In the midst of the catastrophic crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, more than 100 million Americans are accessing financial assistance and medical care. These vital services are available in part because of the efforts of a woman many have never heard of.
Frances Perkins was the first female presidential cabinet secretary and the central architect of the New Deal. She designed Social Security and public works programs that brought millions out of poverty. Her work resulted in the construction of hospitals, public schools, and related infrastructure. A social worker by training, Perkins also implemented workplace regulations that are standard to this day.
Despite these achievements, Perkins has been largely forgotten. The popular narrative of this tumultuous period has placed Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the center of the New Deal. Even now, in making a nostalgic appeal to the New Deal, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has been portrayed in the media as a potential FDR, a framing also used with President Barack Obama.
Many leading female politicians have embraced Perkins: Senator Elizabeth Warren highlighted her accomplishments during a 2019 Washington Square Park speech; Hillary and Chelsea Clinton included her in The Book of Gutsy Women; and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested Perkins’ likeness should grace the $10 bill.
Kirstin Downey, author of the 2009 biography The Woman Behind the New Deal, described this as an awakening within the Democratic party. “I wanted to right an historic wrong,” Downey told me over Zoom, adding, “I was hoping, as I wrote the book, that more Democratic activists would take to heart the lessons that they learned about how to push through a difficult and challenging economic agenda in an economic and political system that doesn’t easily accept it.”
How did a woman who was not allowed to vote until she was 40 become such an important civil servant and political force? As Downey wrote, “It was a job she had prepared for all her life.” At the time, only three percent of women pursued higher education, but Perkins studied at Mount Holyoke College, where she interviewed factory employees about workplace conditions. With this research, as the public information specialist Gordon Berg wrote in the Monthly Labor Review, “the social education of Frances Perkins had begun.”
Unable to find philanthropic work after graduation, she taught at an elite girl’s school near Chicago and volunteered at Hull House, a settlement house. While learning to navigate the wealthiest and poorest communities, she had a personal rebirth. Fannie changed her name to the more proper and gender-neutral Frances and joined the Episcopal Church, a faith that would be her lifelong guidance. (She once claimed to be able to see people’s auras, allowing her to make moral judgments.) Later in life, she escaped from Washington to silent retreats at a Maryland convent, and was named a Holy Woman with a feast day.
She furthered her education, studying economics at the University of Pennsylvania and political science at Columbia University. Settling in Greenwich Village, she counted writers Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis and New York City “master builder” Robert Moses among her circle. She was inspired by the neighborhood’s eclectic artists, radicals, and intellectuals, as well as the millions of immigrants entering the U.S. through Ellis Island. A staunch believer in the separation of church and state, her religion didn’t stop her from becoming a suffragette or from supporting the nascent family planning movement.
It was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, that propelled Perkins commitment to improve abusive workplaces. As Frances Perkins Center board chair Sarah Peskin said to me over Zoom: “It really was by chance that she was in Washington Square when the alarm bells went off and was a witness to the most horrendous industrial accident in this country.”
Perkins watched as women jumped from windows for what they assumed would be a less painful death than immolation. In less than one hour, 146 people died, largely Jewish and Italian immigrants. Perkins later proclaimed it was “the day the New Deal was born,” realizing the potential for tragedies to produce significant progressive change. Theodore Roosevelt suggested Perkins should head the New York Committee on Safety. The Committee’s regulations—including practice drills, fire escapes, and space occupancy limits—made the U.S. a leader in eliminating hazards and promoting humane treatment for industrial workers.
“When there’s a really bad fire or building collapse in China, India, Pakistan, or Mexico, we all know what questions to ask: Where were the exits? Were people locked in? What was the plan of escape?” Downey said.
During this period, Perkins married Paul Caldwell Wilson, an ambitious progressive economist. After her wedding, journalists came to her house asking why she kept her maiden name, an unheard-of practice. For Perkins, it represented a modern and equitable partnership. However, Perkins became the sole provider when Wilson developed bipolar disorder, which their daughter also inherited. “It was a stigmatized illness, something that she dealt with throughout both of their lives,” Peskin said. “It meant that there was a level of uncertainty, always.”
Perkins balanced visiting her husband in mental institutions and gaining influence in state politics. She was appointed to the New York State Industrial Commission after the 1918 gubernatorial election, making her the highest paid woman ever in public office. Promoted to industrial commissioner under Governor Franklin Roosevelt, she learned that, despite widespread corruption, machine politics could produce social welfare legislation. “Only through the free and open discussion of differing points of view could the truth emerge and human needs and problems be solved,” Berg wrote. “Frances Perkins always employed those ideals in conducting the public’s business for the public’s benefit.”
By the 1932 presidential election, the American economy was in the depths of the Great Depression, with more people leaving the country than arriving, and about a 25 percent unemployment rate. When newly inaugurated President Roosevelt asked Perkins to be Secretary of Labor, she arrived at their meeting with a note of “practical possibilities” outlining what became the New Deal. During her 12 years in federal government, she’d accomplish almost all of these goals, while reforming a corrupt Labor Department overrun with patronage.
President Roosevelt’s first 100 days became legendary for the passage of 15 major laws, setting a benchmark for future administrations. Perkins guided the Federal Emergency Relief Administration that provided $500 million in initial aid. A lover of the outdoors, Roosevelt also tasked her with creating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to employ young men. They planted more than two billion trees and created 800 state parks. The CCC hired 200,000 Black men, whose unemployment rate was 30 to 60 percent greater than for white workers. Perkins organized the Division of Negro Labor and threatened to suspend the CCC program in Georgia because of discrimination. As the industrial relations specialist Henry Guzda wrote in Monthly Labor Review, “The black-oriented programs and policies initiated under Perkins’ direction seem modest by today’s standards… But the programs she started left a legacy for programs of the 1960s and 1970s.”
During the Great Depression, older people were the first to lose their jobs, and 30 to 50 percent sought financial support from their families. Perkins knew Roosevelt didn’t want to encourage the laziness that, rightly or wrongly, was associated with government handouts. With the Social Security Act, workers received money as an earned benefit in retirement. The legislation faced pushback from both sides of the political sphere. As Peskin said, “This was not accepted wisdom at that time. This was a novel, radical approach.”
As Berg wrote, if Social Security was Perkins’ pride, the Fair Labor Standards Act was her joy. The Act that set the groundwork for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), covering 12 million people, increasing wages for 300,000 people, and decreasing work hours for a million workers, who were guaranteed overtime pay. More significantly, it also changed many Americans’ lifestyles, mandating regular rest and leisure.
There was one goal on Perkins’ list, however, that she couldn’t accomplish: universal health insurance. The American Medical Association lobbied against its inclusion in the Social Security Act, but Perkins hoped it would be amended later. An increasingly booming economy and a decreased wartime workforce popularized offering private insurance as an incentive for potential employees, effectively blocking national single-payer insurance.
Perkins also struggled to garner support for German-Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. During this time, the Immigration Service was housed inside the Department of Labor. Perkins previously saved the International Labor Organization (ILO) by aiding persecuted European labor leaders in seeking asylum in Canada. But she had little power to fight restrictive immigration laws passed in the 1920s. The historian Bat-Ami Zucker wrote in American Jewish History that Perkins “was an exception to the indifference and often patronizing attitudes within government circles towards the suffering of Jewish refugees.” Battling nationalist attitudes that still hold sway in parts of the U.S.—unfounded fears of immigrants stealing jobs and spreading dangerous religious ideologies—Perkins helped some 20,000-30,000 Jews enter on visitor visas, and rescued around 400 Jewish children. She intervened in hundreds of individual cases, from Sigmund Freud to the Von Trapp family.
But during these early red scare days, Perkins was labeled a communist and subject to an impeachment. With her activities monitored by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Republican opponents in Congress claimed she was a Russian-Jewish immigrant named Mathilda Watsky. She had, they said, lied about her age and Socialist Party connections. Much like President Obama decades later, Perkins had to prove she was born in the U.S., writing:
The utter un-Americanism of such a whispering campaign, the appeal to racial prejudice and the attempt at political propaganda by unworthy innuendo must be repugnant to all honorable men and women.
While she stayed in office, her reputation was tarnished. A private woman, Perkins had never wanted media attention. Journalists condescendingly referred to her as “Frances the Perk” and “Ma Perkins.” When asked if her gender held her back, she said “only in climbing trees.”
As early as her late 20s, she adopted a wardrobe of plain, matronly clothing, described by the Saturday Evening Post as “designed by the Bureau of Standards.” Perkins knew men were uncomfortable with women in public life unless they looked like their mothers. She even collected “Notes on the Male Mind,” humorous observations from her interactions with men.
As the political scientist DeLysa Burnier wrote in the journal Administrative Theory & Praxis:
She was decidedly masculine in her ability to work long and hard for the public goals she cared about, but she was consistently feminine in her willingness to credit others for the work she did.
Perkins adversaries on the right targeted a fumbled moment when a comment of hers—”putting shoes on the South”—was misconstrued to suggest that Southern people don’t own shoes. Leftist labor leaders were frustrated that a position traditionally awarded to one of their own (females weren’t allowed in union leadership) went to a middle-class woman. “She was willing to adjust and compromise for the greater good,” said Peskin. “In other words, she was criticized for being a half a loaf girl.”
Perkins’ role became increasingly marginalized during World War II. The Department of Labor was stripped of much of its authority. Perkins pushed for female inclusion on the home front, with some four million women joining war industries by 1942. As Downey wrote in her book, “there was no language yet for the sexism she experienced daily in the Cabinet because there had never before been a woman serving in the Cabinet, or indeed, in any prominent government position.”
Perkins left her post in 1945, not long after Roosevelt’s death, making her the longest serving Labor Secretary. She continued working in the Truman administration and published The Roosevelt I Knew, a bestselling biography. Maybe if she’d written an autobiography, she would’ve cemented her legacy. Instead, as Burnier wrote, Perkins was targeted by forces in the media, in the labor movement, and in Congress because she was what a woman wasn’t supposed to be: a prominent public official with power and authority. President Truman eventually pushed Perkins out of government. Although Perkins was initially skeptical of the Kennedys, John and Jacqueline courted her endorsement and consulted her after entering the White House. At age 77, she still needed to work to support her daughter, but was viewed as too radical to teach at many institutions. She ended up as a Cornell University lecturer, literally working until she died at the age of 85, in 1965.
As the memory of Perkins’ has eroded, so was space for women in politics. In the “Mad Men” era, as Downey described it, women were pushed back into the domestic sphere, with almost all male presidential cabinet positions until 1970. Her progressive policies were also undermined: “What’s happened ever since the presidency of Ronald Reagan is, there’s been a chipping away at labor rights. The Republicans have been at war with the labor movement,” Downey said.
Perkins’ story is being increasingly studied, preserved, and promoted. The Frances Perkins Center, which was founded in 2009, in Newcastle, Maine, views success as having Perkins included in every American high school history textbook. In January, the Center purchased the Frances Perkins Homestead, a National Historic Landmark (established in 2014). Peskin said she joined the Center because of having few female role models of effective public servants during her career at the National Park Service.
“In a time that’s so partisan and everyone’s fighting so much—Washington has become so toxic—I found it enormously reassuring that Frances Perkins’ key pieces of legislation had won such universal support,” Downey concluded. As Perkins said when she left office, “I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain, common workingmen.”