By: Nancy Tate
Frances Perkins was the first woman Cabinet member and the longest serving Secretary of Labor (1933 -1945) in US history. Although she might be notable for that alone, her legacy is much greater. She has had a large and continuing impact on the lives of all Americans. She served for 40 years in public service at the local, state and federal levels, contributing significantly both to the creation of new policies and to their effective implementation. Among other accomplishments, Frances Perkins lowered the barriers for women in the workforce, while also setting a high standard for effectiveness in public service.
Already a teacher and active in both women’s suffrage and workers’ rights issues, in 1910 Perkins joined the New York office of the National Consumers League. Greatly affected by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 women, she entered government as the executive secretary of the Committee on Safety of the City of New York in 1912.
In 1919, Perkins was nominated by New York Governor Al Smith for the state’s Industrial Commission, as a voice for women in the workforce. She became one of three commissioners overseeing the industrial code. This job involved supervising both the bureau of information and statistics and the bureau of mediation and arbitration. In 1929, newly elected Governor Franklin Roosevelt appointed her to be the first New York state industrial commissioner. There she supervised an agency with 1,800 employees and achieved numerous workforce reforms.
Early In 1933, now President Roosevelt selected Perkins as his Secretary of Labor, and Time magazine put her face on its cover. She played a key cabinet role in writing and later implementing New Deal legislation. She was intimately involved with the Civilian Conservation Corps and other public works agencies and the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act. She also played a major role in crafting the Social Security Act of 1935, which established national unemployment benefits, pensions for the elderly, and welfare for the poorest Americans.
In addition, Frances Perkins had a major impact on the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established the first minimum wage and overtime laws, defined the standard 40 hour work week, and restricted the use of child labor. She also developed governmental policy for working with labor unions, and dealt with many labor questions during World War II, including issues related to women moving into previously male jobs. Although President Truman selected his own Secretary of Labor in 1945, he appointed Perkins to the US Civil Service Commission, where she served until 1952.
Following her years of public service, Perkins returned to a teaching career until her death in 1965 at age 85. She taught and lectured primarily at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, while also giving guest lectures at other universities. The headquarters building of the Department of Labor was renamed in her honor in 1980, and in 2019 she was an inaugural member of Government Executive magazine’s Government Hall of Fame.