First Woman to Serve in a U.S. Presidential Cabinet Prioritized Workers’ Rights

When then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as the secretary of labor, she became the first woman to hold a Cabinet position in a U.S. president’s administration. She would go on to serve the longest term of any secretary of labor to date.

At the time, in 1933, women had held the right to vote for more than a decade and were gaining a foothold in American politics — 31 women had served in the U.S. Senate and House.

For her part, Perkins helped Franklin Roosevelt create a New Deal that focused on workers. She incorporated protection for unions, aid to farmers and security for older people’s livelihoods into New Deal programs. She was, in her words, “deeply touched by the problems of poverty, the sorrows of the world, the neglected individuals, the neglected groups.”

Since Perkins’ tenure, six more secretaries of labor have been women. Recently, President Biden nominated the seventh, Julie Su, who is currently deputy secretary. (Women make up more than half of Biden’s Cabinet.)

A life of service

Woman in hat sitting at desk (© Bettmann/Getty Images)
Secretary of Labor Perkins in 1940. (© Bettmann/Getty Images)

Perkins was born in Boston in 1880 to middle-class parents. Her father, Frederick Perkins, moved the family to Worcester, Massachusetts, when she was a child, where he co-owned an office supply store.

Perkins excelled at school as a child, and following in the footsteps of her mother, she entered Mount Holyoke College, a women’s school in her home state. Today, the Frances Perkins Scholarship assists women who are older than the typical college student to earn degrees.

After graduating from Mount Holyoke, Perkins earned a master’s degree in economics and sociology at Columbia University in New York.

Perkins led a consumer league in New York at the time of the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 147 workers and sparked her own interest in making workplaces safer.

Following the advice of former U.S. President and New York state governor Theodore Roosevelt, Perkins accepted the role of the New York City executive secretary for the Committee on Safety in 1912. There, she was instrumental to drafting and passing New York legislation that made factories safer, created a minimum wage and limited the workweek hours.

Years later, she said the legislation was one way to pay the debt society owed the young people who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Working with FDR

When Franklin Roosevelt became president, he took note of Perkins’ work in New York and nominated her as the U.S. secretary of labor.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing paper at desk with three people standing behind him (© AP)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs legislation to create a system to help the unemployed find jobs, as (standing, from left) New York Representative Theodore A. Peyser, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and New York Senator Robert Wagner look on. (© AP)

As part of his New Deal — programs and laws to help Americans recover from the Great Depression — Franklin Roosevelt tasked Perkins with stimulating job growth and boosting workers’ living status.

And she did. Perkins was a key architect of the Social Security and Fair Labor Standards acts, which standardized unemployment benefits, restricted child labor, established the first national minimum wage, and created welfare programs for the poor and pensions for retirees.

Woman sitting at sewing machine while woman in fur coat and three men look on (© AP)
Perkins, right, tours a textile mill in Atlanta in 1933. (© AP)

After Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, Perkins left her role at the Labor Department and worked to eliminate discrimination in federal hiring at the Civil Service Commission.

Perkins explained her mission saying, “The people are what matter to government, and a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.”