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the first woman to hold a Cabinet position in the United States
Frances Coralie Perkins was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 10, 1882. She attended the Ferry Hall School in Illinois before graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1902, and from Columbia University in 1910 with a Master's Degree in Sociology. In between, she held a variety of teaching positions and volunteered at settlement houses, including Hull House in Chicago.
In 1910 Perkins became head of the New York Consumers League. She used this position to lobby for better working conditions and hours.
In 1913 Perkins married Paul Caldwell Wilson, and then went to court to defend her right to keep her maiden name; she won her battle.
In 1918 Perkins became the first ever female member of the New York State Industrial Commission; she became chairman of that commission in 1926. In 1929 Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Perkins the state's Industrial Commissioner. In this capacity Perkins expanded factory investigations, reduced the workweek for women to 48 hours, and championed minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws.
In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Perkins as Secretary of Labor, a position she held until 1945. While serving in this position, Perkins became chairman of the President's Committee on Economic Security. The report issued by this committee laid the basis for the Social Security Act of 1935. Perkins was also responsible for passage of federal minimum wage laws.
(Not only was Perkins the first woman to hold a Cabinet position in the United States, she also held the position of Secretary of Labor longer than any other person. She and Harold L. Ickes were the only two Cabinet members to hold their posts throughout the entire FDR presidency.)
In 1946 President Harry Truman appointed Perkins to the United States Civil Service Commission, on which she served until her husband's death in 1952.
After leaving government service, Perkins took up a career as a teacher and lecturer at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, where she remained until her death.
Frances Perkins died in New York City on May 14, 1965.
Perkins was the author of two books: People at Work (1934) and The Roosevelt I Knew (1946).
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This page was last updated on December 01, 2017.