Frances Perkins biography
Cabinet member, public official, and social worker. Born on April 10, 1882, in Boston, Massachusetts. Appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Frances Perkins became the first woman to serve in the cabinet. She came to the position of secretary of labor with extensive experience in public service.
After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1902, Frances Perkins spent some time doing social work. She went on to earn a master’s degree in sociology from Columbia University in 1910. That same year Perkins began striving on behalf of workers as the head of the New York Consumers League. She saw first-hand the deadly potential of poor working conditions as a witness to the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that killed more than 100 factory employees. This incident inspired Perkins to lobby harder on behalf of the workforce.
Later, as industrial commissioner of New York State, Frances Perkins was in a position to help improve work regulations and related social programs. In 1929, she was selected as the state’s labor commissioner by then governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After Roosevelt won the presidency and took office in 1933, he brought her to Washington, D.C., to become the secretary of labor. As the first female cabinet member, Perkins worked hard to improve the country’s labor conditions. She played an important part in the development of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. Perkins also fought for laws to set minimum wages and contributed to the creation of the Social Security system through her role on the President’s Committee on Economic Security. Perkins stayed in her position until 1945 and then joined the U.S. Civil Service Commission.
Married to Paul Caldwell Wilson in 1913, Frances Perkins resigned from public service not long after his death in 1952. She went on to teach Cornell University’s New York State School of Industrial Relations. Perkins served a lecturer there until shortly before her death. She died on May 14, 1965.