80 years ago today President Franklin Delano Roosevelt named Frances Perkins the Secretary of Labor and the first ever female member of cabinet. FDR was lucky to have Perkins. And, today, we continue to reap the benefits of the policies Perkins pushed through the department of Labor. Some credit Perkins with the New Deal legislation that characterizes the FDR administration. She was key to the creation of Social Security, the establishment of a minimum wage and passage of legislation protecting workers’ right to organize. The headquarters building of the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., is named for Perkins, who was also the longest-serving secretary of labor in U.S. history.
Perkins was born in Boston on on April 10, 1882 and graduated from Mount Holyoke College before going working as a social worker in settlement houses in Chicago and Philadelphia. She then got a Masters in Sociology from Columbia University and became head of the New York Consumers League. It was in New York that she would witness the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 that killed more than 100 factory employees. Seeing the unnecessary deaths of these mostly immigrant women, due to unsafe working conditions, inspired Perkins to dedicate herself to workers’ rights. She sat on many committees dedicated to investigating the fire and making sure tragedies like it never happened again.
In 1929, she was selected as the state’s labor commissioner by then governor Roosevelt. After serving throughout Roosevelt’s four terms, Perkins continued to lecture and write, and taught at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She died on May 14, 1965.