The Department of Labor building at the base of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC is nothing special to look at. Built in the 1970s, it’s about as uncreative as a government office building can be. But the person it’s named after is anything but uncreative. Frances Perkins is the first woman to hold a cabinet position, serving as Franklin Roosevelt’s labor secretary for twelve years.
Perkins grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts in a traditional, conservative family where life centered around the Congregational church. She attends Mt Holyoke College and during her last semester she has an experience that changes her life.
As part of an economics class, she visits one of the mills on the Connecticut River to observe working conditions. What she saw horrified her. Women and children working in dangerous conditions, for unlimited hours, and with no compensation when they are injured.
And yet there is another event that galvanizes her. Perkins is witness to one of the worst industrial disasters: the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where 147 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, die because the factory’s exits were locked to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks. Perkins would later say that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was the day the New Deal was born.
If you or someone you know receives Social Security, you can thank Perkins. She also moved legislation on child labor, pensions, the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, public works programs, and labor organizing. She was a New Deal powerhouse.
Perkins’ husband suffers from mental illness and is hospitalized most of his life. She maintained a romantic relationship with Mary Harriman Rumsey, founder of the Junior League, with whom she lived until Rumsey’s death in a riding accident in 1934. Later she lives with Caroline O’Day, a Democratic congresswoman from New York.
After leaving government Perkins taught at Cornell. She died in New York City in 1965.
In 2016 the Episcopal Church announced that Perkins would be commemorated as a saint, making her the first cabinet officer to attain such heavenly status. Her feast day is May 13 and she is remembered as a public servant and prophetic witness who sought to build a society in which all may live in health and decency.