Frances Perkins was by far one of the most important women of her generation. In 1932, her long and distinguished career as a social worker and New York State Industrial Commissioner took an important turn when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed her U.S. Secretary of Labor; the first woman ever to serve in a president's cabinet. Perkins remained in the cabinet until 1945, one of only two original members through the entirety of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. The house at 2326 California Street, N.W. in Washington, D.C. is historically significant as the residence where Frances Perkins lived the longest during her active years as the nation's first female cabinet member.
Frances Perkins did not set out to become a social worker. From 1898 to 1902 her college career at Mount Holyoke College, in her home state of Massachusetts, was spent majoring in chemistry and physics. After graduation, she accepted a position teaching physics and biology in Illinois. In her spare time she volunteered at the Chicago settlement houses, particularly Hull House. Eventually moving to New York, where she settled for many years, Perkins completed an A.B. in economics and sociology at Columbia University in 1910, the same year she became Secretary of the New York Consumers' League. Her career as an influential leader and activist in social work had begun.
At the New York Consumers' League, she advocated to reform labor conditions at sweatshops and personally witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. In 1912, Perkins was hired to lead the Committee on Safety of the City of New York, a citizens' group that emerged from the protest meetings that followed the Triangle fire. In 1918, Perkins was appointed by Alfred Smith, the newly elected Governor of New York, to the state's Industrial Commission, her first position in the public sector. She was the first woman to occupy this post, beginning Perkins' long and distinguished line of "firsts."
In 1913, Perkins married Paul Wilson, though she never changed her name. Throughout his life, Wilson experienced mental health problems and was periodically institutionalized. On numerous occasions, Perkins roomed with other women. Perkins' relationship with one roommate, Mary Harriman Rumsey, was very intimate.
At Governor Smith's urging, Perkins joined the Democratic Party, where she would exert major influence on social legislation for the next twenty years. In 1928, Governor Smith appointed her the state's Industrial Commissioner. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York in 1929, he continued Perkins' appointment. With the stock market crash of 1929, Perkins and Roosevelt turned their attention increasingly to legislation which could aid workers and spur industry.
With decades of experience in labor legislation, many years as a state Industrial Commissioner, and a fruitful working relationship with Franklin Roosevelt, it was logical that Frances Perkins be considered a potential appointee to the post of Secretary of Labor when Roosevelt was elected president in 1932. It was known that Roosevelt wanted to appoint a woman, and that he favored Perkins. On February 28, 1932, Roosevelt announced the appointment of Frances Perkins as U.S. Secretary of Labor.
Perkins came to her job with a long list of programs which she believed should be enacted in order to help raise the country out of the Depression. As the New Deal took shape, she helped draft key pieces of legislation, including the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Federal Emergency Relief Bill, which channeled unemployment relief funds to the states. She also helped write the National Industrial Recovery Act, which created both the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the National Recovery Administration (NRA) to temporarily establish industrial regulation codes, shorten working hours, raise wages, and restrict child labor. In 1935, Perkins chaired the President's Committee on Economic Security, which drafted the Social Security Act, legislating for the first time the concept of an old-age insurance fund. She was a talented administrator as well. She worked tirelessly to implement the standards of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), visiting workers in the field, and giving speeches informing workers of their rights.
Perkins was not always popular and often seen as controversial. Labor leaders argued that one of their members should hold her post, and disagreed with many of her legislative stands, such as the minimum wage. Her relations with the media were never cordial and at times dismal. And because of her determined influence in creating and implementing New Deal legislation, the political right saw her as a threat and a target. Accusing her of radicalism, conservative members of the House in 1939 brought a resolution to the Judiciary Committee to inquire into impeachment proceedings against her. A dramatic, heartfelt appearance by Perkins swayed the committee, and the impeachment inquiry fizzled. However, Perkins remained a controversial member of Roosevelt's cabinet to the end of her term.
After Roosevelt’s death, she continued to work in President Truman’s administration developing the United States Civil Service Commission. In 1953, she left the government to lecture, write, and teach. She often returned to her family's home, the Perkins Family Homestead in Newcastle, Maine, where she had spent her childhood summers. Perkins died in 1965. The London Times commented that Perkins was “one of the chief architects of the New-Deal,” imbued with a “true sense of justice and humanity.”
Located on a quiet residential street, this 1914 Colonial Revival townhouse is typical of the finely detailed urban residential building constructed in the Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, D.C. in the early twentieth century. The character of the three story, three bay, brick townhouse and its setting have remained intact from its time of construction, to when Frances Perkins resided there from 1937 to 1940, to today. Preserving this building is an important way to remember the groundbreaking contributions of Frances Perkins.
Downey, Kirstin. The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage. New York: Penguin Random House, 2009.
“Her Life: The Woman Behind the New Deal.” The Frances Perkins Center.
Zucker, Bat-Ami. “Frances Perkins and the German-Jewish Refugees, 1933-1940.” American Jewish History 89, No. 1 (2001): 35-59.
National Historic Landmark Nomination of the Frances Perkins House.
National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) are historic places that possess exceptional value in commemorating or illustrating the history of the United States. The National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks Program oversees the designation of such sites. There are just over 2,500 National Historic Landmarks. All NHLs are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.