From a comfortable background in Worcester, Massachusetts, Frances Perkins went to Mount Holyoke. There lecturers introduced her to the cause of social reform. While teaching in Chicago, she spent her free time at Hull House and she began to move into the new field of social work. She witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911. That tragedy stiffened her resolve to fight for better conditions for working people, especially women.
After her husband had to be confined to an institution, she proceeded to support herself and raise their young daughter alone. She made conscious compromises to succeed as a career woman, adopting a grandmotherly style of dress she felt was less threatening to men. Perkins was appointed to Governor Al Smith’s administration in Albany, serving on the Industrial Commission and the Bureau of Mediation and Arbitration.
She continued to serve after Franklin Roosevelt was elected Governor. When FDR swept into the White House in 1932, he appointed Frances Perkins Secretary of Labor. She was the first woman cabinet officer in American history. After serving throughout Roosevelt’s four terms, she continued to lecture and write, and taught at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations.