Sunday, April 10, 2011

Heroine of the Weekend

Sorry for the (very) belated Heroine post (though it is actually still weekend, I think...)! But our Heroine is quite timely, considering the government hoo-ha of the last week. We'll take a look at Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to the US Cabinet, who was born April 10, 1882.

Born Fannie Coralie Perkins in Boston, to parents who owned a stationer's business, she grew up extraordinarily well-educated for a woman in turn-of-the-century America, getting a Bachelor's in chemistry and physics at Mount Holyoke and a Master's in political science from Columbia. While working on her degrees she served as a teacher and a volunteer at settlement houses like Hull House, where she gained a first-hand knowledge of the struggles of the working class. She then worked for the New York Consumers League where she rallied for better working conditions and fair labor laws, eventually becoming New York State Industrial Commissioner.

In 1913 she married Paul Wilson, keeping her maiden name. The couple had one daughter, Susanna, but both father and daughter suffered from mental illness.

In 1929 the new governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, appointed her to the commissioner post, thus beginning a long and successeful working relationship that would have long-term affects for the country. In 1933, she was made President Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor, a post she would hold until 1945. She championed the New Deal, including the Civil Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, laws against child labor, the Fair Labor Standards Act (which enforced minimum work ages and the 40-hour work week), and the Social Security Act among other vital work.

In 1945 President Truman appointed her to the US Civil Services Commission, where she served until she retired in 1952. She then taught and lectured at Cornell University until her death on May 14, 1965. She was buried in Maine, and in 1980 the headquarters of the US Department of Labor in Washington DC was named the Frances Perkins Building.

A couple of great sources on her life:
Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience (2009)
Naomi Paschoff, Frances Perkins: Champion of the New Deal (1999)

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