NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Frances Perkins (1880 - 1965)
Frances Perkins received her AB in 1902 from Mount Holyoke College and a MA from Columbia University in 1910. She was trained as a social worker and worked in settlement houses in Philadelphia and at Hull House in Chicago.
She was a woman who was not afraid to go wherever she was needed in order to accomplish great things. When she was married she defended her right in court to keep her maiden name.
After she moved to New York to complete her graduate studies, she witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaiste Company fire in 1911 in which 146 workers, many of whom were women and children, died needlessly because doors were locked in order to prevent employees theft, blocking the worker's escape. The image of women poised on window ledges with their hands folded in prayer, leaping to their deaths, solidified what would become a lifelong ambition within Frances to lobby for industrial reform.
After securing some professional experience in social work, she was selected by Governor Al Smith as the first woman to serve on the New York State Industrial Commission. By the time she was appointed Secretary of Labor by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she brought three decades of commitment to social reform, and the experience to back up that commitment. During her career in politics she helped change the 58 hour work week for women to 48 hours, fought for a minimum wage law, and helped draft the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Social Security Act.
She was the first female Cabinet member; the first woman to enter the presidential line of succession, and she and Harold Iches were the only secretaries to hold their posts throughout the entire Roosevelt presidency.
Following her tenure as Secretary of Labor in 1945 President Harry S. Truman asked her to serve on the U. S. Civil Service Commission, which she did until her retirement in 1952, when her husband died and she resigned from federal service. She wrote "The Roosevelt I Knew". When she retired from federal service she was active as a teacher and lecturer. The United States Postal Service created a 15 cent stamp in 1980 with her image. She was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame and the Labor Hall of Fame. In 1980 the Department of Labor~ Headquarters was named after her.