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Francis Perkins: The First Woman to Sit in the Cabinet of the United States


In the early 1900s, American cities were growing rapidly, expanding upwards and outwards. Manufacturing was booming, automobile production was the hot new industry, new roads were built to link small towns to big cities and thousands were lured into the city by the promise of good paying jobs. The Roaring 20s brought greater independence for women who were now able to vote and began to express independence in other ways.

Frances Perkins was born Fanny Coralie Perkins on April 10, 1880 to Frederick Perkins & Susan E. Bean in Boston, MA almost 15 years after the Civil War ended. Her father was an amateur scholar who operated a paper goods business and loved to read Greek poetry. He began to teach her Greek grammar when she was eight.

When she’d asked her parents how people could be poor, they gave her the accepted answers of the day: that poverty was the result of alcohol or laziness. She saw that poverty was more likely due to severe injury or by irregular employment and the absence of social safety net to help workers through bad times. She read Jacob Riis' study of the tenements in New York, How the Other Half Lives and became committed to bringing justice to those living in poverty.

Perkins attended Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, Massachusetts at the age of 18 majoring in chemistry with minors in physics and biology and graduated in 1902. Emily Dickinson also attended in 1847 but withdrew at the end of her first year.

In her late 20s, Perkins returned to school and began taking courses in Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. She won a $500 fellowship to Columbia University and hoped to earn a master's degree in sociology.

One of the pivotal experiences of her life occurred in 1911, when she watched as 146 workers jumping from the eighth and ninth floors to their deaths on the street below in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. All but 15 of them were girls and young women.

In 1918, Perkins accepted Gov. Al Smith's invitation to join the New York State Industrial Commission, becoming the first female member of the commission. She was the first woman to be appointed to an administrative position in New York state government and, with an annual salary of $8000, the highest paid woman ever to hold public office in the United States.

She was asked by Franklin D. Roosevelt to serve as his Industrial Commissioner and took office in 1929 with oversight responsibilities for the entire labor department.

In February, 1933, she was again asked by Roosevelt to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of Labor. First on her agenda was federal aid for unemployment relief, and public works project to put people back to work. She wanted to improve the lives who those who had jobs by abolishing child labor, establishing laws on maximum hours worked per day and week, and on minimum wages. Her pet project was a national workers' compensation system to aid those who were injured on the job.

In 1934, Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins to head a Committee on Economic Security, where she forged the blueprint of legislation finally enacted as the Social Security Act. Signed into law by the President on August 14, 1935, the Act included a system of old age pensions, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation and aid to the needy and disabled. Ida Fuller received the first social security check number 00-000-001 on January 30, 1940.

"Every man and woman in America who works at a living wage, under safe conditions, for reasonable hours, or who is protected by unemployment insurance or Social Security is Frances Perkins' debtor."

In 1938, Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act, also crafted with the support of Perkins, establishing a minimum wage and maximum work hours and banning child labor.

On September 1, 1939, German troops invaded Poland and World War II began. Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Before Pearl Harbor, 4,000 women worked in the manufacture of airplanes, a number which skyrocketed to 200,000 a year later.

Women were hired to build ships, planes, guns, trucks and other supplies. In 1942, Perkins reported that at least 4 million US women were working in war industries and millions in defense-related jobs. Prejudice against women workers relaxed during the war.

By 1942, military production in the US equaled that of the combined power of Germany, Italy and Japan (the Axis powers).

Perkins served 12 years as secretary of labor. She died on May 14, 1965 at the age of 85 and is buried alongside her husband, Paul Wilson.

One controversy surrounding her life is refusing to admit that she was born in 1880, instead leading the public to believe that she was 2 years younger. From that grew a rumor that she was a "foreign-born Jew," stemming from reporters would could not find a birth certificate for her from 1882. What they did find was a marriage certificate from a Paul Wilson, naming his wife as Matilda Wadski, whom they insisted was Frances Perkins.

"There is always a large horizon... There is much to be done... I am not going to be doing it! It is up to you to contribute some small part to a program of human betterment for all time."

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