Frances Perkins (1882-1965) was raised in a strict, conservative, Republican family in New England but her father always encouraged her education. At a time when a woman’s place was in the home, she graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1902 and moved to Lake Forest, Illinois for a teaching position and started volunteering at settlement homes working with the poor and unemployed.

Perkins said, “I had to do something about unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty. It was sort of up to me. This feeling … sprang out of a period of great philosophical confusion which overtakes all young people.” Perkins became the first female U.S. cabinet member in 1933 and served as Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor for his entire term until 1945. She was a chief architect of the New Deal which would help lift the country out of the Great Depression and promised workers fair wages and the right to organize.

Professor of History, St. John's University

Professor of history at St. John’s University Lara Vapnek specializes in the 19th and 20th century history of gender and labor in the United States. Of Frances Perkins, Vapnek says, “She was really driven by principle, I would say, more so than politics. I think she saw what she was doing as fairly non-partisan...she very much came out of that generation of women’s labor reformers that were really determined to use the power of the federal government to help ordinary people.”

Vapnek is also the author of Breadwinners: Working Women and Economic Independence, 1865-1920 (2009) and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: Modern American Revolutionary (2015). She is currently working on a new book examining the history of infant feeding in the United States from the 1850s through the present day.

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