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This Month in Business History

Frances Perkins became the First Female Cabinet Member

Harris & Ewing, photographer. Frances Perkins.1865. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Frances Perkins became the 1st woman appointed to a presidential Cabinet when she was sworn in as Secretary of Labor on March 4, 1933.

Frances Perkins was born in Boston in 1880 and graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1902. She received her Master’s in Political Science from Columbia University in 1910 and after graduation, she became head of the New York Consumers League in 1910. It was during her tenure at the Consumers League that she witnessed the horrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire which left a lasting impression.

In 1919, Governor Al Smith added her to the Industrial Commission of the State of New York and, in 1929 when Franklin Roosevelt was elected governor, he appointed her Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor.

After Franklin Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1933, Frances Perkins was his choice to be Secretary of Labor and on March 4, 1933 she was sworn becoming the 1st woman appointed to the Cabinet. Her appointment was an important milestone and she was featured on the cover of the August 14, 1933 Time Magazine.

As Secretary of Labor, she was an important part of President Roosevelt’s plan to improve a U.S. economy still struggling with the Depression. As Secretary of Labor, her interests extended to all aspects of labor including safety, children’s labor, women’s issues, etc. She played a key role in several pieces of New Deal legislation, including minimum-wage laws and even worked on the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

One of her earliest high profile actions came during the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1933. In 1934, she took became chairwoman of the President's Committee on Economic Security (CES). She presided over the Committee that ultimately designed the first comprehensive federal social insurance program in the nation's history. It was the Committee’s report that served as the basic blueprint for what would become the

Perkins was Secretary of Labor until June 30, 1945 and retired after serving 12 years—the longest tenured Secretary. President Truman appointed her to serve on the United States Civil Service Commission which she did until 1952. After leaving federal service she wrote The Roosevelt I Knew and was a teacher and lecturer at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University until she died on May 14, 1965. In 1975 the Department of Labor finished its new headquarters on Constitution Avenue and, with the passage of PL 96-141 the building was named in her honor on April 10, 1980—the 100th anniversary of her birth.

Featured Event Video

In 2009, Kirstin Downey discussed her book "The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience" at the Library of Congress sponsored by the Center for the Book.

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