A social worker who became the first woman to serve on a president’s cabinet, Frances Perkins was an uncompromising woman in a man’s world. She fought for safety regulations in New York factories, helped formulate the New Deal, and attempted to save German Jews fleeing the Nazi regime. A threat to the status quo, she was accused of being a Communist as well as a Russian Jew who fabricated her identity, and she faced both disparaging pamphlet campaigns and potential impeachment. Despite these challenges, Frances Perkins doggedly pursued the course she thought was right, helping transform American institutions in the process.
1. SHE SOUGHT EDUCATION—IN THE CLASSROOM AND IN THE WORLD.
Born in 1880, Frances Perkins grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father, who ran a stationery store, had not attended college, but he was a voracious reader who studied the law and read classical poetry in his spare time. When Fannie (as she was then known) was eight, he began teaching her Greek. She later attended Worcester Classical High School, a private college-preparatory academy that sent many of its male students to the Ivy League. With her father’s encouragement, Perkins enrolled in the all-women’s college Mt. Holyoke, where her classmates called her “Perk.”
Though she majored in chemistry with minors in physics and biology, Perkins discovered her calling during a course on the history of modern industrial economics. The professor required her students to visit factories, and Perkins was horrified by the dangerous environment faced by the workers, many of whom were women and children. Perkins’s parents—conservative middle-class New Englanders and devout members of the Congregational Church—had always told her that poverty resulted from alcohol and laziness, but visiting a factory caused Perkins to recognize “that there were some people much poorer than other people […] and that the lack of comfort and security in some people was not solely due to the fact that they drank.”
Perkins graduated from Mt. Holyoke in 1902—quite a feat considering that only 2.8 percent of American women attended college as of 1900 (the percentage of men was not much higher). She returned to Worcester to live with her family and became involved in a local girls’ club for teenage factory and store workers. When one of the girls had her hand amputated in an accident with a candy dipper, Perkins fought to secure $100 in compensation from her employer, only succeeding after a local clergyman intervened.
She moved to the north shore of Chicago to work as a science teacher at a women’s college, where she spent three years. But her mind was elsewhere—she had read Jacob Riis’s 1890 exposé on poverty in New York City, How the Other Half Lives, and was horrified and captivated. Perkins soon began volunteering at a settlement house in Chicago, where she encountered trade union advocates for the first time, and began to see them as necessary for workers’ rights rather than the “work of the devil,” as her parents had always said. She discovered that employers sometimes didn’t pay workers “just because [they] didn’t want to,” so she would go to collect wages on the workers’ behalf, wheedling and cajoling and even threatening. “A favorite device of mine was to threaten to tell [the employer’s] landlord that he didn’t pay wages,” she recalled in 1951.
Perkins soon quit teaching and entered social work full-time. In 1907, she moved to Philadelphia, where she worked for an organization that advocated for female workers (especially those who were immigrants), and attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Two years later, she moved to New York, where a mentor helped her secure a fellowship with the New York School of Philanthropy. Perkins spent her days conducting a survey on malnutrition among tenement children in Hell’s Kitchen for the School of Philanthropy and her nights attending classes at Columbia, graduating with her master’s in political science in 1910. That same year, she was introduced to Franklin Delano Roosevelt at a tea dance. Perkins later recalled, “There was nothing particularly interesting about the tall, thin young man with the high collar and pince-nez.” But that unimpressive young man would later change her life.
2. SHE WITNESSED THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE—AND IT SPURRED HER TO DEMAND CHANGE.
After completing her master’s degree, Perkins became executive secretary of the New York City Consumers’ League, which conducted investigations into working conditions at factories and other facilities, like the bakeries located in the cellars of tenement buildings. She worked under Florence Kelly, a famous female reformer, who taught her the ropes of lobbying politicians and businesses for social reform. Perkins fought for legislation limiting women to a 54-hour work week, and a related bill passed in 1912 after two years of forceful advocacy from Perkins and other reformers. But one event in particular shaped the person—and the public figure—Perkins would become: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
On March 25, 1911, Perkins was attending a Saturday afternoon tea in Greenwich Village, when she and her friends heard a commotion outside. Fire trucks were clanging through the streets, and the women followed the racket to Washington Square, where the 10-story Asch Building was ablaze. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company occupied the building’s top three stories, and the company’s management regularly locked the factory’s doors to keep workers inside during their shifts, supposedly to deter theft. The elevators soon malfunctioned and the building had only one fire escape, which led to a walled-in courtyard. New York’s firefighters lacked ladders tall enough to reach the factory’s upper floors. Hundreds of workers—almost all women—were trapped. While many died from smoke inhalation or burned to death, others threw themselves from the factory’s windows. “Never shall I forget,” Perkins later said. “I watched those girls clinging to life on the window ledges until, their clothing in flames, they leaped to their death.” One hundred forty-six people died as a result of the blaze, nearly all young women between the ages of 16 and 23.
The horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire galvanized public support for industrial oversight and reform. The fire also prompted the creation of the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, and Perkins worked as one of the Commission’s chief investigators from 1912 to 1915. She was tenacious and passionate. To ensure that the commission’s leaders understood the perilous (and sometimes illegal) working conditions at New York factories, she forced them into the field. One morning, she roused them at dawn for a surprise visit to a cannery that was employing very young children. On another occasion, she urged the Commission’s chairman, State Senator Robert Wagner, to crawl through a small hole onto an ice-covered ladder to test one factory’s “fire escape.” Perkins made an impression on Wagner, and on the Commission’s vice chair, Al Smith, then a New York Assemblyman.
The Factory Investigating Commission instigated real change. By the end of 1914, 36 of the Commission’s recommendations had been codified into law. “The extent to which this legislation in New York marked a change in American political attitudes and policies toward social responsibility can scarcely be overrated,” Perkins later wrote. “It was, I am convinced, a turning point.” It marked a turning point in her career as well. When Al Smith became New York’s governor, he appointed her to the state Industrial Commission—the first woman to serve.
3. SHE CHANGED HER NAME—AND THEN REFUSED TO CHANGE IT AGAIN WHEN SHE GOT MARRIED.
Born Fannie Coralie Perkins, she changed her name to Frances around 1904 while living in Chicago. Biographers have suggested that, in doing so, she was signaling her independence from her parents—she converted from Congregationalist to Episcopalian around the same time—or desiring a name that was more gender-neutral.
In another signal of independence, Perkins kept her maiden name when, in 1913 at age 33, she married Paul Caldwell Wilson, a Progressive Republican and the budget secretary to the mayor of New York City. “I wasn’t very anxious to get married, to tell the truth,” she recalled during the 1950s, but acquaintances were constantly badgering her about when she’d get hitched and trying to set her up. “I thought, ‘I just better marry. I know Paul Wilson well. I like him. I’ve known him for a considerable time. I enjoy his society and company and I might as well marry and get it off my mind.’” But Perkins made it clear to Wilson that she wasn’t going to be a traditional wife: She would continue working, and she would continue to go by Miss Frances Perkins. “I felt, and I still feel, that at that time it was a great advantage in social work, in professional life to be Miss,” she said. “Mrs. is understood to be awfully occupied in the house and children.”
Perkins had also acquired a reputation by this point amongst reformers and politicians, and she didn’t want to lose that name recognition—or her sense of identity. “I was very puffed up, I suppose, about the fact that I could sign a letter and my name meant something to the Labor Commissioner of California. If I were Mrs. Paul C. Wilson, I was just somebody’s wife.”
Perkins’s husband—whom she called “quite a feminist”—thought it was “a good idea” for her to keep her maiden name, but institutions felt otherwise. The couple had to hire a lawyer to fight their life insurance company, who refused to make out their policies under her maiden name, and when Governor Al Smith appointed her to the state Industrial Commission, the New York attorney general insisted that all official papers refer to her as Frances Perkins Wilson. After consulting with Perkins, Smith finally ruled that she could use just her maiden name.
Perkins did occasionally use the name Mrs. Paul C. Wilson when it was more practical in her personal life—like when registering for hotels and securing a passport. Her mother also introduced her as "Mrs. Wilson."
4. AL SMITH AND FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT HELPED HER MOVE UP IN THE WORLD.
Perkins spent two years on the state Industrial Commission, earning an annual salary of $8000—quite the step up from the $40 per month she earned at her first social work job in Philadelphia (which her father had still considered far too much for a woman). After Smith was defeated for reelection, Perkins resigned from the Commission and worked for an organization supporting education for immigrant populations. When Smith took back the governorship in 1923, he appointed Perkins to the new Industrial Board, where she gained attention for her vocal support for workers’ compensation. She became the board’s chair in 1926. After years of resistance to her reform agenda, New York industry was beginning to come around to (some) workplace regulations, like temperature controls in factories and safety devices on machinery. Companies recognized that, by protecting the health of employees, these regulations actually made their operations more efficient, and more profitable. Frances Perkins and the New York Industrial Board were setting precedents that were soon followed by states like California, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
During 1928, Al Smith secured the Democratic nomination for the presidency, and Perkins traveled around the country campaigning for him. She also developed a relationship with New York gubernatorial candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Smith supporter who introduced him at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. Smith lost the presidency to Herbert Hoover, but Roosevelt found himself in the governor’s mansion. The new governor appointed Perkins New York’s industrial commissioner—the top administrator for the state’s Department of Labor and the beneficiary of a $12,000 annual salary. She was confirmed in January 1929. Four years later, Roosevelt would be president—and he would name Perkins his Secretary of Labor.
5. SHE BECAME THE FIRST FEMALE MEMBER OF A PRESIDENT’S CABINET.
Perkins was uncertain about whether she wanted to follow Roosevelt to Washington. During his years as governor of New York, the two had developed a close working relationship, and Perkins was overflowing with ideas about how to use government to protect workers and help the public. But Perkins hated media attention—she once said that having her picture in the paper “nearly kills me”—and was particularly worried that her personal life would become newspaper fodder. (Her husband struggled with what today might be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, and had been admitted to a sanitarium in White Plains, New York, in 1932; Perkins feared his condition would become public and also loathed being far away from him.) Perkins even wrote Roosevelt a letter in early February 1933 urging him to appoint a union official instead of her.
A few weeks later, at a meeting at his home, Roosevelt officially asked Perkins to become his secretary of labor. She responded by listing the policies she would pursue if appointed—including an end to child labor, a minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, and universal health insurance—and told him that if he didn’t support these goals, she would not serve on his cabinet. According to Perkins, Roosevelt was surprised, asking her, “Well, do you think it can be done?” She responded that she didn’t know, but would do everything possible to make it happen. Roosevelt gave his consent to her agenda, and on March 4, 1933, Perkins was sworn in as the first female cabinet secretary.
6. SHE CULTIVATED A MATERNAL IMAGE.
Since entering the political arena, Perkins had kept a red folder of observations titled “Notes on the Male Mind.” She paid careful attention to male colleagues’ preferences and expectations so that, whenever possible, she could manipulate gender stereotypes to her advantage. In 1913, at the beginning of her career in New York politics, she encountered a Democratic state senator who burst out crying when he saw her, confessing that he felt guilty for helping impeach the governor, who was also a Democrat. Though Perkins was not involved in the impeachment, seeing her triggered the senator’s guilt at betraying a colleague. “Every man’s got a mother, you know,” he said to Perkins.
This senator made a profound impression, inspiring Perkins to cultivate a maternal—even matronly—image. By dressing and behaving in a way that reminded powerful men of their mothers, she could shame them into supporting her causes, and by retaining a stereotypical womanly manner, she threatened them less than if she’d imitated their bullish ways. On the day FDR’s cabinet first met, Perkins later recalled, “I wanted to give the impression of being a quiet, orderly woman who didn’t buzz-buzz all the time. […] I knew that a lady interposing an idea into men’s conversation is very unwelcome. I just proceeded on the theory that this was a gentleman’s conversation on the porch of a golf club perhaps. You didn’t butt in with bright ideas.”
With her subtle ways and matronly outfits—complete with tricorne hat—Perkins was able to convince her male colleagues to champion many of her “bright ideas.” However, even this tactic did not always work. Charles E. Wyzanski, Jr., a solicitor general at the Labor Department and ally of Perkins, once noted that congressmen did not like to receive lectures from a woman who seemed like “a combination of their mothers, teachers, and blue-stocking constituents.”
7. SHE HELPED FORMULATE THE NEW DEAL AND PASSED SOCIAL SECURITY.
Perkins supported and helped shepherd New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and the National Industrial Recovery Act. Labor historian C. E. Daniel stated, “It is hard to think of any [New Deal] accomplishments related to labor that don’t reflect the contributions of Frances Perkins.”
But perhaps Perkins’s biggest accomplishment was the passage of the Social Security Act. In 1934, Roosevelt named Perkins the chair of the Committee on Economic Security, which he had created by executive order. In that role, she helped craft a social security plan that included not just the old-age pensions we now associate with the name Social Security, but also workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, maternal and child health-services, and direct aid to the poor and the disabled. The Social Security Act passed Congress by a wide margin and was signed into law by FDR on August 14, 1935. “The real roots of the Social Security Act were in the great depression of 1929,” Perkins remarked in 1962. “Nothing else would have bumped the American people into a social security system except something so shocking, so terrifying, as that depression.”
Perkins also helped draft the Fair Labor Standards Act, which outlawed most child labor and established a federal minimum wage, a system of overtime pay, an eight-hour work day, and, for most workers, a 40-hour work week. The FLSA became law in 1938.
8. SHE WAS ATTACKED AS A COMMUNIST AND A SECRET JEW.
Like President Barack Obama, Perkins faced her own “birther” controversy: She was accused of secretly being a Russian Jew. Anti-Semitic pamphleteer Robert Edward Edmondson—who believed the New Deal was directed by Jews who wished to turn America into a Communist country—identified Perkins as one of the six main “sinister forces” in the Roosevelt administration in a 1935 pamphlet, which speculated that she “may be of Russian-Jewess origin.”
The rumor that Perkins was secretly a Russian Jew spread like wildfire. A genealogist appeared at her sister’s New England home, asking questions about their ancestry. Reporters began demanding proof of her personal history and family lineage. Then, in 1936, the American Vigilante (sometimes spelled Vigilant) Intelligence Federation—an anti-union, anti-Jewish group that amassed records on people who might be “reds”—published a pamphlet trumpeting “the truth about the Secretary of Labor”: that she was secretly a Jew named Matilda Watski. The Pennsylvania Daughters of the American Revolution launched an investigation into her heritage. In response, Perkins published a detailed account of her family background and even got the doctor who delivered her to make a statement that she was who she said she was, but the rumors continued to spread. Perkins received a flood of inquisitive and angry letters. She found the situation stressful, saying later, “You could deny it […] but you couldn’t make a public denunciation of the charge because that would appear that there was something very wrong about being a Jew.” Instead, Perkins made a public statement in 1936 saying, “If I were a Jew, […] I would be proud to acknowledge it.”
In the 1930s, many people feared a conspiracy between communists and Jews to undermine the United States, so rumors that Perkins was Jewish compounded reports that she was a red sympathizer, or a Communist herself. The controversy over her identity and loyalties eventually reached Congress. Republican Congressman Clare Hoffman attacked Perkins as “the wife of someone, though God alone knows what her true name may be, and no man yet has published the place of her birth.” In 1938, the new House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) targeted several members of Roosevelt’s administration, including Perkins, accusing them of communism.
The attack on Perkins came to a head in January 1939, when a Republican congressman from New Jersey and member of HUAC, J. Parnell Thomas, introduced impeachment proceedings against Perkins to the House of Representatives. Her alleged offense was failing to enforce deportation laws against an Australian immigrant named Harry Bridges who had led a longshoremen’s strike in San Francisco in 1934 and was rumored to be a communist. (At the time, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was part of the Department of Labor, so deportation decisions fell under Perkins’s purview.) She found no concrete evidence that Bridges was a member of the Communist Party and so did not deport him, but her opponents used the incident as an excuse to drag her name through the mud.
In private Roosevelt told Perkins not to worry, and in public he made light of the impeachment proceedings. In reality, he could not stop them, though Congress was dominated by Democrats. Perkins later wrote, with some understatement, “I didn’t like the idea of being impeached and was considerably disturbed by the episode.” She suffered through hearings and newspaper coverage, but the Judiciary Committee eventually vindicated her, ruling unanimously not to recommend impeachment.
9. SHE TRIED TO SAVE JEWISH REFUGEES FLEEING THE NAZIS.
After coming to power in January 1933, Adolf Hitler quickly began stripping German Jews of their civil rights. Denied passports by the German government and visas by the U.S. State Department, Jews who wished to escape the Nazi regime had almost no chance of reaching the United States. Perkins considered the situation a humanitarian crisis, and began urging Roosevelt to liberalize immigration policies to accept vast numbers of Jewish refugees.
While the State Department controlled visas, Perkins’s Department of Labor had jurisdiction over immigration and naturalization. One major difficulty lay in existing immigration policy, which held that the United States should bar any would-be immigrant “likely to become a public charge.” The Nazi regime systematically stripped German Jews of their possessions, meaning they would arrive in the United States destitute and so were inadmissible under current policy. Perkins found a way around this problem: Existing immigration law allowed the Secretary of Labor to accept a bond—a sum of money—in order to guarantee that a specific immigrant would not become a public charge. Perkins and Labor Department Solicitor Charles Wyzanski, Jr., argued that such bonds, guaranteed by the friends and relatives of refugees, could be used to admit large numbers of German Jews. In December 1933, Attorney General Homer Cummings affirmed Perkins’s legal right to accept bonds from American citizens to sponsor the admission of German refugees.
However, the State Department was strongly opposed to admitting Jewish refugees, as was public opinion, and Perkins’s own deputies worried about accepting vast numbers of displaced Jews. Ultimately, Perkins’s bond proposal never came to fruition, but over the next few years she instituted a plan to receive Jewish refugee children, resettling about 400 with American foster families, thanks to the financial backing of an American relief organization called the German Jewish Children’s Aid, Inc.
She also worked to extend the visas of German Jews already in the U.S. on temporary visas. As early as 1933, Perkins had suggested granting visitors’ visas to refugees as a means of getting them into the country quickly, before considering permanent asylum, but Roosevelt and the State Department had rejected that proposal. After Kristallnacht (the violent anti-Jewish riots of November 1938 in Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland), President Roosevelt agreed to another proposal from Perkins. On November 18, 1938, he announced that he was extending the visitors’ visas of 12,000 to 15,000 German Jews already in the country, as “it would be a cruel and inhuman thing to compel them to leave here.” While the State Department continued to limit the granting of visas to people still in Europe, Perkins’s Labor Department also continued to grant extensions to refugees who managed to enter the U.S. on visitors’ visas. Historian Bat-Ami Zucker estimates that from 1933 to 1940, between 20,000 and 30,000 Jewish refugees entered the country on visitors’ visas and then sought permanent residence.
Perkins had wished to accept many more. “From 1933 to early 1938, Frances had stood almost alone in highlighting the plight of German refugees and in urging U.S. government action,” Perkins biographer Kirstin Downey writes. Though she was unsuccessful in promoting a number of schemes for changing or getting around existing immigration laws, she continued to advocate for Jewish refugees through her position as secretary of labor. Her term lasted until 1945, when she resigned soon after Roosevelt’s death.
“Frances Perkins and the German-Jewish Refugees, 1933-1940,” American Jewish History, Vol. 89, No. 1; “The Ghost in the Machine: Frances Perkins’ Refusal to Accept Marginalization,” Master’s Thesis, University of Missouri, Kansas City, 2014 [PDF]; “The Libel Trial of Robert Edward Edmondson: 1936–1938,” American Jewish History, Vol. 71, No. 1; “The Pre-New Deal Career of Frances Perkins, 1880–1932,” Master’s Thesis, Florida Atlantic University, 1975; “Yankee Reformer in a Man’s World: Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor,” Dissertation, Michigan State University, 1978.