March 19, 2014
“I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen.”
Frances Perkins (1880-1965) graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1902 and earned a Master’s Degree in sociology from Columbia University in 1910. After graduate school, she worked as a social worker and became involved in labor reform efforts after witnessing workers trying to escape from the cramped floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911.
She served as the first woman Industrial Commissioner under New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt, and held other important labor-related jobs in New York state government under Governors Roosevelt and Al Smith. In 1933, President Roosevelt appointed her as his Secretary of Labor—making her the first woman to hold a U.S. Cabinet position.
As Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins championed many aspects of the New Deal, including unemployment insurance, child labor laws, and the adoption of the federal minimum wage. She was largely responsible for the creation of the Social Security system through her role on the President’s Committee on Economic Security. Following her service as Secretary of Labor, she was asked by President Truman to serve on the U.S. Civil Service Commission. She resigned from public service in 1952 shortly after the death of her husband, Paul Caldwell Wilson.
Following her government service career, she continued to be active as a teacher and lecturer until her death. The Frances Perkins Building that serves as the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Labor was named in her honor in 1980.