The Force Behind Social Security: Frances Perkins

A staunch protector of workers’ rights, Frances Perkins became America’s first female cabinet member as Secretary of Labor. Perkins was a trailblazer, working with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to design many New Deal initiatives, including the act that established the Social Security system in 1935. Born in 1882 in Boston, Perkins learned to be assertive in a so called man’s world while attending the predominantly male Worcester Classical High School. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1902, Perkins worked for several social-service groups.

By 1910 Perkins moved to New York City to continue her studies at Columbia. The next year she witnessed the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The exits were locked, the conditions deplorable, and 146 young female garment workers died, many jumping to their deaths in an attempt to escape the flames.

The scene deeply affected her, galvanizing her as a labor and women’s rights activist. In 1918 she began her years of study in economics and sociology at Wharton. While in Philadelphia, she participated in the women’s suffrage movement and gave fervent street corner speeches while helping poor immigrant girls.

She became New York’s Industrial Commissioner when Roosevelt became governor in 1929. Later elected president, he called her again to be Secretary of Labor in 1933. She was instrumental in changing women’s work conditions, and established labor laws and innovation now taken for granted: unemployment compensation, the minimum wage, abolition of child labor, the creation of a federal employment service, and “old-age insurance”—created through the Social Security Act of 1935.

Although she encountered sexism as she rose through the ranks (for example, defending in court her right to keep her maiden name after her marriage) Perkins received remarkable support from Roosevelt for her initiatives. She served as labor secretary for a record-holding 12 years. She died in 1965.

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