Columbians Ahead of Their Time

Photograph courtesy of U.S. Department of Labor
"I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen."

Frances Perkins (1882-1965)
U.S. Secretary of Labor
MA 1910

As Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Frances Perkins played a major part in the development of New Deal programs—notably Social Security and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which relieved Depression-era unemployment—even as she secured the right of unions to organize. She believed that protective legislation, rather than trade unionism or an equal-rights amendment for women, was the key instrument for improving the lot of all workers, and pressed for laws to compensate injured workers, improve industrial safety, eliminate child labor, regulate work hours, and establish a federal minimum wage.

In 1911, Perkins happened to witness the famed Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire that killed 146 women, and would draw inspiration from the tragic incident throughout her lifelong battle for social and economic justice. A onetime teacher and social worker, she made her name lobbying for various reforms on behalf of New York City consumer and safety organizations. Expanding her portfolio of issues, Perkins worked with state legislative leaders like Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner and labor organizer Samuel Gompers to pass laws regulating labor and industry.

She found patrons in Smith, who as governor appointed her to the state Industrial Commission, and in his successor Roosevelt, who made Perkins his secretary of labor in 1933—the first time a woman had headed a federal cabinet department.

Serving until shortly after Roosevelt's death in April 1945, Perkins remains the longest-tenured labor secretary in history. She sat on the U.S. Civil Service Commission from 1946 to 1953, and in her later years lectured and taught, most notably at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Her books include People at Work (1934) and The Roosevelt I Knew (1946).

A graduate of Mt. Holyoke College, Perkins received a fellowship from the Russell Sage Foundation to study at the New York School of Philanthropy, forerunner to Columbia's School of Social Work. Focusing on malnutrition among children in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, she earned an M.A. in sociology and economics in 1910. Perkins made an invaluable contribution to Columbia's Oral History Collection regarding the creation of the Social Security program; in the words of the Oral History Research Office, her 1955 interview, 5,566 pages long when transcribed, "opened the door to new ways of thinking about the impact of an individual on society well before the dawning of a new consciousness about history." Many of Perkins's papers are housed in the University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Nominated by John Matthews GSAS 1999

Read more about Perkins in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

See Perkins's draft reply to the president upon her nomination as Labor secretary.

Columbia Libraries hold an extensive collection.

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