We have Frances Perkins to thank for that

March 20, 2019

The legacy of a 20th-century trailblazer

By Martha Reilly

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was campaigning in Bedford, Massachusetts, he received troubling information from someone who wasn’t even old enough to vote. A young girl passed him a note saying she was supposed to make $11 a week at her factory job, but she had only been paid $4, $5 or $6 the previous few weeks.

This was the grim reality Frances Perkins inherited when she was appointed secretary of labor in 1933: unsafe working conditions, children working in factories, gender discrimination and rampant exploitation of the labor force.

During this year’s Women’s History Month, we celebrate the accomplishments of Perkins, a woman ahead of her time.

As the first woman to hold a cabinet position, Perkins received much scrutiny and disapproval. A New York Times article from March 2, 1933—the day she was appointed—notes that the American Federation of Labor was “already grieving over the surrender of the department to an ‘outsider.’”

Some of her male colleagues were also taken aback, passing notes about her during meetings and threatening to quit rather than serve under a female leader. The press portrayed her as unassertive, and Congress tried to impeach her for not deporting an Australian man who led a strike in San Francisco. All the while, Perkins focused on advocating for initiatives to improve the quality of life for all Americans: a minimum wage, limitations on workday hours, the Social Security Act.

She wrote down her grievances about the men criticizing her, keeping them in a large red envelope titled “Notes on the Male Mind.” But Perkins never complained just to complain—she complained to learn. She frequently pulled out that envelope as she strategized about how to present her ideas. She knew even her brightest solution to a pressing issue would not be heard if she didn’t cater her message to her colleagues.

“I tried to have as much of a mask as possible,” she said. “I wanted to give the impression of being a quiet, orderly woman who didn’t buzz-buzz all the time. … I knew that a lady interposing an idea into men’s conversation is very unwelcome. I just proceeded on the theory that this was a gentleman’s conversation on the porch of a golf club.”

As a Cabinet member, she may not have been directly affected by the labor injustices that overtook much of the United States at the time, but she still empathized with individuals who were. All leaders can learn from her ability to understand and care deeply about the people they advocate for.

In her first book, “People at Work,” Perkins wrote everyone deserves a level of “security and sympathy.” She never separated the conditions she aimed to improve from the people they afflicted—an important lesson for all federal servants.

Many more women have entered leadership roles since Perkins’s time, but federal agencies need to do more to cultivate and attract female leaders. Last week’s blog post examines the necessity of fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace. Read the article.