Frances Perkins served as the secretary of labor for Franklin D. Roosevelt for 12 years, starting in 1933. She’d known Roosevelt previously, as she served as labor chief for New York state in the time Roosevelt served as governor, as reported by The Washington Post. Perkins, who was in her early fifties at the time, became not only the first woman to serve in the presidential Cabinet, but was a driving force behind Roosevelt’s famed New Deal.
The New Deal included structural efforts to help people during the Great Depression. For Perkins at the time—and in years to come—this meant establishing a minimum wage, ending child labor, expanding insurance for older folks, establishing unemployment compensation, and setting a 40-hour workweek. She even wanted universal health insurance.
Born in Massachusetts to a well-off, Republican family, Perkins attended Mount Holyoke for college. By sheer coincidence, Perkins was in New York for work during the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, where nearly 150 workers—mostly young women—died. Clearly, workers’ rights were not just a question of theory for her, but actual daily life.
In fact, Perkins later referred to the tragedy as “the day the New Deal was born.”
If you’re assuming Perkins got a lot of flak, you’d be right. She faced an incredible amount of criticism based on her appearance—including reporting on her height and weight, for example—and snide remarks even from her peers in government in reference to her marriageability. Roosevelt was an ally to Perkins until his death in 1945, though she met a fair deal of criticism—including threats of impeachment—on her own, and in spite of the trusted relationship she had with the president.
As reported by NPR, Perkins rarely wore makeup and made an intentional effort to dress plainly and in dark suits in an attempt to be taken seriously by her male colleagues; she rationalized that if she reminded men of their mothers, she’d be accepted by men at work.
After Roosevelt’s death, Perkins wrote a book and went on to teach at various colleges, including Cornell University. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she taught about labor and industries.
Though Perkins wasn’t publicly out as queer at the time and married Paul Caldwell Wilson, a man who lived with mental health issues and was in and out of treatment, she actually lived with Mary Harriman Rumsey (who founded the publication we now know as Newsweek) until Rumsey’s death following a riding accident. She later lived with New York Rep. Caroline O’Day in Washington, D.C. That home is actually now a National Historic Landmark.
The official website dedicated to her life’s work and history leaves out these relationships, which continues to strike me as I write this piece. Truly, it is sad reading so many sources that erase or otherwise omit her queerness. We can’t rightly say how she would have identified with today’s terms, of course, but total erasure is, if nothing else, absolutely inaccurate.
This International Women’s Day—and every day—learn, honor, and share about women’s full, rich, complex lives, and not just what’s readily accepted or understood.
Here is some brief video coverage about Perkins, if you’re interested.
What women in U.S. history would you love to see highlighted more in mainstream media or school classes? If you’d like to share in the comments below, I’d love to read!