Perkins Becomes First Woman Secretary of Labor

The appointment of Frances Perkins as the first female secretary of labor proved that women could play a key role in national politics.

Summary of Event

Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as secretary of labor on February 28, 1933. She took office on March 4, 1933, and served until July 1, 1945. For Perkins, the appointment was a recognition of almost thirty years of distinguished service as a social worker and civil servant whose expertise in labor relations was acknowledged throughout the country. For Roosevelt, appointing Perkins was a practical way to seek the support of female Progressive reformers, whose post-1920 (when woman suffrage was secured) political achievements were relatively few. By appointing Perkins, Roosevelt secured a cabinet member who had recognized national expertise in her department. She was a better choice than the male candidate recommended by the American Federation of Labor, since she possessed an independent background that allowed critical thinking and did not force allegiance to labor union’s positions. [kw]Perkins Becomes First Woman Secretary of Labor (Feb. 28, 1933)
[kw]First Woman Secretary of Labor, Perkins Becomes (Feb. 28, 1933)
[kw]Woman Secretary of Labor, Perkins Becomes First (Feb. 28, 1933)
[kw]Secretary of Labor, Perkins Becomes First Woman (Feb. 28, 1933)
[kw]Labor, Perkins Becomes First Woman Secretary of (Feb. 28, 1933)
Department of Labor, U.S.;first woman secretary
[g]United States;Feb. 28, 1933: Perkins Becomes First Woman Secretary of Labor[08280]
[c]Women’s issues;Feb. 28, 1933: Perkins Becomes First Woman Secretary of Labor[08280]
[c]Business and labor;Feb. 28, 1933: Perkins Becomes First Woman Secretary of Labor[08280]
[c]Government and politics;Feb. 28, 1933: Perkins Becomes First Woman Secretary of Labor[08280]
Perkins, Frances
[p]Perkins, Frances;appointment as U.S. labor secretary
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;appointment of Perkins as U.S. labor secretary
Smith, Alfred E.
Dies, Martin, Jr.
Bridges, Harry

Frances Perkins.

(Library of Congress)

Perkins was the daughter of Fred and Susan Perkins, who anticipated that their talented daughter’s primary career would be as wife and mother. They bucked tradition, however, by encouraging her to graduate from Worcester Classical High School in 1898 and Mount Holyoke College in 1902. The Perkinses provided financial assistance to their daughter in the early stages of her social work career, although they would have been happier if she had remained a volunteer and not become a professional social worker. Perkins began to form an independent identity as a student at Mount Holyoke, where she researched factory conditions as part of a class project. More important, at Mount Holyoke Perkins was elected class president, and in that position she demonstrated potential as a political candidate. Perkins deserted the conservative Republican politics supported by her parents, who were successful and respected small-business owners. Perkins also deserted her parents’ Congregational faith by becoming a devout Episcopalian, and her intense devotions to her faith contrasted sharply with the haphazard Episcopalianism of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

After college, Perkins did volunteer work and taught in Lake Forest, Illinois, where she met Graham Taylor, head of the Chicago Commons settlement house. Through Taylor, Perkins met social reformers Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, and Grace Abbott. By 1907, Perkins lived at Hull House, worked at the Chicago Commons, and had decided on a career in social work. In September of 1907, Perkins became general secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. She received a nominal salary of fifty dollars per month from this organization. At the association, Perkins worked with young female immigrants and African Americans who had migrated to Philadelphia from the South; both of these groups were often forced to work under extremely exploitive conditions or were recruited for brothels. Meanwhile, Perkins also attended classes in economics and sociology at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania.

After two years in Philadelphia, Perkins moved to New York in 1909 and used a five-hundred-dollar fellowship to attend the New York School of Philanthropy. While she lived in settlement houses, Perkins’s thesis “A Study of Malnutrition in 197 Children from Public School 51” qualified her for a master’s degree in political science at Columbia University on June 10, 1910. Despite the fact that her degree was granted in political science, most of the courses Perkins had taken were in economics and sociology.

In 1910, Perkins became general secretary of the National Consumers League. Through the Consumers League, Perkins formed a lasting friendship with its national director, Florence Kelley, and gained a national reputation for her surveys of industrial conditions. Conditions were unhealthy and dangerous in most occupations, and Perkins saw the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, in which 146 women either burned or jumped to their deaths. Influenced by this fire, Perkins served from 1912 to 1917 as executive secretary of a committee on safety that was formed to press for better working conditions. The Triangle fire led to the creation of the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, New York State Factory Investigating Commission and Perkins served as one of the commission’s investigators in 1912 and 1913.

Perkins married Paul C. Wilson, Wilson, Paul C. an economist on the staff of New York City reformist mayor John Purroy Mitchell. This marriage lasted until Wilson’s death in 1951, despite the fact that he was hospitalized for mental illness throughout most of the marriage. Perkins was the breadwinner for Wilson and their daughter Susanna, who was born in 1916. Both Perkins and her husband agreed that Perkins would keep her maiden name for professional purposes.

In 1919, Governor Alfred E. Smith, whom Perkins had known since 1911, appointed her to the State Industrial Commission. She served from 1919 to 1920, and Smith reappointed Perkins after he began his second term as governor in 1922. She also served with the Industrial Board of the State Labor Department. In 1926, Smith recognized Perkins’s increasing professional credibility as an expert in labor law by naming her chair of the Industrial Board. When Smith lost his presidential race in 1928, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected governor of New York. Roosevelt appointed Perkins to be industrial commissioner of New York, a state-level position that helped prepare Perkins for her cabinet appointment.

Perkins’s educational and professional background made her a highly qualified cabinet appointee, and no affirmative action was needed to advance candidacy. She was prepared to reorganize the Labor Department for Roosevelt and to participate in the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935. Martin Dies, Jr., and the House Un-American Activities Committee House Un-American Activities Committee[House Unamerican Activities Committee] introduced impeachment action against her in 1938; Dies resented her refusal to deport radical longshoreman Harry Bridges. Despite this controversy, however, Perkins was generally seen as a successful cabinet member, and her appointment and service set a precedent for other women. Although Perkins did not favor an equal rights amendment—which she viewed as a threat to protective legislation for women—she must be viewed as a practical advocate of women’s rights within the context of her times.


Perkins’s appointment had enduring consequences in several areas related to human rights. Like many successful, college-educated women of her day, Perkins broke important ground in proving that women could be competent professionals, and she devoted her career to alleviating the misery created by the excesses of industrial capitalism in diverse areas of public concern. Trained in social work, she sought practical measures to protect the dignity of American workers.

Perkins’s success established the previously untested competence of women to hold cabinet-level positions. As the first female cabinet member, she helped make it possible for other women, such as Oveta Culp Hobby and Elizabeth Dole, to serve in future cabinets. Although Perkins supported protective legislation for women and opposed the idea of an equal rights amendment, her contributions greatly furthered women’s search for equal participation in American politics.

Perkins was a consistent proponent of emerging unions and organized labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively, even though as a social worker she had showed more interest in the rights of nonunion labor than the American Federation of Labor (AFL) would have liked. She supported pro-union legislation such as the Employment Stabilization Act of 1931, Employment Stabilization Act (1931) and she made impassioned pleas to industrial employers, asking them to recognize that their employees could not effectively negotiate as individuals. She believed, however, that social legislation needed to address the concerns of nonunion labor in an era when labor unions often considered collaboration with nonunion labor as counterproductive to their organizing efforts.

Perkins was also a consistent advocate of the emerging economic, political, and social interests of African American workers. She insisted that New Deal work-relief programs serve African American workers in the Deep South, and she symbolically integrated the Labor Department cafeteria in racially segregated Washington, D.C. She also worked to promote African American employees into higher-level professional positions in the Department of Labor. Perkins opposed the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Federal Bureau of Investigation proposal that all American citizens be fingerprinted, which she argued was a potentially totalitarian measure. Ultimately, she defeated J. Edgar Hoover Hoover, J. Edgar on this issue, and her victory extended her influence beyond strictly labor-related matters.

Perkins fought to end the intimidation of resident aliens who were perceived as dangerous radicals, such as longshoreman leader Harry Bridges. She suffered great political and personal embarrassment over this issue, but she protected the civil rights of alien workers even while losing the Labor Department’s traditional control of immigration enforcement to other agencies. Perkins’s concerns for the rights of workers, minorities, and women left a significant human rights legacy in the United States. Her political achievements were formidable, and she broke with tradition in many arenas; for example, she consistently insisted on being addressed as “Miss Perkins,” a decision that helped establish the right of women to retain their maiden names. An active lecturer at Cornell University until the 1960’s, she was a unique combination of Christian idealist and practical politician who successfully applied the doctrines of the Social Gospel movement in a public context without breaching the separation of church and state. Department of Labor, U.S.;first woman secretary

Further Reading

  • Babson, Steve. The Unfinished Struggle: Turning Points in American Labor, 1877-Present. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Concise and comprehensive history of the American labor movement. Includes notes and index.
  • Braden, Maria. Women Politicians and the Media. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996. Discusses how women politicians have been scrutinized by the American media and how the media’s treatment has influenced public perceptions of these women. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • Cobble, Dorothy Sue. “A Self-Possessed Woman: A View of F.D.R.’s Secretary of Labor, Madame Perkins.” Labor History 29 (February, 1988): 225-229. Cobble reviews the film You May Call Her Madam Secretary in this laudatory essay. She views Perkins as a successful pathbreaker for women.
  • Goldberg, Joseph P. “Frances Perkins, Isador Lubin, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Monthly Labor Review 103 (April, 1980): 22-27. Goldberg details how Lubin and Perkins modernized the statistical record-keeping system at the Department of Labor. Although the article focuses more on Lubin than on Perkins, it provides useful background to Perkins’s career.
  • Guzda, Henry P. “Frances Perkins’s Interest in a New Deal for Blacks.” Monthly Labor Review 103 (April, 1980): 31-35. Guzda contends that Perkins made the welfare of African American laborers a priority at the Labor Department, and that she made a significant effort to include blacks in New Deal programs. Although her actions were minimal by post-Civil Rights era standards, Perkins attempted to see that blacks benefited from New Deal labor-relief programs.
  • Hardin, Patrick, and John E. Higgins, Jr., eds. The Developing Labor Law. 2 vols. 4th ed. Chicago: Bureau of National Affairs, 2002. Collection provides comprehensive coverage of rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Contributions are written by members of the American Bar Association’s Section on Labor and Employment Law.
  • Martin, George. Madam Secretary, Frances Perkins. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976. Provides a comprehensive and definitive scholarly account of Perkins’s life. The author is clearly an admirer of Perkins and her work in the New Deal. It is notable that he gives fair attention to her religious motivations and to the interaction among Progressive Era women.
  • Mohr, Lillian Holmen. Frances Perkins: That Woman in FDR’s Cabinet. Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.: North River Press, 1979. Mohr provides a competent account of Perkins’s life notable for its reticence in describing the nature of Paul C. Wilson’s illness. Mohr, a professor at Cornell, knew Perkins during the last years of her life.

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