Changemaker: Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins 1902Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a cabinet post, served as secretary of labor for the 12 years of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. A champion of economic justice and security for all Americans, she profoundly influenced the political agenda of her day.

While attending Mount Holyoke College, Perkins visited local factories and took an interest in the problems of the working poor. In 1910, after earning a master’s from Columbia University, she became head of the National Consumers League. During her two-year tenure, she successfully lobbied the state legislature for a bill limiting the workweek to 54 hours for women and children.

In 1911, Perkins witnessed female factory workers jumping to their deaths in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. She described it as “seared on my mind as well as my heart—a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.”

Perkins subsequently worked for New York governors Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Roosevelt appointed her to the chief post in the state labor department, she helped put New York in the forefront of progressive reform. When Roosevelt became president and tapped her as labor secretary in 1933, she played a key role writing New Deal legislation, including minimum wage laws. Her most important contribution came as chairwoman of the President’s Committee on Economic Security. This role involved Perkins in all aspects of the reports and hearings that ultimately resulted in the Social Security Act of 1935.

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