Frances Perkins: The Woman Behind the New Deal

Frances Perkins (1880-1965) is no longer a household name, yet she was one of the most influential women of the twentieth century. Government official for New York State and the federal government, including Industrial Commissioner of the State of New York from 1929-1932, Perkins was named Secretary of Labor by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. As FDR’s friend and ally, Perkins would help the president fight the economic ravages caused by the Great Depression and make great strides toward improving workplace conditions.

Exhibit Curator

Jennifer B. Lee

About the Exhibit »

This exhibit features correspondence, manuscripts, notes, drafts of speeches, photographs, and memorabilia from RBML's extensive collection of Frances Perkins' papers. The physical exhibit opened on November 5, 2009 and runs through March 26, 2010. More material will be added to this web site as images of items in the physical exhibit become available.

Early Years & Family »

Fannie Coralie Perkins, called Fanny by her family, was born in Boston on April 10, 1880. Her parents soon moved to Worcester, but both were from Maine. The Perkins farm, the Brick House in Newcastle, Maine, where they returned every summer, is still in family hands. Today, it is the site of the Frances Perkins Center, created by her grandson, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall.

Perkins's father, a stationer, enrolled her in the Worcester Classical High School. Unusual for that era, it was assumed that she would go to college. She entered Mount Holyoke in 1898, was elected vice-president of her class in her third year, president in her final year, and after graduation, permanent class president. The class motto, "Be ye steadfast," from 1 Corinthians 15, would become her own motto throughout a life of public service.

At Mount Holyoke, Perkins took a new course in American history taught by Annah May Soule where the students made a survey of working conditions in factories. This, a reading of Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives, and a speech made on campus by Florence Kelley, impressed her deeply. She joined the newly formed Mount Holyoke chapter of the National Consumers' League. After college she taught sciences in various places, but found her way to Chicago's Hull House and Chicago Commons, then to the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association that helped immigrant girls, including African-Americans from the South, who were often preyed on when they reached the city.

She began studying economics at the University of Pennsylvania under Simon N. Patten who sent her to New York to work at the New York School of Philanthropy and to begin courses at Columbia University leading to a Master's degree in Economics and Sociology. In April 1910, she became Secretary of the New York City Consumers' League, and following the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, took a similar position with the Committee on Safety. In 1913, she married Paul C. Wilson, then working for John Purrier Mitchel, who would become Mayor of New York. They would have one surviving child, Susanna, born in 1916.

Triangle Fire »

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire on Saturday, March 25, 1911, was the worst factory fire ever in New York City. Within 15 minutes, 146 workers, most of them young women, perished, almost 50 jumping to their deaths from the eighth and ninth floors of the building at the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. Perkins was across Washington Square Park at the time and ran over when she heard the alarms. She later remembered, “People who had their clothes afire would jump. It was a most horrid spectacle…There was no place to go.”

A week later at a rally sponsored by the Consumers’ League at the Metropolitan Opera House, 3500 people heard Rose Schneiderman, a leader of the Shirtwaist Makers Union, give a powerful speech in which she said, “The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred.” Schneiderman couldn’t have been more right. The Triangle’s owners were not found liable and collected $65,000 in insurance money for property damage. Three years later the building owner paid only $75 to each of a small number of families who lost a loved one.

Within a few months of the fire, former President Theodore Roosevelt recommended Perkins as executive director of the Committee on Safety, which would work for improvements in workplace safety. As a result of the Committee’s work, New York State established a Factory Investigating Commission with Senator Robert F. Wagner as chairman, Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith as vice-chairman, and, later, Perkins as its executive secretary. The Commission investigated working conditions in the broadest sense and was responsible for a great deal of substantive legislation to protect workers.

Al Smith »

Al Smith (1873-1944), raised a devout Catholic on the Lower East Side of New York City, left school at 14 to support his family after his father died. He worked his way up in ward politics and was elected to the New York State assembly in 1903, became majority leader in 1911, and speaker in 1912. He was a strong advocate of the social responsibilities of government and first met Perkins when she went to Albany to lobby in support of legislation for the Consumers’ League. Smith helped her in the fight for the 54-hour bill, which prohibited men under 18 and all women from working more than 54 hours in a week.

Smith was elected governor in 1918 and, having worked with Perkins on the Factory Commission, he appointed her to the state Industrial Commission, one of the top administrative posts of the Labor Department. Perkins later became its chairman. She handled judicial and regulatory issues and presided over workmen’s compensation cases, which required a combination of technical knowledge, legal reasoning, sympathy, and common sense.

Smith served three more terms as governor and was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1924, but lost to William G. McAdoo. In 1928 he won the nomination but lost to Herbert Hoover, partially due to his Catholicism, opposition to Prohibition and sympathies for immigrants. Smith did not return to elected office and came to strenuously oppose both Roosevelt and the New Deal even though in his own political career he had supported many ideas that later became enshrined in New Deal legislation.

Governor Roosevelt »

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) was elected governor of New York as a Democrat in 1928, even though Al Smith lost the presidency that year. Many of the policies Roosevelt put in place as governor, from unemployment relief to public utility regulation, would become part of federal programs in the New Deal.

New York was the country’s largest manufacturing state and was hard hit by the Depression, but in early 1930 almost no one was willing to think in terms of state aid to the unemployed. Nonetheless, in March 1930 Roosevelt announced a Committee on Stabilization of Industry for the Prevention of Unemployment—making New York the first state to take such a step. And at a governors conference in the same year he committed himself to unemployment insurance, becoming the first political figure to do so. In August 1931 Roosevelt called the legislature into special session to address the crisis, saying that society has an obligation to “prevent the starvation or the dire want of its fellow men and women.” The legislature listened and passed the Wicks Act, which created the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration and New York became first state to provide state aid for relief. The program eventually aided 40% of New Yorkers.

Roosevelt appointed Perkins Industrial Commissioner of New York. She was the first woman to hold the role and oversaw thousands of employees in one of the largest state agencies. Cautious, Perkins advised him to think about it—“I’m not going to tell anyone so you’re not sewed up”—but Roosevelt wouldn’t change his mind. In her role Perkins worked to introduce unemployment insurance, expand public works, improve and expand state employment agencies, which were crucial at the time.

President Roosevelt »

When Roosevelt accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 1932, he promised a “new deal for the American people.” His inauguration came in the midst of the deepest economic crisis most Americans could remember, and Roosevelt promised to act quickly, reassuring listeners that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

When Roosevelt announced that Perkins would be his Secretary of Labor, it caused William Green, the head of the country’s most powerful union, the American Federation of Labor, to announce he could “never become reconciled to the selection” because she was a woman, and worse, not a union member. Yet when Roosevelt died in office 12 years later, the only two cabinet members who had kept their posts for the duration of the administration were Perkins and Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior.

National Recovery »

The new agencies and programs created during the first year of Roosevelt’s tenure were justified in terms of economic recovery and reform. They included the Agricultural Adjustment Administration to restore fair prices for farm products; the Tennessee Valley Authority to provide electricity and flood control, and the Civilian Conservation Corps to put young men to work. But it was the National Recovery Administration (NRA) that was the centerpiece of “the first New Deal,” as the programs created in 1933 became known.

The NRA was modeled in large part on the government-business partnership established by the War Industries Board in WWI. Its symbol of cooperation and patriotism was a blue eagle holding a cogwheel. The NRA allowed businesses to “stabilize” prices (that is, to fix them) but, in turn, workers got higher wages and the right to organize and bargain collectively in unions. The voluntary “blanket code” businesses were supposed to adopt included a minimum wage of 30-40 cents an hour, a maximum work week of 40 hours, and the end of child labor.

But the NRA was only partially successful because it couldn’t effectively administer the codes without an enforcement mechanism, which was not provided. The codes also tolerated labor inequalities, for example, allowing blacks and women to receive lower wages for doing the same job as white men. In the end, large companies dominated the code writing process and used it to drive up prices, limit production, lay off workers, and divide markets among themselves at expense of smaller competitors. In 1935 the Supreme Court ruled the NRA unconstitutional, but other laws would take its place.


Social Security »

In June 1934 Roosevelt sent a message to congress announcing his support for some form of “social insurance” that would address unemployment and old age. This concept eventually became the Social Security Act, which was drafted to create a system of insurance rather than one of welfare. Business response varied. The National Association of Manufacturers called it the “ultimate socialistic control of life and industry” but the Chamber of Commerce was generally supportive.

Roosevelt wanted Perkins to insure the Act passed and told her, “You believe in it. Therefore I know you will put your back to it more than anyone else and you will drive it through.” And Secretary of Labor Perkins did work tirelessly for its passage as the chairman of the Committee on Economic Security, created by executive order to “promote greater economic security.”

The Social Security Act created ten different programs to assist Americans in need. Although most people associate “social security” with the retirement pension, the act also provided direct assistance to the elderly, poor, blind, dependent children and their mothers. It also established a cooperative federal-state system of unemployment compensation financed by federal taxes on employers. Social Security was tremendously beneficial to millions of citizens, but it also excluded domestic workers and agricultural laborers, thus large numbers of blacks and women were not helped by it.

Working Conditions »

When the Supreme Court ruled the National Recovery Act unconstitutional in May 1935, many of the New Deal’s programs that sought to improve working conditions were interrupted. For the next several years, Roosevelt, Perkins, and many others advocated legislation to protect workers. While campaigning in Bedford, Massachusetts, Roosevelt received a letter from a girl who told of having her weekly factory wages cut from $11 to as little as $4. He told a reporter, “Something has to be done about the elimination of child labor and long hours and starvation wages.”

In 1937 the president sent the bill that became the Fair Labor Standards Act to Congress with the message that a “self respecting democracy…can plead no justification for child labor, no economic reason for chiseling workers’ wages.” The Act was the last of the major New Deal efforts. It set a minimum wage, a maximum work week, and banned child labor. It created a Wage and Hour Division within the Department of Labor, which had the power to investigate any manufacturer and enforce standards in courts. The Act covered about 11 million workers. While it did protect children in manufacturing jobs, it did not cover those in agriculture, and the children of migrant workers continued to be exploited.

In spite of this law and others, the record of the New Deal with regard to women was mixed. As early as 1930, there were over 10 million women working outside the home as domestics, farm laborers, nurses, teachers, secretaries, and garment workers, but many women’s jobs were not covered by the new laws.  To a great degree, the women’s reform agenda of the New Deal was about protection, rather than equality, partially because it grew out of progressive era feminism, which stressed special protections for women, not equality.

Trade Unions & Strikes »

The emergence of a powerful trade union movement was one of the most important social and political developments to result from the New Deal. When the Supreme Court declared the National Recovery Act unconstitutional, it invalidated the Act’s guarantee of collective bargaining. In response, Senator Robert Wagner of New York and others introduced what became the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act). The Act created an enforcement mechanism in the form of the National Labor Relations Board, which could require employers to bargain with unions.  The effects were enormous. There were about 3 million union members in 1932, less than 8% of the employed population, but by 1939 union workers totaled almost 9 million, or 18%.

Part of this increase was due to John L. Lewis, the leader of the United Mine Workers, who created what became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1936. The CIO organized workers based on their industry rather than by their skill or craft, as the American Federation of Labor had done. The power of this new “industrial unionism” was manifest in the great “sit-down” strike at General Motors, which forced the company to recognize the United Auto Workers in 1937.

Labor militancy was a powerful force across the nation during the New Deal. In 1934 a strike of longshoremen had tied up ports along the west coast for two months when San Francisco employers used strikebreakers to move some goods. The action precipitated a riot in which police killed two strikers. Harry Bridges, a longshoreman from Australia living legally in the U.S., persuaded union members to launch a general strike, which paralyzed the city for four days. At the time Roosevelt was on vacation aboard the USS Houston while Perkins was in charge of the response to the strike. Although some urged the general strike be broken by force, Roosevelt, advised by Perkins, remained calm and it ended peacefully in four days when strikers agreed to arbitration, which led to union recognition for the longshoremen.

Immigration & Impeachment »

Opposition to the New Deal was particularly strident from conservatives and some business leaders, but criticism came from across the political spectrum. In 1934 wealthy Democrats and their allies founded the American Liberty League (which Al Smith joined) to oppose the New Deal’s “dictatorial” policies. The Communist Party and Socialist Party were also critical at times, but didn’t gain much support. Father Charles Coughlin of Michigan, later known for his anti-Semitism, was a harsh critic of what he believed was Roosevelt’s failure to fight strongly enough against the “money powers.” Finally, populist Senator Huey Long of Louisiana advocated much more drastic distribution of money through what he called the Share-Our-Wealth Plan. Yet none of the criticism in itself was enough to derail the New Deal completely.

Another way in which the New Deal was attacked was through Perkins for her refusal to act regarding Harry Bridges after the San Francisco general strike. At the time, the Bureau of Immigration was part of the Department of Labor, and opponents insisted Bridges was a communist and Perkins was legally required to deport him. But the FBI, San Francisco police and others had investigated and found the accusations against Bridges unsubstantiated. Nonetheless, in 1937 the House of Representatives formed a Committee on Un-American Activities (which would later go on to infamy thanks to Joseph McCarthy) under Martin Dies to investigate Perkins. The Committee recommended she be impeached. But in 1938 the House Judiciary Committee exonerated Perkins by unanimously ruling that there were no grounds for impeachment. Nonetheless, the accusations took their toll on Perkins.

Later Years »

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, President Truman kept the cabinet intact, but soon asked Perkins and others to resign as of July 1. Their relationship remained very cordial, however. Truman always remembered that she had given him his first federal job as director of the Federal Reemployment Service in Missouri in 1933.

He asked her to consider what other government jobs she would like to have, and she asked to be head of the Social Security program, which she called the act nearest to her heart. Truman said he would consider it. In October, he sent her to the ILO conference in Paris. She had agreed to write a biography of FDR, and The Roosevelt I Knew appeared in the following year, published by Viking Press to great critical and public acclaim.

In 1946, instead of Social Security, Truman appointed her to serve as one of three Federal Civil Service Commissioners, a post she held until 1952 when she resigned following the death of Paul Wilson, her husband. From then until her own death in 1965, she led an energetic life of teaching, public speaking and writing, with longer stays at Princeton and the University of Illinois.

In May 1955, a young labor-relations professor at Cornell, Maurice Neufeld, asked her to speak at his university. The event was a great success and she was asked to join the faculty as a visiting lecturer in Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. In the spring of 1960, she was invited to be a guest in residence at the Telluride Association, then all-male, a 27-member residence on Cornell's campus. She accepted with delight. She continued to lecture at Cornell, although her health and eyesight were failing, until two weeks before she died.

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