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Frances Perkins- 1st Woman US Cabinet Member

Updated on January 13, 2012

Frances Perkins- The First Woman Secretary of Labor

In 1932 Frances Perkins (1880-1965) was the first woman to a hold a cabinet post in American history. She was appointed The Secretary of Labor by Franklin Roosevelt and served for his entire 12 year presidency.

She was dedicated to improving the lives of workers and creating much needed labor unions during the industrial revolution.

Perkins managed to influence the political agenda of her day, moving it closer to her own values of economic justice and financial security for all Americans.


From a traditional home in Worcester, Massachusetts, Frances Perkins went to Mount Holyoke College, where she was first introduced to the cause of social reform. She became a Social Worker after graduation, and was witness to the fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City, which claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant workers in 1911, a tragedy that prompted her to fight for better conditions for all workers.

Single Mother

After her husband had to be confined to an institution, she proceeded to support herself and raise their young daughter alone. She made conscious compromises to succeed as a career woman by adopting a grandmotherly style of dress, she felt was less threatening to men.

Political Life:

Perkins was appointed to Governor Al Smith's administration in Albany, serving on the Industrial Commission and the Bureau of Mediation and Arbitration. She continued to serve after Franklin Roosevelt was elected Governor. When FDR elected to the White House in 1932, he appointed Frances Perkins as his Secretary of Labor.

After serving throughout Roosevelt's four terms, she continued to lecture and write, and taught at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

The Great Depression and Frances Perkins - The New Deal

By the time Perkins came to the Department of Labor in 1933, the economy had virtually collapsed. An estimated 13 million people were unemployed and hundreds of thousands had become homeless wanderers, in search of work. The nation's industrial production had fallen by 44 percent since 1929. Millions of farmers faced foreclosure. Banks were failing by the score. Local governments were running out of money for relief programs.

President Roosevelt's approach to the problem was both conservative and innovative. He surrounded himself with able, creative minds and set out on a flexible and humane program to get the country back on its feet.

Perkins was one of the most creative of FDR's counselors, and she had his ear. Like Roosevelt, she believed that government had a major role to play in regulating economic order, to promote social justice and human freedom.

The New Deal:

As Secretary of Labor, Ms. Perkins, successfully promoted many elements that became part of the New Deal, including direct relief for the unemployed, a public works program, minimum wage legislation, unemployment and old age insurance, abolition of child labor, and the establishment of a true federal employment service, as well as an agricultural recovery program that helped beleaguered farmers.

The Civil Works Administration and later the more extensive Works Progress Administration put millions of unemployed to work on activities ranging from road-building to painting murals on government buildings.

Social Security

Of all the New Deal reform and relief programs, the most important and durable was Social Security, and without Frances Perkins it might never have been enacted.

Long a proponent of public "old-age" insurance, Perkins had only accepted her post at the Labor Department on the condition that FDR would back her in seeking this goal. She led a campaign to convince the nation that a pension system would both be humanitarian and also help prevent future depressions. By 1935, public opinion was thoroughly in favor of the idea.

The Social Security Act passed in 1935 and provided direct aid for the destitute elderly and a pension program for many, but far from all, workers. It also provided federal funding for state-operated unemployment insurance programs, as well as aid for the handicapped and for mothers with dependent children.

Photo by Dorothea Lange for the Resettlement Administration-1936.

What do you think of Frances Perkins?

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The New Deal - FDR and Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins Quote

"The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats."

Your Thoughts About Frances Perkins? - Share your thoughts...

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    • dwnovacek profile image


      8 years ago

      Amazing lens about an incredible woman. Thank you for creating this lens! Angel Blessings, and I'm lensrolling it to all my lenses about female explorers!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      What a wonderful and informative lens you have written. I am glad to know more about Frances Perkins. Blessed by an Angel. This lens will be featured on my angel lens: "angel-on-assignment".

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Delighted to read about her amazing life, her accomplishments, talents, perception of men and women, particularly of FDR. Why hasn't a movie of her life been produced for the enlightenment of young men and women and for me to enjoy?

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      9 years ago

      Frances Perkins is really a good inspiration for women :D this was helpful to my project

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      this was helpful because I have to play the part of her in a play. It really helped me understand the character

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Frances Perkins sounds like a really interesting person... this info was really helpful for my project!!!


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