Insights and Perspectives

Insights and Perspectives


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The first woman to ever serve in a cabinet position in the United States was also the longest serving:  Frances Perkins, appointed U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As we celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we salute her lifelong work and honor the legacy she left to the American people. 

Responsible for so many of the elements of our modern work life, when President Roosevelt offered Perkins the position of Secretary of Labor, she gave him a list of policy priorities that included:

•    Social Security
•    A 40-hour work week
•    A minimum wage
•    Unemployment compensation
•    Worker’s compensation
•    Abolition of child labor
•    Direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief
•    A revitalized federal employment service
•    Universal health insurance

Within 12 years, Perkins had accomplished eight of her nine policy goals. But her work began many years before her time in Washington, D.C.

Perkins attended Mount Holyoke College. After visiting the mills along the Connecticut River to observe the working conditions for a class she took her senior year, Perkins, horrified at what she witnessed, later said, “There were absolutely no effective laws that regulated the number of hours they were permitted to work. There were no provisions which guarded their health nor adequately looked after their compensation in case of injury. Those things seemed very wrong.” This experience played a formative role in Perkins’s career as she worked to reform these conditions.

Further inspiration came when Florence Kelly, then executive secretary to the National Consumers League, came to speak at the local chapter. Of Kelley’s speech, Perkins was quoted as saying it “first opened my mind to the necessity for and the possibility of the work which became my vocation.”

A Path of Reform

Perkins graduated from Mount Holyoke, and what followed was a long and storied career. From a modest beginning as a teacher in Lake Forest, Illinois, Perkins began her social work as a volunteer, earned a Master’s degree from Columbia University, and, after witnessing the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Co. Factory fire, began working with the newly created Factory Investigating Commission, empowered to investigate and make legislative recommendations, whose work ultimately resulted in the nation’s most comprehensive set of laws governing workplace health and safety.

It was former New York Governor Al Smith who first appointed Perkins to public office, a seat on the New York State Industrial Commission. She was the first woman appointed to an administrative position in New York state government, and the highest paid woman to ever hold public office in the United States. Smith was succeeded as governor by Franklin D. Roosevelt who appointed Perkins as New York’s Industrial Commissioner. As she became the most prominent state labor official in New York, she worked with Roosevelt to find ways to stem the rising tide of unemployment within the U.S.

After Roosevelt’s election to the Presidency in 1932, Frances Perkins began her work on a national scale. Roosevelt endorsed all of her policy priorities, and for the next 12 years she worked to shape and enact the legislation that frames our current working environment.

A National Legacy

Along with the passage of the Social Security Act, a landmark law establishing old age pensions, unemployment insurance, survivor benefits, Perkins was also instrumental in creating major New Deal jobs programs, the U.S. Employment Service which was revitalized by the Wagner-Peyser Act, the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Bureau of Labor Standards, the National Labor Relations Act. She coordinated the effort for U.S. membership to the International Labor Organization, and saved thousands of lives by limiting deportations to Nazi Germany.

Frances Perkins worked her entire life to improve the conditions of others. When a worker is guaranteed retirement income, protected at work from injury, or provided monetary compensation when laid off from their job, it is the legacy of Frances Perkins holding that worker. 

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