Labor or Unions

Women Leading the Labor Movement: Frances Perkins

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As a student at Mount Holyoke College, Frances Perkins, born in 1880, studied the working conditions in a factory. Perkins later remembered the factory tour as an important influence on her thinking.

After graduating, Perkins served as a volunteer at settlement houses. One of those settlement houses was Chicago’s Hull House, where she worked with Jane Addams. Perkins was also dedicated to equal rights and was active in the suffrage movement. In 1910 Perkins earned a master’s degree in economics and sociology from Columbia University in New York.

Perkins was chosen to head up the New York branch of the National Consumers League, where she advocated for improved working conditions. While in New York, Perkins was an eyewitness to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed, among others, 123 women and girls. The factory building had no fire escapes, and Perkins blamed the lack of regulatory legislation as a critical factor in the tragedy. Perkins became the executive secretary for the Committee on Safety of the City of New York, which was dedicated to improving fire safety. New York Governor Al Smith nominated Perkins to the Industrial Commission of the State of New York. In 1929 New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt appointed Perkins as the first state industrial commissioner for New York.

After he was elected president, Roosevelt asked Perkins to join his cabinet as Secretary of Labor. In addition to being the first female cabinet secretary, Perkins became the first woman to be part of the presidential line of succession. Perkins was instrumental in drafting the Social Security Act of 1935. Along with the creation of Social Security, Perkins’ legacy includes her contributions to the innovations of unemployment insurance, the federal minimum wage, and federal regulation of child labor.

Frances Perkins passed away in New York City on May 14, 1965, at 85. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter renamed the Washington D.C. U.S. Department of Labor headquarters the Frances Perkins Building. Learn more about Frances Perkins at:


Thanks, and a tip of the hat to for the image of Frances Perkins at the signing of the Social Security Act.

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