portraitFrances Perkins (1880-1965) was christened "Fannie Coralie Perkins" in Boston. Soon after Fannie was born, her family moved to Worcester, attracted by the growing market for paper goods. Her father founded a store that has become what is know today as Butler-Deardon Paper.

Her Maine-born parents supported her wholeheartedly in her education. After holding her own at Worcester Classical High School, a largely male institution, Fannie attended Mount Holyoke College where she completed her undergraduate work in 1902. Background on FP at Mount Holyoke's website.

She legally changed her first name to "Frances" in about 1905 at age 25. In 1910, she attended Columbia University in New York City to continue her studies in economics and sociology and earned her M.A. degree. Background on FP at Columbia's website.

factoryBy 1911, she was already at work for the Factory Investigation Commission in New York City. This photo was taken the same year as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire which she witnessed first hand, as the horror unfolded. It galvanized her career to protect American workers. After the fire, she sat on the committee that was formed to understand what happened and make sure that it would never happen again.

In 1913, Frances married Paul C. Wilson, an economist working for the City of New York. They had a daughter, Susanna, in 1916 and lived happily as a family for a few years until Paul began to have emotional difficulties. His struggle would probably be called bipolar disorder today but in those days it was a mystery. He was simply unable to continue his work and live a normal life. It may have been Paul's inability to be the breadwinner that propelled Frances to continue her career helping her fellow man while providing for her family. The relationship between Frances and her daughter Susanna was, at times, strained. Susanna spent much of her time with a series of governesses because her mother was otherwise engaged and only able to make occasional appearances in Susanna's childhood, sadly leaving Susanna in the dark about her mother's true devotion to her.

In 1918, Frances Perkins attended Wharton College where she continued her studies in economics and sociology. Background on FP at Wharton's website.

fdrAt this point in her career, life got busy for Frances Perkins.
She did work at settlement houses and began to work for New York State as a factory inspector under Governor Alfred Smith. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 was a galvanizing event for Frances Perkins and for working conditions and labor law in the country. There were various committees after the fire to investigate what happened and see that it did not happen again. Frances Perkins served on many of these. She then became Commissioner of Labor for the State of New York under Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt who later invited her to be his Secretary of Labor when he won the White House in 1932.

When FDR invited Frances to be his Secretary of Labor, she brought with her a hastily written laundry list of ideas for which she would expect his support if she were to accept his appointment. FDR agreed and she began twelve years as his Secretary of Labor. Throughout these years, some of them during the height of the Great Depression, she worked tirelessly and accomplished a huge number of reforms, establishing new programs for American workers. This story is very well told at the AFL-CIO website and at the Department of Labor website where it is claimed that she led the battle against the Great Depression (with New Deal reforms and programs she either proposed or supported). Among Frances Perkins' major achievements during her tenure, establishing social security for the American people is one of her best known and FDR called it the "cornerstone of his administration." This story is told at the Social Security Administration's website.

teachStarting in 1958, Frances Perkins was invited to be a guest professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR). Here she settled into her new role inspiring the younger generation to engage with the world and make their contribution to it's betterment. She gave many lectures over these happy years until her death in 1965. One of her lectures was on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and it is depicted on a webpage at the ILR. In 1960, the then president of Telluride House, Christopher Breiseth, invited FP to reside at Telluride House and she happily accepted. He wrote a delightful essay on his friendship with FP (the title of which is a play on FP's title for her book on FDR, "The Roosevelt I Knew") in which he shares some very amusing and touching memories of their times together.

Frances Perkins (Mrs. Paul Wilson) died on May 14, 1965 having achieved an astonishing array of social reforms for the American people and having laid the foundations for many of today's labor standards.

Her family roots were firmly planted in Maine. Frederick W. Perkins, Frances' father, was born in the family home on the coast of Maine, a house made of brick from the family brickyard on the property. The family has always called it The Brick House. The brickyard was the family business of Frederick's father, Edmund Perkins, Jr., and his father Edmund Perkins, Sr.

The Brick House was built as a wedding present to Frances' grandfather Edmund, Jr. when he and his bride Cynthia Otis married in 1836. Frances spent many summers and vacations with her grandparents in Maine and always looked to her grandmother for insight and wisdom. Frances eventually inherited the family place in Maine with her sister Ethel. Frances loved the place and came often to get away from the busy world whenever she could. In fact, she was vacationing here when the War broke out! She only heard about it because her driver, Delany, was listening to the car radio and rushed inside to inform her of the news. They were on their way back to Washington within the hour.

Recognitions of her life and achievements continue to honor her after death...
In 1982, Frances Perkins was posthumously inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame where a page is maintained for her at: Women's Hall of Fame website.

Frances Perkins was the U.S. Department of Labor's 1989 Labor Hall of Fame Honoree.

Last but not least, you can find more about Frances Perkins and her career in the online encyclopedia - Wikipedia.


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