“I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen.”
In that potent declarative sentence, Frances Perkins, head of the U.S. Department of Labor during the Great Depression and World War II, succinctly captured the spirit of her remarkable life and career.
As the first woman to pull up a chair at U.S. Cabinet meetings (and thus the first woman in the presidential line of succession), Perkins served as Labor secretary from 1933 to 1945, the entire 12-year presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
During FDR’s monumental first term, Perkins stopped in the Twin Cities to deliver a lecture on Oct. 16, 1935, at Illinois State Normal University.
Now recognized as one of the principal architects of the New Deal, she successfully led the charge to strengthen unions, end most child labor and establish the first federal minimum wage, among many accomplishments.
Most famously, Perkins helped craft the Social Security Act of 1935, which provided old age pensions, unemployment and workers’ compensation benefits and assistance to the nation’s neediest citizens.
Born as Fannie Coralie in 1880, the fiercely independent Perkins changed her first name to Frances in 1905 when she left her family’s Congregational Church to become an Episcopalian. After marrying economist Paul Caldwell Wilson in 1913, she kept her surname, a decision that necessitated a court fight. Wilson suffered from mental illness and spent much of his adult life institutionalized, so Perkins became the family’s breadwinner.
She earned degrees from Mount Holyoke College in her home state of Massachusetts and then Columbia University in New York City. She became a tireless defender of the poor and working class, first as a researcher and investigator exposing the appalling working conditions of the day, and then proposing legislative remedies to ameliorate the crueler features of the laissez-faire economy that regularly treated workers as expendable, replaceable parts.
“She had a pungency of character, a dry wit, an inner gaiety, an instinct for practicality, a profound vein of religious feeling, and a compulsion to instruct,” noted historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
During her short visit to the Twin Cities, Perkins stayed at the Illinois Hotel (now known as the Illinois House) on the courthouse square. She had just come from Ames, Iowa, where she spoke the night before at what was then called Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.
Perkins delivered her ISNU lecture, “Labor and the Modern State,” at Capen Auditorium in Edwards Hall. More than 1,200 students, faculty and friends of the university filled the venue to capacity, with chairs placed on stage for the overflow crowd.
She first spoke out on the need to further bolster workplace health and safety protections. “There are altogether too many accidents in some of our industrial plants,” she said. “Fair wages and hours are of value only to those workers who are in health and able to work.”
“Madame Secretary” then outlined the provisions of the Social Security Act, signed into law just two months before her lecture in Normal. The year before, 1934, Roosevelt had appointed Perkins to lead the President’s Committee on Economic Security. From that key leadership position, she involved herself in almost every aspect of the Social Security Act, from the landmark measure’s overarching goals to navigating the complex minutiae of the byzantine federal bureaucracy.
Her lecture ended with a rousing call to further the rights of those living the “wage earner’s way of life,” specifically the right to freely unionize.
A little more than three months before her appearance in Normal, Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act, popularly known as the Wagner Act after its main sponsor, New York Sen. Robert F. Wagner. This act, the single most important piece of labor legislation in U.S. history, guaranteed workers the right to collectively bargain, the right to pro-union speech and the right to protest unfair labor practices. That said, the Wagner Act was tied up in federal courts for the better part of two years, so when Perkins spoke at ISNU in the fall of 1935, its ultimate fate was a great unknown.
“As now conducted, industry too often is so ordered that the wage earners have very little if any voice in these cardinal necessities of their way of life,” Perkins said, “necessities” here referring to wages, hours and working conditions. “As the people develop the true spirit of democracy, we shall see to it that the workers are given, as their right, that true consideration of their part in the development of the nation to which their great numbers and the quality of their citizenship entitles them.”
From Capen Auditorium, Perkins was escorted the short walk to Fell Hall for the post-lecture reception. After greeting an interminably long line of well wishers, she was mobbed by student autograph seekers. “Sign-out slips, activity cards, programs, and other various and sundry scraps of paper were presented for inscription by an official hand,” reported The Vidette, ISNU’s student newspaper.
Once things quieted down, Perkins chatted informally with a group of students. “Do young people at the present time display an increased interest in social and economic problems?” someone asked her. “The answer, according to Miss Perkins,” related The Vidette, “is that everyone, in troubled times, looks to political machinery to help in making things better. In prosperous times, we tend to become preoccupied with our own individual interests and have less thought for matters of larger importance.”
Perkins spent much of her post-Cabinet years as a teacher and lecturer, becoming closely associated with the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. She passed away in 1965 at the age of 85.
In addition to Perkins, 29 other women have served, or are currently serving, as Cabinet secretaries.
“What was the New Deal, anyhow?” Perkins once asked, reflecting on her time in the Roosevelt administration. “Was it just a name for a period in history? Was it a revolution? To all of these questions, I answer ‘No.’ It was something quite different … It was, I think, basically an attitude. An attitude that found a voice in expressions like ‘the people are what matter to government,’ and ‘a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.'”