CSSW connection: Frances Perkins studied economics at the University of Pennsylvania, under Simon Patten, an economist who achieved renown for his concept of “surplus civilization”—the idea that industrialization would enable every person to have a decent life. Patten advised her to go to New York to work at the New York School of Philanthropy (the forerunner of Columbia University’s School of Social Work) and to begin courses at Columbia, leading to a Master’s degree in Economics and Sociology.
Path to political involvement: Perkins worked as a teacher and a social worker before being swept into the vortex of politics, initially at the city level. Her first step was to become secretary of New York City’s Consumers’ League, in April 1910. Following the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, one of the worst factory fires in New York City’s history, former President Theodore Roosevelt recommended that Perkins be made executive director of the Committee on Safety. It was through her work on this committee that she came to know Al Smith. When Smith went on to become governor of New York State, he appointed Perkins to the Industrial Commission—one of the top administrative posts within New York State’s Labor Department. Perkins eventually came to chair that department, with responsibility for handling judicial and regulatory issues and for presiding over workmen’s compensation cases.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected as governor of New York in 1928, he appointed Perkins to serve as the Industrial Commissioner of New York. In that post she oversaw thousands of employees and worked to introduce unemployment insurance, expand public works, and improve state employment agencies. Perkins performed so well that when FDR accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 1932, promising a “new deal for the American people,” he announced that Perkins would be his Secretary of Labor. Sure enough, when FDR won, Perkins went on to serve as Labor Secretary from 1933 until shortly after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, making her the longest-tenured labor secretary in U.S. history. After stepping down from her cabinet post, she sat on the U.S. Civil Service Commission from 1946 to 1953. In her later years she lectured and taught, most notably at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Her books include People at Work (1934) and The Roosevelt I Knew (1946).
Notably, Perkins’ path to power at the local, state, and federal levels wasn’t easy. She may have achieved many firsts—first woman head of an industrial commission, first woman in a governor’s cabinet, first woman and first LGBT person in a president’s cabinet. But each of these achievements was accompanied by a certain amount of public furor, including hate mail and harsh treatment by the press, according to her biographer Penny Colman.
From a radio address Perkins delivered in 1935:
We must devise plans that will not merely alleviate the ills of today, but will prevent, as far as it is humanly possible to do so, their recurrence in the future.
From her speech titled “Labor Under the New Deal and the New Frontier”:
A government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.
On her decision to keep her name after marriage:
My generation was perhaps the first that openly and actively asserted—at least some of us did—the separateness of women and their personal independence in the family relationship.