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.
Frances Perkins was the first woman to hold a position in a Presidential Cabinet in the United States.
Perkins was responsible for the design, passage, and implementation of the Social Security Act of 1935.
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 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. There, she volunteered at Hull-House, a settlement house founded by social activist Jane Addams that provided community services. In 1909, Perkins received a fellowship at the New York School of Philanthropy, and then earned an MA in economics and sociology from Columbia University. She remained in New York City to serve as the executive 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 locked. Former President Theodore Roosevelt recommended Perkins for the position of executive secretary of the citizens’ group created in response to the 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 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 more than three years into the Great Depression that 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 State Department diplomats at American consulates overseas. The Labor Department’s Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), however, was responsible for physically admitting new immigrants and for border security. In 1933, the INS's work dominated the Department of Labor, consuming nearly 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 (called the Anschluss) in March 1938, she helped convince President Roosevelt to combine the German (25,957) and Austrian (1,413) immigration quotas, creating a new quota of 27,370. This decision increased the odds of immigration for Jews from Austria, though it still remained very difficult for them to gain admittance to the United States.
On November 9–10, 1938, the Nazi regime instigated a wave of anti-Jewish violence, known as Kristallnacht. In the aftermath, President Roosevelt permitted Perkins to extend the visas of between 12,000 and 15,000 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 1939 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 June 1940, Roosevelt had become convinced that spies and saboteurs could indeed be entering the country along with legitimate refugees. Perkins continued to push for the quota regulations to be interpreted as liberally as possible until President Roosevelt issued an executive order transferring the Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Department of Justice.
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. That June, 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 with 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.
Series: American Women and the Holocaust
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?