Frances Perkins became the first woman member of the president’s Cabinet when she was appointed secretary of labor in 1933. She believed in the power of organized labor to create change and was a catalyst in establishing protections for workers throughout her career.
During her time as a student at Columbia University in New York, Perkins became involved in the women’s suffrage movement and discovered her alignment with the progressive causes of the time.
In her early career, Perkins partnered with the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and successfully lobbied for and won a 54-hour work week and other benefits from the employer. Shortly after, 146 women tragically perished in a fire at the factory as a result of dangerously unsafe working conditions and an unregulated labor market.
Deeply impacted by this, Perkins took the position of executive secretary of the Committee on Safety of the City of New York where she focused on improving fire safety citywide.
While her career evolved, Perkins also championed other protections for workers, like the creation of a federal minimum wage, and increased regulatory child labor laws to quell and prevent rampant exploitation. Perkins believed it was the job of the government to ensure everyone the opportunity at a better life.“The people are what matter to government, and a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life,” she said.
In her time as secretary of labor, Perkins helped ensure millions of people had access to support systems like Social Security and unemployment insurance. She has been credited as the driving force behind the New Deal, Roosevelt’s legislative package focused on relief, recovery, and reform in the years immediately following the Great Depression.
As an advocate, educator and lawmaker Perkins’ work stands as some of the most important protections for laborers in the US to this day.