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Frances Perkins was born on April 10, 1880 (some sources say 1882) in Boston, Massachusetts. She was christened Fannie Coralie Perkins but later changed her name to Frances. She was the daughter of Frederick W. Perkins, the owner of a stationer's business, and Susan Bean Perkins. The family moved to Worcester, Massachusetts in 1882. After attending Worcester Classical High School, Perkins entered Mount Holyoke College in 1898. She was president of her class and majored in chemistry and physics, receiving her B.A. degree in 1902. She became interested in labor issues after studying working conditions in Massachusetts and Connecticut factories for two political economy courses taught by Annah May Soule. After graduation Perkins taught at Monson Academy in Massachusetts and at the Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois. In 1907 she became the General Secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association. During her time in Philadelphia, she joined the Socialist Party and took classes at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1909 she received a fellowship from the Russell Sage Foundation and earned her M.A. in economics and sociology from Columbia University. From 1910-1912 Perkins served as Secretary of the New York Consumers' League and taught at Adelphi College. She worked for industrial reform, women's suffrage, and the passage of a fifty-four hour work week bill in the New York legislature. After witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911 in which 146 workers died, Perkins took a position with the Committee on Safety of the City of New York and worked there until 1915. On September 26, 1913 she married Paul Caldwell Wilson, an economist for the Bureau of Municipal Research in New York. During the 1920's Wilson suffered increasingly from mental illness. From 1930 until his death in 1952, he spent most of his time in institutions. The couple had two children; the first died in infancy and the second was a daughter born in 1916 named Susanna Winslow Wilson. In 1918 Perkins was appointed to the New York State Industrial Commission, becoming the highest paid state employee in the United States with a salary of $8,000. From 1920-1922 she served as Executive Secretary of the Council on Immigrant Education before returning to work for the Industrial Commission from 1922-1928. From 1928-1933 Perkins was Industrial Commissioner for New York State. From 1933-1945 Perkins was the Secretary of Labor in Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet. She was the first woman to hold a position in a presidential cabinet. She helped draft the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the Civilian Conservation Act, the Social Security Act, and other important legislation. Perkins was the target of much criticism in her position. Because of her pro-labor stance, employers often accused her of encouraging union violence. In 1939 Representative J. Parnell Thomas proposed a resolution instructing the House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether she should be impeached for refusing to deport Harry Bridges, a longshoremen leader and suspected communist. The resolution failed. From 1934-1944 Perkins also was a trustee of Mount Holyoke College. From 1946-1956 she served on the United States Civil Service Commission and lectured widely. From 1957 until her death Perkins held a professorship at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She died on May 14, 1965 in New York City at the age eighty-five.
This collection consists of an oral history interview, correspondence, a bibliography, subject files, and biographical information relating to Frances Perkins (1880-1965). Primary sources in the collection include a transcript (on microfiche) of an oral history interview of her conducted by the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University between 1951-1955 and four pieces of correspondence written by or addressed to Perkins. The latter items consist of an undated note that she wrote "To FDR" (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) while she was the United States Secretary of Labor, 1933-1945, advising him about the content of a Thanksgiving proclamation; a letter to Perkins from Roosevelt, December 12, 1938, concerning a deportation pardon that she had requested; a letter by her to Hugh Hawkins of Amherst College, September 21, 1961, accompanied by a recollection that Perkins wrote for him concerning Mount Holyoke College President Mary Emma Woolley and the selection of a man to succeed her in that office; and a letter to "Perk," May 27, 1963, from a Mount Holyoke classmate, Charlotte Leavitt Gilpatric, chiefly concerning other members of their class of 1902. The remainder of this collection primarily consists of biographical information about Perkins dating from 1976 to the present. This material includes books, newspaper and journal articles, and published and unpublished biographical studies, sketches and notes. Also included in the collection is a bibliography of writings by or about Perkins prepared by the United States Department of Labor Library in 1937, and several subject files. These files contain material relating to a postage stamp of Perkins issued in 1980 and information about a film and a play based on her life.
Material from this collection is available in an online digital format.
This collection is organized into five series:
Please use the following format when citing materials from this collection:
Frances Perkins Collection, Mount Holyoke College, Archives and Special Collections, South Hadley, MA.
Transcripts and tapes of an oral history interview of Frances Perkins are available online atColumbia University Libraries Oral History Research Office. Notable New Yorkers: Frances Perkins..
Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections
8 Dwight Hall
50 College St.
South Hadley, MA 01075
Phone: (413) 538-2013
Fax: (413) 538-2370 Email Reference Form: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/lits/library/arch/forms/areq.htm