On March 4, 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated Francis Perkins as Secretary of Labor. She was the first woman elevated to cabinet rank. If anyone was expecting a docile figure head, they were in for a big surprise. Not only was she a key player in the New Deal and a key backer of a wide range of labor reforms, she held down the job for twelve years through FDR’s first three terms despite efforts to unseat her.
Born into a respectable Republican and Congregationalist New England family in 1880, she was radicalized by exposure to the yawning class divide while attending Mt. Holyoke College where she read Jacob Riis’s expose of slum conditions and attended lectures by leading reformers and labor advocates, especially Florence Kelley of the National Consumer’s League. Graduating in 1902 she tried her hand at teaching science in urban schools while volunteering at settlement houses.
But by 1909 she was ready to give up teaching for a career in social services and advocacy. She moved to New York City to pursue a master’s degree in economics and sociology from Columbia University then joined her mentor Florence Kelley by serving as Secretary for the New York State Consumer’s League where she successfully lead lobbing efforts to get the Legislature to limit the work week for women and children to 54 hours. She also took up active support of the Suffrage movement.
In 1911 she personally witnessed women leaping to their deaths from the upper floors of the building at the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, an event that would steel her determination to guarantee safe working conditions. Where she had previously relied on legislation alone, she increasingly saw the need for workers to organize in their own defense and supported the work of Ladies Garment Workers leader Rose Schneiderman and others. She even joined the Socialist Party, though she advocated gradual reform rather than revolutionary action.
In 1912 she supported Woodrow Wilson over Eugene V. Debs believing that the Democrat would more effectively advance labor’s cause. She was wrong, but in the long run was one of the people most responsible for seeing that the planks of the 1912 Socialist platform were finally enacted under another Democrat.
She briefly retired from public life to marry economist Paul Wilson and to give birth to a daughter. But Wilson suffered a breakdown and Perkins returned to work as the family breadwinner.
In 1919 she joined the administration of New York Governor Al Smith as the first woman on the state Industrial Commission. By 1926 she was Chair of the Commission. In 1929 Governor Roosevelt appointed her to head the state Labor Department. She pushed through another round of reduction of hours for women and children to 48, stepped up factory safety inspection, and lobbied for minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws.
Roosevelt took her with him to Washington. As Labor Secretary she helped craft and get the Wagner Act through Congress, which finally guaranteed workers the right to organize into labor unions on the job and engage in collective bargaining.
The Fair Labor Standards Act embodied her long cherished dreams for a minimum wage and a standard 40 hour work week for women and men. She chaired the administration’s Committee on Economic Security which drafted the legislation embodied in the Social Security Act of 1935.
As the labor battles for representation in the basic industries intensified through the Depression, Perkins stood relentlessly on the side of working people to organize and resisted traditional calls to use Federal force and troops to suppress strikes. She held firm against intervention in the 1934 San Francisco General Strike.
Conservatives and business interests put her in their cross hairs and in 1939 the House Un-American Activities Committee drew up a bill of impeachment against her for refusing to deport Harry Bridges, the Australian born West Coast Longshoremen’s leader who had been a key figure in the General Strike. The impeachment attempt fizzled from lack of evidence and Perkins continued to serve until 1945 when she resigned to head the U.S. delegation to the International Labor Organization (ILO) conference in Paris.
She concluded her public service when President Harry Truman appointed her to the Civil Service Commission. With the return of Republicans to power in 1953 she took a professorship at Cornel University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
She died at age 85 in her beloved New York City in 1965.