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Promoting the General Welfare: Frances Perkins

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There are two good things to think about in 2020: if you needed them, you may have gotten unemployment checks, and you may have decided to get away from it all and visit a state or national park partially built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). For both, you can thank Frances Perkins.

Frances Perkins was born in Boston’s Beacon Hill to a family with deep Maine roots in April 1880. Her family took the unusual step of preparing her for secondary education, an opportunity few women of her era had. Her father began teaching her Greek at eight, and she attended the Worcester Classical High School. She went on to Mt. Holyoke for her undergraduate degree, where the students were exhorted to ‘do good [works]’. In her teens, reading Jacob Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives, “opened a ‘new world’ to her” of poverty and how the working classes lived (Downey, 10). After college, she taught school in Illinois; while there, she started working at Hull House on weekends and holidays.

Black and white photograph of Frances Perkins standing behind her desk as the Secretary of Labor. She wears a dark dress, dark hat, and eyeglasses hang from her dress. Her desk contains a microphone, fountain pen, and documents. She has a serious, somber expression and looks just past the camera.
   Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor [photo by Harris & Ewing, 1905-1945. Library  of Congress Prints and Photographs, // ]
Perkins later moved to New York to earn a master’s degree in sociology and economics at Columbia University, and wrote her thesis on child malnutrition in Hell’s Kitchen. After graduation, she was offered a job running the New York office of the National Consumers League. During this period, she attended a tea party across the street from the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which caught on fire just as she and her fellow guests were sitting down to tea. She rushed to the scene and saw workers leaping to their death from the windows. Witnessing this tragedy, coupled with her early social work experiences and the impression that Riis’ book made on her, drove her to work at her career so assiduously (Downey, 36).

Her earlier experiences led her to be hired by the Committee on Safety of the City of New York, where she was an investigator for New York’s Factory Investigating Commission, and she was instrumental in the passage of some of the first work safety laws in the U.S. Around this time she met and married her husband, Paul Wilson, in 1913. She raised eyebrows by keeping her maiden name to help her career, although she had discussed it with her husband in advance and it was politically expedient for his career also (Downey, 62). She intended to focus on raising her children and keeping the home when children arrived, and when her daughter Susanna was born in 1916, she did do that. However, her husband soon started exhibiting signs of mental illness, and had to be hospitalized. He was in treatment for most of his life and she found it necessary to work to support the family. Al Smith appointed Perkins a commissioner of the New York State Industrial Board, and she was named chair of the board in 1926.

Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her New York State Industrial Commissioner in 1929. His working relationship with her on these labor issues led him to offer her the job of secretary of the Department of Labor in February 1933 (Downey, 1). Perkins came to the meeting with the requirement that she be allowed to work on her list of items she wanted to accomplish: “a forty-hour workweek, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service, and health insurance” (Downey, 1).

Roosevelt had an unprecedented 12 years in office, and Perkins was the longest serving member of his cabinet, with an astonishing list of accomplishments in her 12 years and three months as Secretary of Labor. She was able to achieve most of her goals: “…child labor was abolished, minimum wage and maximum-hour laws were enacted, and, through the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (29 U.S.C. §§ 151-169), workers were guaranteed the right to organize and bargain collectively. She also chaired the Committee on Economic Security, established in 1934, which recommended the nationalization of unemployment and old-age insurance. Thanks to her committed pursuit of this ideal, the Social Security Act was signed into law in 1935.” She worked to get the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 passed, which allowed people to work an eight-hour workday instead of a twelve-hour one (among other features). She made major changes and improvements to the CCC, National Recovery Administration, Public Works Administration, Works Progress Administration. A writer quipped that Roosevelt’s New Deal was actually the Perkins New Deal; she achieved every action item on her 1933 list, with the exception of health care.

Almost from the beginning of her tenure, she labored to bring in refugees from Europe. She “use[d] her influence to assist German Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. She met formidable opposition from officials in the State Department, some of whom held antisemitic and xenophobic prejudices common in 1930s America. As one of Perkins’s staff reminded her, “The [State Department] consuls are not known for their sympathy towards immigrants, and particularly towards Jews.” She tried over and over to increase quotas for immigrants and particular German Jews; “…by 1937, Frances admitted 50,255 immigrants for permanent residency, including almost eleven thousand Germans, two-thirds of whom were Jews, and 231,884 foreign ‘visitors’ (Downey, 194). Her support of immigration led to significant trouble for her career; as a result, Roosevelt moved the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice to end the immigration controversies in 1940.

When the war started, Perkins worked to support Roosevelt and his initiatives, and to build up the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When he died in 1945, she resigned. President Truman appointed her to the U.S. Civil Service Commission. She wrote a bestselling book about Roosevelt and her time in his administration, the closest she would come to an autobiography. Her husband still required her care, so she was unable to take any positions farther away from home. In 1952, Paul Wilson died. She took on a job teaching at Cornell University’s new Industrial and Labor Relations School in 1955, where she enjoyed working with students and colleagues. She was still teaching at Cornell when she died at age 85. She led an astonishing life of firsts, motivated by her desire to “…do something about the unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty. It was sort of up to me.”

The Department of Labor building in Washington, D.C. is named for her.

Black and white photograph of the entrance to the Frances Perkins Department of Labor Building. In the foreground are granite stairs and a sign that reads "United States Department of Labor." A ladder leans against the front of the building.
Frances Perkins Building, U.S. Department of Labor, Washington, D.C. October 2020 [photo by J.Davis and Rebecca Raupach]

HD7123.A55 1935c United States. Committee on Economic Security. Report to the President of the Committee on Economic Security.

HD7123.A55 1935cb United States. Committee on Economic Security. Report to the President of the Committee on Economic Security.

E807.P4 2011 Perkins, Frances. The Roosevelt I Knew.

HD8073.P38 D69 2009 Downey, Kirstin. The Woman behind the New Deal : the life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and his moral conscience.   

E806.A63 American Council on Public Affairs. The Federal government today: a survey of recent innovations and renovations.

HD8072.P36 Perkins, Frances. People at work.

HD8072.T87 Perkins, Frances and J. Paul St. Sure. Two views of American labor.

HD8053.N7 A5 1914 New York (State). Factory Investigating Commission. Third report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1914. Transmitted to the Legislature February 14, 1914.

Social Security Act of 1935.

HV4046.N6 R58 2010 Riis, Jacob A. How the other half lives: authoritative text, contexts, criticism.


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