Frances Perkins was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, and the longest serving U.S. Secretary of Labor, serving from 1933 to 1945. This alone would earn her a place in the history books, but Perkins is responsible for many of the advances in social justice that we take for granted today, including minimum wage and overtime laws, unemployment benefits, child labor laws, and Social Security. Perkins used her position as Chairman of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security to hammer out the decisions necessary to deliver a comprehensive bill creating our national social insurance program.
Perkins was born in Boston on April 10, 1880. At a time when women were still denied the right to vote, Perkins earned a degree in physics from Mount Holyoke College and a master’s degree from Columbia University. She kept her birth name when she married, defending her right to do so in court. The same year she married, she addressed a meeting in New York on the subject of women’s equality, which the New York Times described as “the first feminist mass meeting ever held.”
Perkins had a strong social conscience early on, visiting mills and factories where women and children worked under brutal conditions. A defining moment in her life took place when she was having tea in New York City in 1911. Hearing sirens, she followed the fire trucks, only to come upon the scene of one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The sweatshop workers were trapped behind locked factory doors, and 146 young women perished, some in flames and some falling to their deaths. Perkins would later say that was the day the New Deal began.
After working to develop the proposed legislation that would create the Social Security system, Perkins delivered a radio address to the nation as the bill made its way through Congress early in 1935. She said that it took the harrowing experience of the Great Depression for the United States to learn that we must protect our most vulnerable citizens, and that doing so is a benefit to us all. “We have come to learn that the large majority of our citizens must have protection against the loss of income due to unemployment, old age, death of the breadwinners and disabling accident and illness, not only on humanitarian grounds, but in the interest of our National welfare,” Perkins said. “If we are to maintain a healthy economy and thriving production, we need to maintain the standard of living of the lower income groups in our population who constitute 90 per cent of our purchasing power.”
Today, thanks to Perkins’ leadership, Social Security celebrates 80 years as one of the most popular and successful government programs in history, protecting millions of senior citizens and people with disabilities.