Frances Perkins

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins helped create legislation to ease the ravages of the Great Depression and rebuild the American economy, such as the Social Security Act of 1935. Perkins also played a significant role in the rescue of European Jews whose lives were threatened by the Nazi regime.

Key Facts

  • 1

    Frances Perkins was the first woman to hold a position in a Presidential Cabinet in the United States.

  • 2

    Perkins was responsible for the design, passage, and implementation of the Social Security Act of 1935.

  • 3

    Perkins used visitor visas to rescue Jewish refugees from Europe and exercised her discretionary powers as Secretary of Labor to expedite their admission to the United States.

Early Life and Career

Frances PerkinsFrances Coralie Perkins was born in Boston in 1880.  She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1902. After graduation, Perkins accepted a teaching position in Chicago where she volunteered at Hull House, the settlement house founded by social activist Jane Addams. In 1909, Perkins received a fellowship at Columbia University, earning an MA in economics and sociology. She remained in New York City to serve as the secretary of the New York Consumers League.  

In 1911, Perkins witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, when more than one hundred female factory workers jumped to their deaths from the upper floors of a building whose exits were padlocked. Former President Theodore Roosevelt recommended Perkins for the position of executive director of the citizens’ group created in response to fire. Her work on the commission led to some of the earliest workplace health and safety laws in the nation, thus beginning her life-long association with labor issues, on which she became a recognized leading expert.

Member of the Cabinet

After his election to the presidency in 1932, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Perkins to his Cabinet as the Secretary of Labor, the first woman to occupy a Cabinet-level post. Her appointment was not without controversy. When Roosevelt announced that Perkins was his choice, William Green, head of the powerful American Federation of Labor, announced that he could never accept her in the position because she was a woman and had never been a member of a union. Some male Department of Labor employees threatened to resign rather than report to a woman. Despite criticism of her appointment, Perkins forged effective working partnerships with congressional and labor leaders.

Perkins became Secretary of Labor nearly four years into the Great Depression, which brought the economy of the United States to a virtual state of collapse. In 1933, nearly 13 million Americans (25% of the working-age population) were unemployed and hundreds of thousands were homeless. Convinced that government had a role to play in the improvement of people’s lives, Perkins created federal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration to employ people, and the Social Security system to provide relief.

Responding to the Refugee Crisis

Perkins also played a key role in responding to the refugee crisis brought about by Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews. Prospective immigrants to the United States were required to obtain visas from American consulates overseas, which were under the authority of the Department of State. Once immigrants arrived in the United States, however, the Immigration Service of the Department of Labor decided whether to admit them or not. In 1933, the Bureau of Immigration’s work dominated the Department of Labor, consuming three-quarters of its budget.  

Despite opposition in Congress and the State Department, Secretary Perkins looked for ways to relax immigration regulations to aid Jews and others who were fleeing persecution. After Germany annexed Austria (the Anschluss) in March 1938, she helped convinced President Roosevelt to combine the German and Austrian immigration quotas, which would allow Austrian applicants to enter under the unused portion of the full German quota of 25,957. This decision increased the odds of immigration for Jews in Vienna, though it still remained very difficult for them to gain admittance to the United States.

After the nationwide terror attack on Jews across Germany on November 9-10, 1938 (Kristallnacht), President Roosevelt permitted Perkins to extend the visas of some fifteen thousand Germans and Austrians already in the United States. The president backed Perkins against State Department opposition, explaining that in view of the dangers awaiting them if they returned to the Reich, it would be a “cruel and inhumane thing to compel them to leave here … I cannot in any decent humanity, throw them out.”

Some members of the Cabinet and Congress claimed that Perkins was not enforcing immigration regulations strictly enough and was potentially endangering the country by admitting refugees with radical political views who would foment civil unrest.  An unsuccessful attempt was initiated in early 1938 to impeach Perkins and remove her from office when she refused to deport the allegedly communist leader of a West Coast longshoremen’s union. By May 1940, Roosevelt had become convinced that spies and saboteurs could indeed be entering the country along with legitimate refugees. Perkins continued to administer the quota regulations as liberally as possible until President Roosevelt issued an executive order transferring the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization to the Department of Justice. Perkins accepted his decision and continued in her position.

Between 180,000 and 225,000 refugees entered the United States between 1933 and 1945, the majority of whom arrived during Perkins’ tenure as Secretary of Labor.  

President Roosevelt died suddenly in April 1945. The following July, Perkins resigned so that President Truman could appoint a secretary of his own choosing. To date, Perkins remains the longest-serving Secretary of Labor.  Her memoir of her friendship and working partnership President Roosevelt, The Roosevelt I Knew, was published in 1946 and became a best-seller. During the last decade of her life, Perkins was a Visiting Professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.  Frances Perkins died in New York City in 1965.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • What pressures and motivations may have influenced Perkins in her decisions on immigration issues?
  • How did inter-agency collaboration or disagreement impact the fate of Jewish refugees?
  • What challenges do “trailblazers” encounter when they lead a new initiative or stand up to established norms and institutions? Investigate other leaders in government who faced similar challenges. How did they respond?

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