This Day in History

March 4, 1933: Frances Perkins First Woman to Serve in U.S. Cabinet

Time Periods: 1920
Themes: Labor, Women's History
Frances Perkins Painting

Frances Perkins. Painting by Robert Shetterly, Americans Who Tell the Truth. Available as a poster for $20. Click for more info.

On March 4, 1933, Frances Perkins became the U.S. Secretary of Labor (1933-1945) and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet.

Having personally witnessed workers jump to their death during the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Perkins promoted and helped pass strong labor laws.

The Frances Perkins Center provides a full bio online. Here is an excerpt on the experiences that informed Perkins’ dedication to labor rights.

At Mount Holyoke, Fanny Perkins . . .took a course in American economic history that would have the most profound impact on her life. Taught by historian Annah May Soule, the course concerned the growth of industrialism in England and America. Professor Soule required her students to visit the mills along the Connecticut River in neighboring Holyoke to observe working conditions there.

[After college she went to work in Chicago.] While in Chicago, Frances Perkins spent her free time and vacations working at Chicago Commons and Hull House, two of the oldest and most well known settlement houses in the country. Working with the poor and the unemployed, she became convinced of her vocation.

I had to do something about unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty. It was sort of up to me. This feeling … sprang out of a period of great philosophical confusion which overtakes all young people.

. . . On March 25, 1911, Frances Perkins was having tea with friends in New York City’s Washington Square when the group heard fire engines. Running to the scene of the fire, Frances Perkins witnessed in horror as 47 workers — mostly young women — jumped from the eighth and ninth floors of the building to their deaths on the street below. In all, 146 died as flames engulfed the upper three stories of the building. The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was, she later proclaimed, “the day the New Deal was born.”

. . . When, in February, 1933, President-elect Roosevelt asked Frances Perkins to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of Labor, she outlined for him a set of policy priorities she would pursue: a 40-hour work week; a minimum wage; unemployment compensation; worker’s compensation; abolition of child labor; direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief; Social Security; a revitalized federal employment service; and universal health insurance. She made it clear to Roosevelt that his agreement with these priorities was a condition of her joining his cabinet. Roosevelt said he endorsed them all, and Frances Perkins became the first woman in the nation to serve in a Presidential cabinet. Read full bio.

Learn about more women in labor history and read an article by Adam Sanchez in Rethinking Schools on teaching outside the textbook about the New Deal.