Saturday, March 7, 2009

Frances Coralie Perkins (born Fanny Coralie Perkins, lived April 10, 1882 – May 14, 1965) was the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and the first woman ever appointed to the US Cabinet. As a loyal supporter of her friend Franklin D. Roosevelt, she helped pull the labor movement into the New Deal coalition. She and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes were the only original members of Roosevelt's cabinet who remained in offices for his entire Presidency. Perkins was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Frederick W. Perkins, the owner of a stationer's business, and Susan Bean Perkins, but spent much of her childhood in Worcester.[1] She attended the Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois before graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1902, and from Columbia University in 1910 with a master's degree in sociology. In between, she held a variety of teaching positions and volunteered at settlement houses, including Hull House. In 1910 she come to state wide prominence as head of the New York Consumers League, in which position she lobbied with vigor for better working hours and conditions. The next year, she witnessed the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a pivotal event in her life. In 1913 Frances Perkins married Paul Caldwell Wilson. She kept her maiden name, defending in court her right to do so. Prior to going to Washington, Perkins held various positions in New York State government. In 1918, Perkins accepted Governor Al Smith's offer to join the New York State Industrial Commission, becoming its first ever female member. She became chairwoman of the commission in 1926. In 1929, the new governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, appointed Perkins the state's industrial commissioner. Having earned the cooperation and respect of various political factions, Perkins ably helped put New York in the forefront of progressive reform. She expanded factory investigations, reduced the workweek for women to 48 hours and championed minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws. In 1933, Roosevelt appointed Perkins as Secretary of the Department of Labor, a position she held for twelve years, longer than any other Secretary of Labor and making her the first woman to hold a cabinet position in the United States (thus becoming the first woman to enter the presidential line of succession). She and Harold L. Ickes were the only two secretaries to hold their posts throughout the entire FDR presidency. President Roosevelt almost always supported the goals and programs of Secretary Perkins. In an administration filled with compromise, the President's support for the agenda of Frances Perkins was unusually constant. Frances Perkins wearing a veil after the death of President RooseveltAs Secretary of Labor, Perkins played a key role writing New Deal legislation, including minimum-wage laws. However, her most important contribution came in 1934 as chairwoman of the President's Committee on Economic Security. In this post, she was involved in all aspects of the reports and hearings that ultimately resulted in the Social Security Act of 1935. In 1939, she came under fire from some members of Congress for refusing to deport the communist head of the west coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Harry Bridges. Bridges was ultimately vindicated by the Supreme Court. Al Smith, a machine politician from the old school, was an early social reformer with whom Frances Perkins made common cause. At Smith's funeral in 1944 two of his former Tammany Hall political cronies were overheard to speculate on why Smith had become a social crusader. One of them summed the matter up this way: "I'll tell you. Al Smith read a book. That book was a person, and her name was Frances Perkins. She told him all these things, and he believed her." Following the end of her tenure as Secretary of Labor in 1945, Perkins was asked by President Harry Truman to serve on the United States Civil Service Commission, which she did until 1952, when her husband died and she resigned from federal service. During this period, she also published a memoir of her time in FDR's administration called The Roosevelt I Knew, which offered a sympathetic view of the president. Following her government service career, Perkins remained active as a teacher and lecturer at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University until her death in 1965, aged 83. The headquarters building of the United States Department of Labor in Washington, DC is named in her honor. Courtesy of:

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