Little Bits of History

March 4

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 7, 2017

1933: Frances Perkins becomes US Secretary of Labor. She was born in Boston is 1880. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree from Mount Holyoke College with degrees in chemistry and physics and then received a master’s degree in political science from Columbia University. She held a number of teaching posts and volunteer positions, including at Hull House. In 1918, she began studying economics and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. She was head of the New York Consumers League and lobbied for better working conditions and hours. She was a witness to the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which was critical to her later advocacy programs.

In 1913, she married Paul Wilson and had to petition the courts to keep her maiden name. Her husband and their child both exhibited manic-depressive symptoms with Paul spending much of his life in and out of hospitals. Frances was the sole support of the family. She held a variety of positions in the New York State government and gained respect among state leaders, including then governor Franklin Roosevelt who appointed Perkins as the first Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor. She worked to lower the hours of a work week to 48, tried to establish a minimum wage across the state, and hoped to gain unemployment insurance as she protected women and child labor.

On this day, Roosevelt appointed her as the Secretary of the Department of Labor, the first woman to hold a Cabinet position and therefore the first woman to be in the presidential line of succession. She held the post for 12 years, the longest tenure in that role. Roosevelt consistently supported Perkins’ programs. She was instrumental in writing New Deal legislation including national minimum wage laws. Her most influential role came in 1934 when she was chairwoman of the President’s Committee on Economic Security (SEC). Perkins drafted the Social Security Act of 1935.

Perkins remained Secretary of Labor until 1945 when President Harry Truman asked her to serve on the United States Civil Service Commission, a post she held until 1952. Her husband died and Perkins retired from federal service. She remained a teacher/lecturer at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University throughout the remainder of her life. The sociologist, activist, and politician was also an author and wrote about her years working with Roosevelt. She was the first female member of the intelligentsia residing at Telluride House and found this era of her life to be one of the most enjoyable. She died in 1965 at the age of 85.

Being a woman has only bothered me in climbing trees.

The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats.

But with the slow menace of a glacier, depression came on. No one had any measure of its progress; no one had any plan for stopping it. Everyone tried to get out of its way.

Most of man’s problems upon this planet, in the long history of the race, have been met and solved either partially or as a whole by experiment based on common sense and carried out with courage. – all from Frances Perkins

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