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About Fannie Coralie Perkins
Frances Perkins (April 10, 1880 – May 14, 1965), born Fannie Coralie Perkins, was the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. As a loyal supporter of her friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt, she helped pull the labor movement into the New Deal coalition. She and Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes were the only original members of the Roosevelt cabinet to remain in office for his entire presidency.
During her term as Secretary of Labor, Perkins championed many aspects of the New Deal, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and its successor the Federal Works Agency, and the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act. With The Social Security Act she established unemployment benefits, pensions for the many uncovered elderly Americans, and welfare for the poorest Americans. She pushed to reduce workplace accidents and helped craft laws against child labor. Through the Fair Labor Standards Act, she established the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers, and defined the standard forty-hour work week. She formed governmental policy for working with labor unions and helped to alleviate strikes by way of the United States Conciliation Service, Perkins resisted having American women be drafted to serve the military in World War II so that they could enter the civilian workforce in greatly expanded numbers.
Early life and education
Perkins was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Susan Bean Perkins and Frederick W. Perkins, the owner of a stationer's business (both of her parents originally were from Maine). She spent much of her childhood in Worcester, Massachusetts. She was christened Fannie Coralie Perkins, but later changed her name to Frances.
Perkins attended the Classical High School in Worcester. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry and physics in 1902. She obtained a master's degree in political science from Columbia University in 1910. In the interim, she held a variety of teaching positions including a position teaching chemistry from 1904 to 1906 at Ferry Hall School (now Lake Forest Academy). In Chicago, she volunteered at settlement houses, including Hull House. In 1918 she began her years of study in economics and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
Life and career before the cabinet position
She achieved statewide prominence as head of the New York Consumers League in 1910 and in that position she lobbied with vigor for better working hours and conditions. During this time Perkins also taught as a professor of sociology at Adelphi College. The next year, she witnessed the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a pivotal event in her life.
Frances Perkins married Paul Caldwell Wilson in 1913. She kept her birth name, defending her right to do so in court. The couple had a daughter, Susanna. Both father and daughter were described by biographer Kirstin Downey as having "manic-depressive symptoms". Wilson was frequently institutionalized for mental illness. She was the sole support for her household.
Prior to moving to Washington, D.C., Perkins held various positions in New York State government. In 1929 the newly elected New York governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, appointed Perkins as the inaugural New York State Commissioner of Labor. Having earned the cooperation and respect of various political factions, Perkins ably helped put New York in the forefront of progressive reform. She expanded factory investigations, reduced the workweek for women to 48 hours, and championed minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws.
In 1933 Roosevelt appointed Perkins as Secretary of the Department of Labor, a position she held for twelve years, longer than any other Secretary of Labor. She became the first woman to hold a cabinet position in the United States and thus, became the first woman to enter the presidential line of succession. With few exceptions, President Roosevelt consistently supported the goals and programs of Secretary Perkins.
As Secretary of Labor, Perkins played a key role in the cabinet by writing New Deal legislation, including minimum-wage laws. Her most important contribution, however, came in 1934 as chairwoman of the President's Committee on Economic Security. In this post, she was involved in all aspects of the reports and hearings that ultimately resulted in the Social Security Act of 1935. On the day that bill was signed into law, her husband escaped from a mental institution.
In 1939 she came under fire from some members of Congress for refusing to deport the communist head of the west coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Harry Bridges. Ultimately, however, Bridges was vindicated by the Supreme Court.
Al Smith, 42nd Governor of New York, was an early social reformer with whom Frances Perkins made common cause. At Smith's funeral in 1944 two of his former Tammany Hall cronies were overheard speculating why Smith had become a social crusader. One of them guessed: "I'll tell you. Al Smith read a book. That book was a person, and her name was Frances Perkins. She told him all these things, and he believed her."
Following her tenure as Secretary of Labor, in 1945 Perkins was asked by President Harry Truman to serve on the United States Civil Service Commission, which she did until 1952, when her husband died and she resigned from federal service. During this period, she also published a memoir of her time in FDR's administration called The Roosevelt I Knew, which offered a sympathetic view of the president.
After the cabinet
Following her government service career, Perkins remained active as a teacher and lecturer at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University until her death in 1965 at age 85. She is buried in the Glidden Cemetery in Newcastle, Maine. Paul Wolfowitz was a pallbearer at her funeral.
Target of political opposition in 2011
Perkins is depicted in a mural displayed in the Maine Department of Labor headquarters, the native state of both of her parents. On March 23, 2011, Maine's Republican governor, Paul LePage, ordered the removal of the mural. A spokesperson for the governor said they received complaints about the mural from state business officials and from an anonymous facsimile charging that it was reminiscent of “communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses”. Paul LePage also ordered that the names of seven conference rooms in the state department of labor be changed, including one named after Perkins.
On 1 April 2011 it was disclosed that a federal lawsuit had been filed in U.S. District Court seeking "to confirm the mural's current location, ensure that the artwork is adequately preserved, and ultimately to restore it to the Department of Labor's lobby in Augusta".
Frances Perkins, the first female member of the presidential cabinet, had an unenviable challenge: she had to be as capable, as fearless, as tactful, as politically astute as the other Washington politicians, in order to make it possible for other women to be accepted into the halls of power after her.
Perkins would have been famous simply by being the first woman cabinet member, but her legacy stems from her accomplishments. She was largely responsible for the U.S. adoption of social security, unemployment insurance, federal laws regulating child labor, and adoption of the federal minimum wage.
Perkins had a cool personality, which held her aloof from the crowd. Although her results indicate her great love of workers and lower-class groups, her Boston upbringing held her back from mingling freely and exhibiting personal affection. She was well-suited for the high-level efforts to effect sweeping reforms, but never caught the public's eye or its affection.
The Frances Perkins Building that is the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. was named in her honor in 1980.
Perkins is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church on May 13.
Perkins remains a prominent alumna of Mount Holyoke College, whose Francis Perkins Program allows "women of non-traditional age" (i.e., age 24 or older) to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree. There are approximately 140 Francis Perkins scholars each year.