Frances Perkins: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Thomas Davis

Thomas has taught high school age students for 34 years, undergraduate 12 years, and graduate courses for the last 8 years. He has a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University in Evanston, Illinois.

Frances Perkins was a champion for the rights of workers and women. In this endeavor, she became the first female to serve on the U.S. presidential cabinet. In this lesson, you will learn about the life of Frances Perkins, her many achievements, and read some of her famous quotes.


Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member in United States history, did much more than just fill a position. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Frances worked her way up the ladder of political success with a never-ending passion for what was right. A champion of workers' and women's rights, her achievements include the development of a federal employment service, ending child labor, setting up an unemployment system, setting up an old-age pension, federal minimum wage laws, federal hours of work laws, and establishing public work programs. This lesson will explore the life, accomplishments, and famous quotes of Frances Perkins.

Youth & Education

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 10, 1882 was Fanny Coralie Perkins. She later changed her name legally to Frances Perkins. Frances was a member of an upper middle-class family who were strong Republican supporters. Frances attended Worcester Classical High School. Since the school was mostly for male students, Frances' father had to approve her enrollment. Her father opened a successful stationery shop in Worcester, Massachusetts. Frances spent a great amount of time there growing up.

Dedicated to the Cause(s)

Frances was a woman who always had a cause to fight for. Initially, her focus for reform was women, as Frances championed liberty and suffrage. Frances attended Mount Holyoke College, and while there, her dedication to specific causes became even stronger. As far as being a woman fighting for causes, she said, 'Being a woman has only bothered me in climbing trees.' Her gender made no difference in her efforts.

While in college, she added workers' rights to her list of causes. Frances visited several factories where she witnessed first-hand the poor working conditions. Perkins graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1902 and then returned to Worcester where she taught part time and joined several organizations.

In 1904, Perkins accepted a teaching job in Lake Forest, Illinois. Looking for a cause to champion, she split her time between immigrant settlement houses and the newly acclaimed Hull House. In 1907, she attended the University of Pennsylvania to study sociology and economics. During the summer of 1909, Perkins decided to move to New York City. She planned on attending Columbia to get her master's degree.

Of course, while in New York City, Perkins spent countless hours evaluating the conditions of the workers and at the same time serving as the head of the National Consumers League. Her focus was to lobby for better working conditions to the state legislature. Frances was never a fan of the status quo, but believing that many were, she said, 'But with the slow menace of a glacier, depression came on. No one had any measure of its progress; no one had any plan for stopping it. Everyone tried to get out of its way.' With the glacier being people's rights, progress was her goal, and she was not going to get out of the way.


In 1911, Perkins witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Due to the lack of proper fire escapes, 146 women died. Frances referenced this tragic event, saying it served 'As a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.' Obviously, she was even more motivated to fight on.

Perkins honestly felt that poverty could be stopped. She also wanted workers to be treated in a way that they could gain self-esteem, not lose it. Her focus, as it had always been, was to improve the quality of life for all concerned. She believed, 'The quality of his being one with the people, of having no artificial or natural barriers between him and them, made it possible for him to be a leader without ever being or thinking of being a dictator.'

Frances married Paul Caldwell Wilson in 1913. Wilson was an expert economist working for the City of New York. Frances left public service for a while, and the couple had a daughter. Not long after, Paul suffered an emotional breakdown from which he never fully recovered. Frances preferred to keep her private life just that, private.

Success after Success

Forging on, in 1918, Frances was appointed to the New York State Industrial Commission. In 1929, after serving as chair for two years, Governor Franklin Roosevelt named Frances the Industrial Commissioner for the State of New York. She proceeded to investigate industries, work for establishing a minimum wage, address unemployment, and establish a 48-hour work-week for women. In recognition of her many successes, President Franklin Roosevelt named Perkins Secretary of Labor in 1933. She was the first woman to hold a cabinet position and served longer than any other labor secretary.

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