An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

Perkins, Frances

(Apr. 10, 1880-May 14, 1965). First woman cabinet member in the United States. She was born Fannie Coralie Perkins in Boston, Massachusetts. She received her B.A. at Mount Holyoke College in 1902. While a student at Mount Holyoke College, Perkins heard a speaker vividly describe the nation's growing urban and industrial problems. She was deeply moved. When she was living in Lake Forest, Illinois, and working in Chicago, she was attracted to the Episcopal Church. Perkins was confirmed at the Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, on June 11, 1905. She remained a life-long Episcopalian. While working at a Chicago settlement house, she determined to “do something about unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty” because “our Lord has directed all those who thought they were following in His path to visit the widows, the orphans, the fatherless, the prisoners and so forth.” Perkins earned an M.A. at Columbia University in 1910. She witnessed the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York in which 146 factory workers died. She took up industrial safety work for the City of New York. Perkins continued her work in industrial relations, serving at the state level with Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt during their respective terms as Governor of New York. In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her Secretary of Labor, the first woman cabinet member in United States history. Before accepting the job, she consulted with her friend, Suffragan Bishop Charles K. Gilbert of New York. As Secretary of Labor, she was instrumental in helping draft and implement Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. Perkins resigned her post shortly after Roosevelt's death in 1945. An associate of All Saints' Sisters of the Poor, she spent one day a month in silent retreat at their Catonsville, Maryland convent throughout her twelve years in the cabinet. In 1955 she joined the faculty of the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She remained active in teaching and lecturing until her death in New York City.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.