Frances Perkins – Labor Advocate

Frances Perkins c. 1932 (source)

Frances Perkins c. 1932 (source)

Frances Perkins was born April 10, 1880 (d. 1965). She was the first woman appointed to the US Cabinet as Secretary of Labor under FDR. As a witness to the terrible fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911, she was determined to help reform the labor situation in the US.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, she was well educated. She obtained a Bachelors degree in chemistry and physics in 1902 and went on to get a master’s degree in political science from Columbia. She also studied economics and sociology at the Wharton School, taught chemistry and volunteered at settlement houses, including Hull House. By the time she witnessed the Triangle fire, she had already become prominent as the head of the New York Consumers League where she lobbied for better working hours and conditions.

When Perkins married Paul Caldwell Wilson in 1913, she had to defend her right to keep her birth name in court. Both her husband and their daughter, Susanna, had mental health issues leaving Frances as the sole support of her household. She held numerous positions in New York government including a position as the first New York State Commissioner of Labor under then governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. In this position she expanded factory investigations, reduced the workweek hours for women, and worked toward minimum wage laws, unemployment insurance, and to end child labor. She continued this type of work in FDR’s Cabinet and helped to bring many labor concerns into the New Deal.

Signing of the National Labor Relations Act

Signing of the National Labor Relations Act (source)

After Perkins time in Washington, she continued teaching at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University until her death in 1965. As a proponent of labor and New Deal programs, she was a target of political opposition both during her lifetime and after. In 2011, Maine governor Paul LePage ordered the removal of a mural hanging in the Maine Department of Labor headquarters depicting Perkins. His spokesperson said that they had received complaints and an anonymous fax claiming the mural was reminiscent of “communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.” On April 1, 2011, the Boston Globe reported that a federal lawsuit had been filed to confirm the location of the artwork, ensure its preservation, and to restore it to its original place. (Originally posted on SSS News & Notes.)

Find out what else happened on April 10 in Women’s History.

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