9. The First Woman Appointed to the Cabinet: Frances Perkins
Born in 1880 in Boston, Massachusetts, Frances Perkins went on to be the longest serving U.S. Secretary of Labor and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. Classically educated, Frances went on to earn degrees at Mount Holyoke College, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. After earning her first degree in chemistry and physics in 1902, Frances became involved in the settlement house movement in Chicago, advocating for workers’ rights and safe working conditions, which would be her life’s work.
As the head of the New York Consumers League in 1910, Frances Perkins advocating for better working conditions. On March 25, 1911, she witness young women jumping to their deaths to escape the fire engulfing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Frances’s life was forever altered. No worker should ever be locked in simply because an employer wants to increase productivity. Frances became the executive secretary for the Committee on Safety of the City of New York that promoted the passing of laws to improve working conditions.
While she was fighting for the rights of workers, Frances fell in love and married a New York economist, Paul Wilson in 1913. Frances insisted on keeping her surname instead of taking on the name of her husband. Due to antiquated laws and social norms, women simply did not keep their names after they married. Frances sued for her right to do so in court. Victorious, she would never be known as Mrs. Paul Wilson! Frances gave birth to a baby girl, who suffered, along with Paul, from what is known today as bipolar disorder. As her husband and daughter spent time in and out of mental institutions, Frances was their sole support.
Through her work in New York, she became friends with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He appointed her as the first Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor where she was able to expand factory investigations into working conditions, limited a woman’s workweek to 48 hours down from over 80, and fought for a minimum wage and unemployment insurance. When FDR became president, he appointed her to the cabinet position of Secretary of Labor which headed the Department of Labor. This was the first time that a woman had been appointed to such a high-ranking governmental position. Frances Perkins went on to be the longest-tenured Secretary of Labor.