A Champion of Progress

Fannie Perkins was born in 1880 to a family who could trace their roots to the early days of America. She would later legally change her name to Frances. While in college she became involved in politics and women’s right to vote. This became the focus of her career more so than her major of chemistry and physics.

After a short time teaching and additional graduate work, Frances became head of the National Consumer League in New York. She was at the scene of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire which killed 146 workers, many of them children. Theodore Roosevelt appointed her to lead the Committee on Safety of New York. It was in this position that she became known to Franklin Roosevelt who was in the N.Y. Legislature.

When FDR became President, he appointed Frances to be his Labor Secretary. She was the first female to become a cabinet appointment. As FDR started his first term, Frances gave him a list of programs she wanted to work on. These included social security and a minimum wage.

Frances was more than an administrator. She helped draft legislation. She was the lead designer and drafter of the legislation that formed Social Security. Her other efforts included unemployment insurance, minimum wage laws, and child labor laws. Frances served 12 years as the Secretary of Labor, the largest tenure of any Cabinet secretary in U.S. history. She became known as FDR’s moral conscience.

While Frances was married and had a daughter, she was a lesbian and in a long-term lesbian relationship. Both Frances’ husband and daughter suffered from mental illness. The challenges in her personal life made her accomplishments in advancing American society even more remarkable.

Frances Perkins was an icon for societal progress. Rather than attending rallies and protests, Frances brought about progress by being both a conscience for progress and a leader in actually achieving progress. She was able to bring about change by being politically savvy. She was cool in personal demeanor but tactful as well. She made it possible for other women to become successful in the behind-the-scenes working of our government.

Just imagine what our society would be like today without the legislation that Frances Perkins championed? Just imagine how much Frances Perkins achieved without needing personal praise or recognition? That’s a personal quality that is in short supply today in our government. Just imagine what it will take for a future Frances Perkins to emerge and lead our nation through the challenges we face?

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Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.  Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
– Martin Luther King

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