Frances Perkins, the first woman in the Cabinet
By Brenna Williams, CNN
Updated 11:22 AM ET, Thu March 2, 2017
You might remember that Baby, the lead character of the film “Dirty Dancing,” was actually named Frances after the first woman in a president’s Cabinet. And Frances Perkins, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor secretary, certainly lived a life worthy of a namesake.
She was born Fannie Perkins in 1880, grew up in New England with her Republican family, attended Mount Holyoke — also the college the “Dirty Dancing” character was scheduled to attend — and majored in physics. According to the Frances Perkins Center, it was during an economics class her senior year that Perkins became passionate about labor.
After graduating, she worked with the poor in Illinois and Philadelphia. She also began studies in sociology and economics at the Wharton School before moving to New York and earning her master’s at Columbia.
What’s in a name? Ask Perkins. She not only changed her first name to Frances, she also went to court to defend her right to keep her maiden name after her marriage in 1913.
“My whole generation was, I suppose, the first generation that openly and actively asserted — at least some of us did — the separateness of women and their personal independence in the family relationship,” Perkins once said.
She lobbied for workplace safety in New York City and the standards she helped put in place set the bar for the rest of the country. Perkins was appointed to the state’s Industrial Commission, becoming the country’s highest paid woman in public office in the process, according to the Perkins Center.
When Roosevelt was elected governor of New York in 1928, she went to work as the state’s industrial commissioner. She continued to work for FDR when he was elected to the White House, becoming his labor secretary in 1933.
You’d think the chance at being the first woman in the Cabinet would be a good enough selling point. Not so for Perkins. According to the Perkins Center, she told Roosevelt she would only work for him in Washington if he would support things such as the 40-hour work week, unemployment programs, social security and child labor laws.
“I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain, common workingmen,” she said.
Perkins went on to become one of the architects of the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act — major pillars of FDR’s New Deal. She served FDR until his death in 1945.
After retiring from government work, she taught at Cornell. Perkins died in 1965.
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