Frances Perkins: Relief & Labor Transformation

Black and white historical photograph of Frances Perkins standing behind a desk. She is dressed in a dark dress featuring a white collar, a belt at the waist, and a dark hat with a brim. She has round spectacles hanging from a chain around her neck and her expression is serious. On the desk, there are several books stacked to one side, a pen, and a classic black rotary dial telephone.
Frances Perkins, 1905.

It was late February 1933 when Frances Perkins received an invitation to meet with President-elect Franklin Roosevelt about joining his cabinet as Secretary of Labor.

“I don’t want to say yes to you unless you know what I’d like to do and are willing to have me go ahead and try,” Frances said to the President-elect.

She read him her list of desired goals.

  • Direct Federal aid to the states for unemployment relief
  • Public works projects
  • Maximum hours of work
  • Minimum wages
  • Child labor laws
  • Unemployment insurance
  • Social security
  • A revitalized public employment service

“Are you sure you want these things done?” she asked. “Because you don’t want me for Secretary of Labor if you don’t.

Yes,” he replied. “I’ll back you.”

With that, Frances became America’s first female Cabinet member.

“How do you feel to be the first woman in the cabinet?” she was asked about the historical milestone.

“Well I feel just a little odd,” Frances replied.

Frances became Secretary of Labor during one of America’s most challenging times, the Great Depression. As she assumed office, more than 15 million Americans were unemployed. Chicago had stopped paying their teachers. In Boston, the city had stopped paying their police. Over 5,000 banks across the country had closed.

Yet, though the challenges were immense, Frances was great for the role. People described Frances in the following way,

“She saves words by spare speech, that comes straight to the point. She is always calm and has saving humor. She knows human nature like a book.

She is noted as a great negotiator in groups and a great persuader before an audience…It is a treat to hear her make a speech.”

As Secretary of Labor, Frances needed all these talents to advocate New Deal legislation. She faced opposition from business interests and conservative politicians who felt her reforms were too radical. But these battles she would win, and the country, as a result, would change. Many of the reforms she came into office looking to implement were accomplished. And many Americans would see their lives significantly improve.

As for her personal life amongst all the work, Frances wrote,

“I have had a happy personal life. I have had the friendship of a chivalrous and unselfish husband, who has lent a brilliant mind to some of my knotty problems and let he have the praise. I have had a good daughter, who has grown to girlhood without being a troublesome child.”

Frances served as Secretary of Labor until 1945. After President Roosevelt passed away, she resigned from her role. But she would continue in public service, serving on the Civil Service Commission. In her later years, she taught at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School until she passed away in 1965.


Notes

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Story Sources

  • Berg, Gordon. “Frances Perkins and the Flowering of Economic and Social Policies.” Monthly Labor Review, vol. 112, no. 6, 1989, pp. 28–32. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41843308. Accessed 8 Nov. 2023.
  • Harris & Ewing, photographer. PERKINS, FRANCES. [Between 1905 and 1945] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2016862692/>.
  • Martin, George Whitney. Madam Secretary, Frances Perkins Houghton Mifflin, 1976.