FDR then asked Perkins to be his Secretary of Labor. She accepted, under the condition that he would allow her to follow her agenda for the people. On March 4, 1933, she was sworn in along with the other members of the Cabinet. Within 100 days, FDR and Perkins got a series of emergency relief acts passed for the unemployed. Some of the bills included the Glass-Steagall Act, A Securities Act, and the National Industry Recovery Act (Cohen). Two years later, after these acts failed to have the overall desired effect, Perkins and FDR orchestrated the passage of even more acts in a series of bills known as “the second New Deal”. These included the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act of 1935, the wealth tax act, and a second Banking Act (Fraser & Gertle 4-71).

One of the most debated political questions is how involved the government should be in its citizens’ lives. Perkins felt strongly that it should be actively involved in improving the quality of life for all Americans. She wanted to expand public works, strengthen state employment agencies, and develop unemployment insurance. While the New Deal did not end the Great Depression, it helped America to get back on its feet. During this time, the federal government grew larger and was more responsible for the people’s wellbeing than ever before. From 1933 to 1941, the unemployment rate for people over the age of 13 dropped from 25% to 10% (Goodwin). Perkins efforts ensured that people would continue to get back to work.

Perkins’ legacy continues to live on today. Some of the programs from the New Deal still exist today and contribute to the quality citizens’ lives. There is the National Pension System, which is funded through taxes on employers and employees. It is a regular payment that a person receives when he/she is retired to maintain a quality of life. There is also an Oversight of Labor Practices. The National Labor Relations board was created by the Wagner Act and continues to oversee labor unions and investigate disputes between employers and employees. There is also the Agricultural Price Supports program where farmers get paid for growing domestic crops instead of exports. Perkins also had an impact on society’s view of women (Goodwin). 

In one letter to FDR, a citizen wrote that Perkins would “gradually break down sex prejudices held over from the dim past, as you, you will break down social prejudices which have retarded our progress for centuries” (Cowdin). This shows how Perkins inspired other women to become more involved in politics. The woman goes on to talk about how Perkins has broken down gender roles from the past. People at this time were seeing how great an effect Perkins would end up having on society in the future. She was the first woman to enter the line of Presidential succession. To date, there have been 22 female cabinet members (Christensen).

        The laws that Perkins helped pass have prevented the United States from slipping into another Great Depression. She explained that: “Depression is a word of despair. Recovery is a word of hope. “Recovery” is the middle name of the great national enterprise by which the American people are seeking to overcome depression”(Perkins 7). Perkins knew that it was the working class, not just the wealthy, who needed the government’s support. She saw the connection between people’s success and the belief of the in their control of the government. In order for the United States government to be successful, the people have to fully support it. 

        Frances Perkins died in 1965, but the impact of her work lives on through the reforms and laws that she helped pass (Frances Perkins, First Woman in Cabinet...”). In Maine, The Frances Perkins Center honors her legacy with the mission to “make the exemplary work and career of Frances Perkins better known to the American people and to preserve her policy legacy.” This organization has worked hard over the years to maintain awareness of her work and carry on her ideals.  The center is currently focused on raising the federal minimum wage (Cash). One of Perkins’ proudest achievements was getting the federal minimum wage $.25/hour, along with a with a forty-four hour workweek (H.R. 314-97). Today her organization is working to raise the minimum wage to $10.10/hour. It is carrying out Perkin’s belief that there is a connection between wages and national economic success. Today, the headquarters of the United States Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. is named after her. Perkins’ home in D.C, the Frances Perkins house, is a U.S. National Historic Landmark (Sprague).

        Perkins created and pushed ambitious reforms through the New Deal. She was a trailblazer, and while her name may not be that well known today, her work continues to be felt by all citizens; social security benefits, pensions, and a federally mandated minimum wage are directly linked back to the first woman to serve in the Presidential Cabinet of the United States. In keeping with how she lived her life, Frances Perkins’ accomplishments are not solely her own, but rather, they are those of the “plain, common working men” who are no longer forgotten.

Works Cited


Cowdin, Mrs. Frederick P. "Supporter of Frances Perkins." Letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt. 6 Nov. 1936. MS. Springfield, Illinois.    

This was a letter from a supporter of FDR to him. Mrs. Cowdin is requesting that FDR allow Perkins to remain as a cabinet member; or allow other women to gain positions equal to hers. This shows how Perkins inspired other women to become more involved in politics. The letter gave insight to Perkins effect on the perception of women in politics.

"Frances Perkins, the First Woman in Cabinet, is Dead." New York Times (1923-Current file): 1.  May 15 1965. ProQuest. Web. 3 Jan. 2015 .     

This article from the New York Times was published directly after Perkins death. It feature pictures of her and told of the successes that she had while in public office. It helped to put into perspective how great of an impact she had.         

Gehr, Herbert. Mrs. Frances Perkins Addressing the Resolutions Committee. 1944. Life Magazine, n.p.

This is an image of Frances Perkins in September of 1944. It shows her speaking for Equal Rights in front of the Resolutions Committee. She is featured wearing her iconic tri-corn hat and pearls.  

H.R. 314-97, 75 Cong. (1938) (enacted). Print.     

This Bill allowed set the federal minimum wage at $.25/hour, then to $.40/hour in 1938, along with a with a forty-four hour workweek. This was a significant improvement from the past, and it was helpful to see the raw numbers.

Perkins, Frances. The Reminiscences of Frances Perkins. Glen Rock, NJ: Microfilming of America, 1977. Print.

This is a series of information about Perkins that was put together in 1977. There were some images online of some of the pages that were interesting to see. They mainly consisted of speeches by her.

Perkins, Frances, and Adam Cohen. The Roosevelt I Knew. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.

This book was first published in 1946, and has been republished today with an introduction by Adam Cohen. In it Perkins talks about her interactions with FDR over the years, starting in 1910 and up until his death.


Berg, Gordon. "Frances Perkins and the Flowering of Economic and Social Policies." Monthly Labor Review 112.6 (1989): 28-32. JSTOR. Web. 4 Jan. 2015.

This article talked about Perkins openness to others ideas about labor and working conditions. It gave me an abundance of information that was helpful for what Perkins did before she became Secretary of the Labor Department.

Cannizzaro, Andrew. "Frances Perkins: Opening the Cabinet." A&E Networks

Television, 4 Mar. 2013. Web. 3 Jan. 2015.

This article provided me with the quote that I used at the beginning of my essay. It also provided an interesting fact about Perkins in relation to Labor Day.                         

Cash, Chris. "Frances Perkins." E-mail interview. 23 Jan. 2015.           

I was able to interview Mr. Chris Cash of the Frances Perkins Center. He provided some insight into Perkins life, and gave me unique ideas that helped me shape my essay.

Christensen, Martin I. "Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership." World Wide Guide to Women in Leadership, 2013. Web. 10 Jan. 2015.

This website provided numerous statistics about modern day politics.

Cohen, Adam. Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created

Modern America. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print.

This book talked about all of the people who worked for the 1st hundred days of FDR’s time as President to create laws that would help to fix some of the worst effects of the Great Depression.

Colman, Penny. A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins. Bloomington, IN: IUniverse, 2010. Print.

This book talked about the numerous great things Perkins did during her lifetime. It talked about how despite gender roles Perkins was successful in accomplishing things; she was fearless.

Downey, Kirstin. The Woman behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage. New York: Anchor, 2010. Print.

This book deeply details an account of the life of Frances Perkins. It starts in her childhood, and takes the reader through every milestone of Perkins’ eighty-five year life. It helped me to figure out the most important parts of her legacy.

Dreier, Peter. The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. New York: Nation, 2012. Print.

This book has a short section on Perkins accomplishments during her time as a cabinet member. It was helpful to see what was considered most important about her work so I could focus in on that.

"Frances Perkins." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition(2013): 1. Academic Search Elite. Web. 4 Jan. 2015.

This encyclopedia gave me general background information about Perkins life.

"Frances Perkins." Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 3 Jan. 2015

This website provided a short biography of Perkins life. It listed several key dates; it also featured a picture of FDR’s entire cabinet.

"Frances Perkins." Historic World Leaders. Gale, 1994. Biography in Context. Web. 1 Jan. 2015.

This article provided insight to all of Perkins life. It talks about her influence in the San Francisco general strike of 1934; which many other articles breezed over.

Fraser, Steve, and Gary Gerstle. The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order: 1930-1980. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Pr., 1989. Print.

This book, while not specifically about Perkins, gave some insight to the effect of the New Deal in General. It also talked about the continuing impact of the New Deal after FDR and Perkins left office.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. Print.    

This book tells of what life was like in the White House while the Roosevelt’s lived there. While the main focus of the book was not Perkins, it mentioned her in relation to the Roosevelt’s multiple times.

Hillstrom, Kevin. The Great Depression and the New Deal. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2009. Print.

This book provided basic background knowledge of the New Deal and it’s effect after during the Great Depression.

Kimmel, Elizabeth Cody. Ladies First: 40 Daring American Women Who Were Second to None. Washington: National Geographic, 2005. Print.   

This selection on Perkins focuses on how she was the first female Cabinet member in the US.

Martin, George.

"Madam Secretary: Frances Perkins." The Wisconsin Magazine of History. 4th ed. Vol. 60. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1977. 352-53. Print.

This article talks about the importance of Perkins in 20th Century America. It not only points out the positive things Perkins did, but the negative as well.

Mohr, Lillian Holmen. Frances Perkins, That Woman in FDR's Cabinet! Croton-on-Hudson, NY: North River, 1979. Print.

This book talks about all of the work that Perkins did for America. She helped set up the minimum wage, social security, and safety laws for factory workers.

Moren, Isobel V. "4: Frances Perkins Secretary of Labor." Biography Collection Complete. EBSCO, 1995. Web. 3 Jan. 2015.

This article summarized Perkins life. It also gave information about her legacy. It provided information about how she is featured on a stamp as well as has a building named after her.   

"New Deal." A&E Television Networks, 209.

Web. 3 Jan. 2015.    

This article gave a significant amount of background information to help understand the New Deal. Although it didn't directly mention Perkins' name, if referenced the many things she did and how they helped the recovery after the Great Depression.

Pasachoff, Naomi E. Frances Perkins: Champion of the New Deal. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

This source helped to give an insight as to Perkins childhood and background. It also helped me to find other sources to use for my essay. 

Schiff, Karenna Gore. Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America. New York: Miramax /Hyperion, 2005. Print.

This book talks about how large of an impact Perkins had on the lives of average people today. It was helpful as it compared her to other well-known women.

Severn, Bill. Frances Perkins: A Member of the Cabinet. New York: Hawthorn, 1976. Print.

This book provided basic information about Perkins, it provided a different view-point about her lifestyle.

Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

This book is about the history of the Great Depression. It mentioned Perkins multiple times, and even referred to her difficulty getting bills passed, and being accused of being a socialist.

Sprague, Leah W. "Her Life - Frances Perkins Center." Frances Perkins Center RSS2. N.p., 1 June 2014. Web. 1 Jan. 2015.

This article is from the website of the Frances Perkins Center. It gave a lot of background information about Perkins early childhood. I was able to use this information to set the background for my essay.

Simon, James F. FDR and Chief Justice Hughes: The President, the Supreme Court, and the Epic Battle over the New Deal. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.

This book details the life of FDR, and gives more information about his life; it helped me to gain a better understanding of the challenges that he faced.

"Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire." A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 5 Jan. 2015.

This article provided me with statistics about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. It told me more about what happened during this time.