Frances Perkins

Workers-rights advocate and United States Secretary of Labor 1933–1945

Frances Perkins (April 10, 1882May 14, 1965) was U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. She was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet and was largely responsible for the U.S. adoption of social security, unemployment insurance, the federal minimum wage, and federal laws regulating child labor.
During her term as Secretary of Labor, Perkins executed the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and its successor the Federal Works Agency, plus the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act. With the Social Security Act she established unemployment benefits, pensions for the many uncovered elderly Americans and welfare for the poorest Americans. She pushed to reduce workplace accidents and helped craft laws against child labor. Through the Fair Labor Standards Act, she established the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers and defined the standard forty-hour work week. She formed governmental policy for working with labor unions and helped to alleviate strikes by way of the United States Conciliation Service. Perkins dealt with many labor questions during World War II when skilled labor was vital and women were moving into formerly male jobs. She is the subject of the documentary film "Summoned: Frances Perkins and the General Welfare" (2020).

     Frances Perkins
(c.a. 1939-1945)


     Frances Perkins
Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, prior to (Dec 11, 1936) Conference of Industry and Labor address.
     Frances Perkins
Time (1933)
  • The process of recovery is not a simple one. ... We cannot be satisfied merely with makeshift arrangements which will tide us over the present emergencies. We must devise plans that will not merely alleviate the ills of today, but will prevent, as far as it is humanly possible to do so, their recurrence in the future.
    • Radio address (1935)

The Roosevelt I Knew (1946)

  • As a student and professional social worker, I was taking an active part in proposals to use... legislative authority... to correct social abuses—long hours, low wages, bad housing, child labor, and unsanitary conditions.
  • He didn’t like concentrated responsibility. Agreement with other people who he thought were good, right minded, and trying to do the right thing by the world was almost as necessary to him as air to breathe.
  • The quality of his being one with his people, of having no artificial or natural barriers between him and them, made it possible for him to be a leader without ever being or thinking of being a dictator.

Triangle Factory Fire Lecture (Sept 30, 1964)

Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Collection /3047, Cornell University, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Ithaca, NY. A source.
  • 1911... was the year of the great Triangle Fire in New York City, a terrible industrial accident which burned out the contents of a 9th and 10th floor loft building factory... It caught on fire and the blaze spread very rapidly. There was only one means of exit available, the other two means of exits were the elevator which was ablaze almost immediately as the flames got into this open shaft and spread from floor to floor and the second exit was locked. It was an exit to the roof... it would have saved most of the people in that building if it had not been locked.
    It had been locked by the employer himself because he feared... he would be robbed either by his employees or by the outsider.
  • [T]his was a terrible accident; 147 young people, they were all young men and women, were killed, lost their lives and a number of others were badly injured. Some of them were injured after the fire in the elevator shaft had gone out. Of course the boys that ran the elevator had gone... fled. Some of the people tried to get out by jumping into the elevator shaft and grabbing the cables and letting themselves down... Some of them fell, some of them were awkward and... couldn't hold on. Some of them merely blistered their hands, took the skin and flesh off their hands coming down on the cables and there were a number of people sadly injured.
  • Everybody who jumped, and a good many did jump from the 9th and 10th floors, was killed. The other people who died were all people who were burned or smothered by the smoke in the factory itself.
  • This made a terrible impression on the people of the State of New York. I can't begin to tell you how disturbed the people were everywhere. It was as though we had all done something wrong. It shouldn't have been. We were sorry. Mea culpa! Mea culpa! We didn't want it that way. We hadn't intended to have 147 girls and boys killed in a factory. It was a terrible thing for the people... to face.
  • I remember... we heard the engines and we heard the screams and rushed out and rushed over... We could see this building from Washington Square and the people had just begun to jump when we got there. They had been holding... standing in the windowsills... crowded by others behind them, the fire pressing closer and closer, the smoke closer and closer. Finally the men were trying to get out this... net to catch people... they couldn't wait any longer. They began to jump. The window was too crowded and they would jump and they hit the sidewalk. The net broke, they [fell] a terrible distance, the weight of the bodies was so great... that they broke through the net. Every one of them was killed, everybody who jumped... It was a horrifying spectacle. We... felt as though we had been part of it all. The next day people... in all parts of the city... began to mull around and gather and talk.
  • So we proceeded and it proved to be a most educative experience. This factory investigating commission was continued... for four years and its report, is... seven volumes. ...and it's in great detail ...the recommendations, the testimony. We went all over the state. I was a young person then and certainly not fit for service on any super commission but I was the chief—I was the investigator, and in charge of the investigations and this was an extraordinary opportunity... to get into factories to make a report and be sure it was going to be heard.
  • Although their commission was to devise ways and means to prevent accidents by fire in the State of New York, we... kept expanding the function of the commission 'till it came to be the report on [un]sanitary conditions and to provide for their removal and to report all kinds of unsafe conditions... all kinds of human conditions that were unfavorable to the employees, including long hours, including low wages, including the labor of children, including the overwork of women, including homework put out by the factories to be taken home by the women. It included almost everything you could think of that had been in agitation for years. We were authorized to investigate and report and recommend action on all these subjects. I may say we did.
  • So that beginning with that report coming in as it did in 1915, it was laid on the table before the legislature, and by this time, Al Smith was the speaker of the House and well on the way to be governor. We had a very favorable audience and much of the legislation was enacted into law, oh, within a couple of years...
  • [I]t afterwards, seems in some way to have paid the debt society owed to those children, those young people who lost their lives in the Triangle Fire. It's their contribution to the people of New York that we have this really magnificent series of legislative acts to protect and improve the administration of the law regarding the protection of work people in the City of - in the State of New York.

Madame Secretary: Frances Perkins (1970)

by Elisabeth P. Meyers
  • Women lobbyists, whatever their size, are looked at askance... Men seem to have trouble believing we have brains enough to understand the causes we're championing. ...Maybe I should have said most men.
  • From this day forward, I will be a Doer of the Word and not as Hearer only, whenever and wherever I see the need.
    • Pledge taken by Frances with other girls at meetings of the Mount Holyoke chapter of the YWCA where she led philosophical discussions.
  • I never really saw really poor people before... My parents always told me nobody had to be poor—that they wouldn't be if they weren't shiftless or didn't spend everything they earned on drink. I don't understand how Mama and Papa could be so mistaken! ...Yes, I guess I do. 'There are none so blind as those who will not see'—and that's a favorite quotation of Papa's too!
    • Report after visiting a textile factory upriver from South Hadley, Massachusetts on a senior year assignment in an American industrial history class taught by Miss Annah Soule at Mount Holyoke College. In the factory she saw row after row of women bent over their work in dim light with small children squatting near them, winding bobbins by hand. The millworkers' shacks seemed less substantial than her uncle's chicken coops.
  • I shall always be most grateful to him. He made me rediscover that I had a mind. It had lain fallow, I am afraid, since my Mount Holyoke days.
  • Who is that tall, thin young man with the pince-nez, who seems constantly to be looking down his nose at people?
  • Well... he'll only win that way once, I imagine. He doesn't look as if he'd be very popular with people. What I mean is, he doesn't look as if he really likes people.
  • Upon hearing that Franklin D. Roosevelt won his NY state senate seat because many thought they were voting for Theodore Roosevelt.
  • You showed me which, of all the 'hats' a social worker wears, suits me best. ...[i.e.,] You convinced me that man-made evils can be corrected if people can be made to care enough. I intend to make them, if it's in my power.
    • Speaking to Florence Kelley, with whom she worked in support of the Fifty-Four Hour Bill, to restrict working hours for women and children.
  • His arrogance isn't what disturbs me so much as his self-centeredness... He doesn't seem to care about anything that doesn't concern him personally.
  • The mothers don't want to bring their children [in for child labor at a vegetable cannery in Auborn, NY]—they need to. ...That need will never cease until employers pay decent wages! There ought to be a law assuring minimum pay, as well as one limiting hours worked!
    • Plea (after return from Factory Investigating Commissioners' trip) to Governor Al Smith who responded that she was right, but that this was outside of the commission's jurisdiction.
  • I will fight for it up to the Supreme Court, if necessary... If the Industrial Commission does not have the right to make essential safety laws, it might as well close up shop!
    • Spring, 1920 discussion with Eleanor Roosevelt on the fireproofing rule made after a fire in Binghampton, NY, where workers had been burned alive on a fire escape.
  • Gentlemen... let me make a plain statement. As I see it, the Labor Commission is duty-bound always to consider two things about every recommendation. One: what will this provide in the way of health, comfort, decency and security? Two: what will it cost?
    • Statement before the NY state Senate Finance Committee for confirmation of her appointment, by Governor Al Smith, to the Industrial Commission.
  • The day I need an armed bodyguard is the day I admit my job's too much for a woman.
    • After her return from an August 3, 1919 public hearing before the State Industrial Commission at Rome, NY, where copper workers, striking against the Spargo Wire Company, were armed with knives, sling shots and a few guns and where a cache of dynamite was rumored to be hidden in the workers' section of town; and where, in the previous month, shots had been exchanged.
  • I think any compulsion other than moral compulsion is wrong. Let disputes be settled by public opinion, not statute.
    • Answer to Governor Al Smith's inquiry as to whether she thought the state should establish compulsory arbitration of labor disputes.
  • I know what horror tales you've been hearing from manufacturers... They've told you they can't possibly operate under a forty-eight hour law. Well, they said the same thing twelve years ago when the Fifty-Four Hour Bill was under consideration. So, gentlemen, let us look at the facts. ...[T]here have been fewer industrial accidents, because the workers do not so often become careless through fatigue. Gentlemen, there is every reason to believe things will improve still further when the working day is shorter. ...A million women will be affected by the law... you don't need to fear employers... [T]hose million women have suffrage... Let this bill that means so much to them go to a vote. They'll be grateful to you!
    • Statement (including pages of statistics showing production increased significantly with shorter working hours) to the NY state Assembly in Albany in support the Forty-Eight Hour Bill to limit work hours of women and children, which later failed to pass.
  • His illness had changed him... Having known what trouble is to the very depths of his being, he can now sympathize with other people who have problems. I think he could make a very good governor of the state of New York.
  • To know him is to love him... He's honest, high-minded, intelligent and—above all—independent. I have worked with him in government for years. There has never been any conflict between his official duties and his religious beliefs, I am confident there never will be!
    • Repeated in speeches in the Deep South and Middle West in support of Al Smith's run for the presidency to alleviate fears of Smith's Catholicism.
  • I would not be where I am today if it were not for you and others like you. ...I do not regard you as paying tribute to me personally, but to Frances Perkins as a symbol of the genuine desire to bring happiness to those who have it not in their own power. So that industry may bear down kindly instead of bitterly. ...I promise to use the brains I have to meet problems with intelligence and courage. ...I promise that I will be candid about what I know, of the Labor Department or of the state of industry in this state and in country.
    • At a luncheon given in honor of her new position as New York's Labor Commissioner.
  • It is all-important to keep the human touch in whatever we do... This is the machine age... and we should make machines work for us—but let us not act like robots ourselves!
  • Organized labor has always had one of its own people as Secretary and will expect to continue to have. I do not qualify.
  • Would you leave me free to do what I think is best for the Labor Department, Franklin? I'd try to keep you informed, but I wouldn't always be able to... [D]irect unemployment relief, a program of public works, minimum wage and hour laws, unemployment and old age insurance, abolition of child labor... These things need doing no matter who is Secretary of Labor.
  • Just let the people know that they matter to you, that your plan is to mobilize the government to help them. If you can give them hope that things will be better, they'll bless you, Franklin.
  • The Employment Service is all but dead. It needs resurrecting and reorganizing. The Statistical Bureau needs revamping too, so it will be an honest fact-finding body. As for the Immigration Service—well, really, Franklin, it is altogether too reactionary for today's world.
    • After her first cabinet meeting.
  • I thought witch-hunting was a thing of the past, but that's what this 'red-baiting' immigration squad is doing. They see communists behind every foreign name.
    • Upon discharging the entire 55-member staff of "undercover" men hired to get rid of "undesirable aliens" by the former Assistant Secretary of Labor. She charged they had been both brutal and lawless in carrying out their assignment.
  • Harry Bridges is a card-carrying Communist, Franklin, but that's the single black mark against him and isn't illegal. I just don't believe a man should be punished for what he believes or thinks.
  • I'm the last leaf on the New Deal tree, and I think perhaps I've clung here too long already.
    • On the day Eisenhower was inaugurated and Frances resigned as Civil Service Commissioner.

A Woman Unafraid (1993)

: The Achievements of Frances Perkins by Penny Colman
  • We were in a terrible situation... Banks were closing. The economic life of the country was almost at a standstill.
    • On the situation following the 1933 inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt and her appointment as secretary of labor.
  • My generation was perhaps the first that openly and actively asserted—at least some of us did—the separateness of women and their personal independence in the family relationship...
  • I am extraordinarily the product of my grandmother... Scarcely a week goes by that I don't find myself saying, "As my grandmother used to say," and then repeating something that apparently has been a guiding principle all my life.
  • One of the girls who was among my best friends came from a poverty-stricken home. Her family was delightful and I used to wonder how such things could happen...
  • I discovered for the first time, under the stimulus of that course and of that teacher, that I had a mind... My intellectual pride was aroused and the grim determination awakened me to get the most I could out of college.
    • On her junior year chemistry course at Mount Holyoke, in which Professor Nellie Esther Goldthwaite "hounded" her until she mastered the material, thereby learning more than chemistry.
  • Like many young people, I was an ardent admirer of Theodore Roosevelt... Out of the period that I was in school a whole generation, particularly women emerged, but men too, who had a great passion for social justice...
  • [Florence Kelley's speech] first opened my mind to the necessity for and the possibility of the work which became my vocation.
    • Commenting on a Kelley speech at the time Perkins was in her senior year at Mount Holyoke.
  • What is the trouble? How can we cure this? ...What can be done? ...I had to do something about unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty. It was sort of up to me. This feeling... sprang out of a period of great philosophical confusion which overtakes all young people...
    • Following her overwhelming experience at Hull House and Chicago Commons where she was immersed in the life of the poor, who suffered from malnutrition and disease and were paid pennies for the hours they worked.
  • [I] wrote to anybody I knew who had any connection at all with charities to say I wanted a job, but had no experience.
    • On her experience following her decision to stop teaching and to do social work, prior to obtaining a job investigating abuses of girls and women with the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association.
  • If facts were to be found, I was to devise ways to prevent it or overcome it either by social representation or by legislation at the municipal or state level. ...Ten cent lodging houses, employment agencies, the offices of the Philadelphia political "gangs," and the two police courts all became my haunts...
    • Letter to previous classmates published in the Mount Holyoke Monthly Quarterly referencing her work for the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association to alleviate abuses of immigrant girls and black women from the South.
  • Social work was an infant then. ...I just lapped it up there... I discovered... that I had a mind that starts, operates on its own scheme, inquires, penetrates, goes to the bottom of things, puts two and two together and comes to some logical conclusions that have authority.
    • On night courses at Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania taught by Professor Simon Patten she attended, while striving to become educated with respect to her social work.
  • And best (or worst) of all, I grew old during that time, so that now I am a settled and mature old spinster with an opinion on every topic under heaven... I've also acquired... a sense of humor—so that I no longer take myself and my doings seriously...
    • Writing to her Mount Holyoke classmates while earning a meager salary at the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association, attending Wharton at night and periodically having to pawn her watch.
  • I was badly bitten by the idea that I could have a place in the theatre... I harbored that idea for a little while. It would have been a great pleasure, but I soon dropped it because I got principle...
    • Commenting on a previous summer in New York City where she had tried to obtain a theater job, prior to being offered a scholarship at the New York School of Philanthropy and planning a master's in political science at Columbia University.

Quotes about Perkins

  • [H]istorians putting the records together closer to the era in which Frances Perkins lived would have known that Frances was both a suffrage leader and a labor advocate, but scholars born later did not easily make that connection.
    • Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience (2009) Acknowledgements, p. x.
  • [Perkins' daughter] Susanna's death... opened up one small box of personal documents, which... chronicled the mental health problems and physician's reports on Susanna and Frances's husband Paul Wilson, who both suffered from bipolar disorder. During her lifetime, Susanna had denied that her father had ever been ill... allowing it to appear that Frances had been an overly controlling mother, or that she had pretended that her husband was mentally ill to get rid of him. Concealing that information allowed allowed a generation... to believe that Frances had been a failure as a wife and a mother.
    • Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience (2009) Acknowledgements, pp. xi-xii.
  • [B]efore she accepted the offer she had to know if the President-elect would support her in advocating the programs she would wish to pursue as secretary of labor. ...[S]he pulled out a little slip of paper ...the list of goals about which she felt passionate. Among other items on the list were laws for minimum wages and maximum hours, for unemployment insurance and old-age insurance. ...Only when he firmly assured, "I'll back you," could she think about... accepting the offer.
    And so... on March 4, 1933 Frances Perkins became the first woman to serve in the United States Cabinet... The legacy of her years in office continues to affect the life of every U.S. citizen.
    • Naomi Pasachoff, Frances Perkins: Champion of the New Deal (2000)
  • Frances Perkins brings to the Cabinet as Secretary of Labor the many years of training and experience which step by step have rounded out the preparation for her great responsibility. Even with the contribution of her vivid personality, the press, generally speaking, pays her the tribute of reporting the wisdom of the words and acts rather than idle "gossip" about the "first woman Cabinet member."

Madam Secretary: Frances Perkins (1976)

A Biography of America's First Woman Cabinet Member, by George Whitney Martin.
  • Perkins' personality informed all her work. ...[W]hat Perkins chose to do was determined by her religion. Many Democrats supported the Social Security Act because it attracted votes; others, for humanitarian reasons; Perkins, "for Jesus' sake," because it brought the City of God closer to the cities of toil and industry.
  • Not only was she one of the most important women of her generation, but even today, because of her work on minimum wage and on accident, unemployment and old age insurance, she has a hand in our daily lives. ...[H]er achievements have been too little appreciated.
  • She disliked personal publicity and often would do nothing to counter criticism even when it was patently unfair.
  • [B]ecause historians and biographers of Al Smith have reported only the first half of her career, and those of Roosevelt only the second, its continuity has been lost.
  • [F]or roughly twenty years, from 1925 to 1945, on social legislation hers was the dominant voice at the ear of the leader of the Democratic party, and among the party's most lasting achievements in that period are several for which she was the prime mover.
  • So it was done: one administration, Democratic, succeeded another, Republican. ...She had heard nothing from the Department of Labor; her predecessor, William N. Doak... did not plan any ceremonial welcome. ...Except for an occasional fee from an article or speech, she had only her salary as a cabinet officer, $13,000 a year, to support herself, her child and husband. Sussana was doing well at the Brearly School and [her husband, Paul] Wilson was in a sanitarium... able, on occasion to come home. ...In Washington Perkins felt she... could afford, only a small apartment or a single room.
  • Because Doak seemed uncertain what to say, she... asked general questions... She quickly concluded that he had little information. ...[H]e could not describe any ideas they had discussed for combating the Depression. When she mentioned a program of public works as a method of providing employment and increasing purchasing power, he seemed to have no ideas beyond... "it'll cost a lot of money and wreck the Treasury." ...[S]he questioned Doak about the department's chief problems. "Well, the immigration business is always serious," he said. "We have lots of trouble with those people who come in illegally." ...The previous week a New York police lieutenant ...had come to her office to describe how a group within the Bureau of Immigration was extorting money from aliens. ...Specifically, the lieutenant had warned her to watch for ...the leaders of the Section 24 group. Doak had created the special section and appointed both men. ...It was not the sort of labor problem that Perkins had discussed with Roosevelt, but here it was in her department.
  • [W]hen the department moved to a new building... she opened the cafeteria with a ruling that all employees, regardless of color, could use it. ...[T]o one white man who complained, she explained it not in terms of racial justice, but of cockroaches... sensible housekeeping.
  • To a greater extent than she realized [The Bureau of Immigration] dominated the department. Its various activities absorbed 3659 of the 5113 employees and nearly $10 million of the $13 million budget, even though the number of immigrants and aliens in the country... was fast declining.
  • Doak... spoke often of the "radical element" among the laborers; he stressed constantly the threat to the country from "alien agitators"; and in order to find and deport aliens illegally in the country he had formed a special corps of investigators... Section 24 ...Section 24 of the Immigration Act of 1917 permitted a Secretary of Labor, without regard to civil service requirements, to appoint to the bureau any persons he thought specially qualified to enforce the contract labor provisions of the immigration laws. ...In [First Assistant Secrtetary of Labor, Robe Carl] White's opinion most of the men Doak had appointed ...were dishonest. They had been recruited, White said, "out of the gutter."
  • [S]he had decided to abolish the group... But first she went to talk with the President. She saw him privately in his office... told him briefly about the force, quoted the report of Hoover's commission and described what she had found in the department.
    He was astonished and at the same time amused. "It's a great joke," he said, "that it should be you who runs into crooks. Go ahead and clean them out. ..."
  • She set about eliminating the group as quickly and as quietly as possible. She did not call in the newspapers; her purpose was not to blacken the Hoover administration or to lay charges... but to reorganize the largest bureau in her department. Gaarson was asked to submit his resignation as Special Assistant Secretary of Labor... Sixteen members of the force, among them Doak's brother and nephew... were put on furlough... and the other seventy-one members were informed that, for lack of funds... their jobs... were abolished.
  • A day or two later she returned to the office after dinner to work, not expecting to find anyone in the building except the night watchman. ...The elevator door opened directly on Gaarson, his brother and several other men. They were rifling the files. ...pulling out the folders, going through them, taking papers out and piling them on the floor. ..."If you have anything personal here, I suggest you come back tomorrow after the department is open, and that you tell Mr. White [Robe Carl White, First Assistant Secrtetary of Labor] what you want. ...Meanwhile I ask you to leave the building now." The "now" resounded. On the faces of many of the more thuglike men she could see a determination not to leave. Gaarson... decided to go... After they left, she telephoned for an additional guard and waited until he came. The next day she changed the locks on the cabinets. Once she had some programs on unemployment started, she would see what could be done about prosecution.
  • She intended... to lessen the bureau's importance in the department, chiefly by increasing the strength of the other five bureaus: Labor Statistics, Women, Children, and the Employment and Conciliation services. Though Immigration was the largest, in her view it had little to do with the country's problems.
  • When she and Roosevelt had first discussed the possibility of her appointment, she had given him a list of policies... Most dealt directly with unemployment: public works, minimum wages, maximum hours, unemployment insurance, old age and retirement insurance, abolition of child labor, creation of a federal employment service, federal aid to the states for direct relief and promotion within the states of state labor laws. Immigration was peripheral.
  • She was aware from her experience with the legislature in New York that labor legislation, like oysters, could be swallowed only in certain seasons, and she was prepared to work on whatever at the moment seemed most likely to succeed.

A Woman Unafraid (1993)

: The Achievements of Frances Perkins by Penny Colman
  • Despite hate mail and harsh treatment by the press, her husband's chronic mental illness, and a resolution of impeachment against her, Frances Perkins successfully fought to make life better for working people by establishing unemployment insurance, minimum wages, maximum hours, safety regulations, and Social Security.
  • During her lifetime, a time when women faced severe restrictions and prejudices, Frances Perkins achieved many firsts—first woman head of an industrial commission, first woman in a governor's cabinet, first woman in a president's cabinet. But never without public furor.
  • [A]lthough the astonishing growth of industry in America was amazing, it was also awful. Amazing with such inventions as the telephone (1876, four years before Frances... was born); the phonograph (1877...) the electric light (1879...); and the first airplane (1903, one year after Perkins graduated from college). But awful with rich business owners... and poor workers living in... city slums. ...Awful with dangerous working conditions in most mines, factories, and sweatshops. ...Perkins started her junior year at Mount Holyoke in 1900. ...Bathtubs were found in one out of seven American homes. ...Big businesses were thriving, and businessmen had enormous financial and political power.
  • What she liked about [Theodore Roosevelt] were his "progressive ideas," or his ideas that everybody should get a "square deal"... not just big business owners. ...Roosevelt thought it was time for reforms—time to put some limits on big business, to drive out corrupt politicians, to provide better opportunities for working people, and to improve conditions in the cities. ..."Out of the period ...a whole generation ...emerged... who had a great passion for social justice," Perkins said years later.
  • During her senior year Frances... heard Florence Kelley speak. ...[K]nown as a "raging furnace" about issues of social justice, Kelley had successfully fought to get [Illinois] laws passed... to prohibit child labor and to limit the number of hours that women worked. According to Perkins, Kelley's speech "first opened my mind to... the work which became my vocation."
  • Perkins was influenced by many books that exposed horrendous situations, including Jacob Riis's book How the Other Half Lives, an exposé... that "deeply moved" Perkins.
  • For Perkins being religious meant that she had a "duty" to help people. She agreed with the words of Mary Lyon, the founder of Mount Holyoke, that people "should live for God and do something."
  • Perkins was graduated in June 1902. It was the year... that a record number of immigrants came to America... For two years, Perkins had various teaching jobs close to home. Then in 1904 she went to teach... a... girl's school in Lake Forrest, Illinois. Whenever she had free time she went into nearby Chicago... She... spent time at Hull House... and Chicago Commons... two of America's most famous settlement houses... in the slums where well-educated people... settled to share poor people's lives and help them improve their situation.
  • At Hull House and Chicago Commons, Perkins was immersed in the lives of people who wore ragged clothes, lived crowded together in rickety buildings, suffered from malnutrition and disease, and were paid what amounted to pennies for the hours they worked. ...Before long, Perkins decided to leave teaching... [d]etermined to be a social worker... [T]he Philadelphia Research and Protective Association ...formed investigate ...pimps, thieves, and unscrupulous employers... preying upon newly arrived immigrant girls and black women from the South. Perkins applied, was hired, and moved... in 1907... She uncovered a variety of abuses and devised programs to help... young women. She lobbied officials to get regulations and legislation passed. ...[S]he gave speeches to inform people and raise money...
  • [T]he idea of social work and social workers was very new. Determined to learn what was known, Perkins took night courses from Professor Simon Patten... famous for his idea of "surplus civilization," or belief that with industrialization there would be enough... for every person to have a decent life.
    "I just lapped it up there," Perkins said later...
  • The book she wrote, The Roosevelt I Knew... is still considered one of the best biographies of Roosevelt.
  • [Upon accepting] Truman's appointment [to the] three-member Civil Service Commission (CSC)... For six and a half years Perkins prodded the government to be more efficient, to cut down on red tape and to simplify rules and regulations.
  • Frances Perkins's name and the dates of her birth and death are carved on her headstone. So are the words:
    Secretary of Labor of U.S.A.
  • Sadly, Perkins was right that the door might not open to other women for a "long, long time." Twenty years passed before... Dwight Eisenhower, appointed... Oveta Culp Hobby... as secretary of health, education and welfare... Forty-two years passed before President Gerald Ford appointed Carla Hills as secretary of housing and urban development... Sixty years later President Bill Clinton appointed three women and eleven men to his cabinet.
  • Perkins was... right in knowing that the fight to maintain labor standards would be ongoing. As recently as 1991, twenty-five workers died in a factory fire in Raleigh, North Carolina. They were trapped behind locked doors and blocked fire escapes. ...Nor would she be surprised to know that unemployment and healthcare are still problems. ...But she trusted that there would be another generation... who believed in social justice and who would fight to make life better for all Americans.

Summoned: Frances Perkins and the General Welfare (2020)

Documentary film written by Mick Caouette; directed by Mick Caouette & Joe Paolo, produced by South Hill Films, LLC.
  • She inherited part of a tradition of service. She was its caretaker for a little while, and she passed it on to another generation. ...[T]here was a timelessness and a transcendence to the quality of her work, just a natural part of the American society...
  • During her 12 years as Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins suffered public insults, attacks on her manner and dress, lies about her birth place and ethnicity, death threats, and finally an unsuccessful impeachment attempt. Through it all she worked 15 hour days to shorten work hours for others. She crusaded for the poor and homeless, even as her own home was broken by disease and separation.
    • Mick Caouette
  • She was able to help weave the torn fabric of a failing democracy into a new design for government that would change life for every single American.
    • Mick Caouette
  • Prior to the creation of Social Security only 1 out of every 100 Americans had any provision at all for retirement. Their bodies worn out, in poverty and misery, many of them were shipped to... the poor farm, warehouses of death where most of the elderly went to live and to die. Poverty is tough, misery is difficult, pain and suffering are hard, but nothing equals the loss of self-esteem in a person's life, and Frances Perkins changed that.
  • Frances Perkins tried to... speak to a level of discontent... unhappiness... misery... [S]he was... unusually committed, unusually brave, alone in a world of men, moving into a sphere that no woman had ever moved into before. ...for all that we owe her a good deal of thanks.
  • There is no contribution that a cabinet member has made in the history of this country that has had the lasting kind of effect on all of us, and the way we live, than what Francis Perkins did.
  • [I]nto this enormous churning, seemingly endless insecure society, they introduced the notion of a secure society, social security. I do not believe that the Social Security Act would have made it into law without Francis Perkins.
  • [S]he had that burdensome conscience that drove her to get something done that probably made the most significant difference in the life of America than almost anything that you can name.

See also

Wikipedia has an article about:
Wikimedia Commons has media related to: