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The woman who helped a president change America during his first 100 days

Frances Perkins was the first female Cabinet secretary in U.S. history and chief architect of FDR’s New Deal

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act in Washington on Aug. 14, 1935, as Labor Secretary Frances Perkins stands behind him. (AP)

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In the photo, the president is smiling as he signs one of the most influential laws in American history: the Social Security Act.

On that August day in 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt was surrounded by a phalanx of White men and one woman, Frances Perkins, the main architect of Social Security and much of FDR’s New Deal.

Today, 69 million Americans receive Social Security payments of some kind, but few people know the name of Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet secretary in U.S. history. The groundbreaking labor secretary paved the way for the women who came after her, including the record number President Biden has chosen for his Cabinet: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Deb Haaland, expected to be confirmed as interior secretary, among others.

During FDR’s first 100 days in the White House in 1933, Perkins was the force behind so many pillars of his program to combat the Great Depression that some called it “the Perkins New Deal.”

And, of course, she was attacked, with one journalist calling her “the first woman to be a president’s henchman.”

She’d already served as New York state’s labor chief during Roosevelt’s years as governor. The 52-year-old Perkins came prepared with scribbled demands when the president-elect interviewed her for a Cabinet post.

Roosevelt’s New Deal was just “a happy phrase he had coined during the campaign,” Perkins wrote later. But she had a vision for what it could be: a public works initiative to put people back to work, a minimum wage, old-age insurance and an end to child labor.

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“The program received Roosevelt’s hearty endorsement, and he told me he wanted me to carry it out,” Perkins wrote.

Labor leaders opposed her nomination. The leader of a seamen’s union grumbled, “I guess us sailors, as well as bricklayers and miners, better get a powder puff and lipstick to march in the inaugural parade.”

Newspapers described Perkins in ways never used with male Cabinet members. “She is 5 feet 5 and weighs 150 pounds. Her eyes are brown and expressive,” one columnist wrote “She sleeps in a twin bed and wears an old fashioned nightgown. She kicks the blankets off her.”

The biggest controversy was that Perkins went by her maiden name. “She is really Mrs. Paul Wilson,” but she uses “her maiden name in public life,” the Oakland Tribune scolded. In 1933, married female federal employees had to use their husband’s names on their paychecks.

At this point, Perkins’s husband, Paul Caldwell Wilson, was in a mental institution. She had been living with Mary Harriman Rumsey, a widow and the daughter of railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman. Rumsey founded the Junior League to help the poor and a magazine that later became Newsweek. In Washington, Perkins and Rumsey were “roomies” in a large house in Georgetown.

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Although it wasn’t widely known at the time, the first female Cabinet secretary was also was the first LGBT Cabinet secretary.

At the Labor Department, Perkins became “Madame Secretary” and was known for wearing her three-corner hat even while working. She quickly became point woman for many of Roosevelt’s programs.

The first was the Civil Conservation Corps. It was FDR’s idea to put unemployed, single young men to work on conservation projects in rural areas. Perkins created the program and pushed it in Congress. One lawmaker praised her testimony, she noted, but said “he’d hate to be married to me.”

“Miss Perkins,” as she was labeled in headlines, fought budget officials to win Roosevelt’s approval of $3.3 billion (about $63 billion now) for the first year of a public works program. The program employed up to 2 million people by 1934.

By mid-June, Roosevelt had pushed through 13 initiatives. In a radio address in late July, he noted “the crowding events of the 100 days which had been devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal.” It was the first mention of the first 100 days, which became a benchmark for new administrations.

In 1934, Perkins began drafting plans for old-age insurance and unemployment compensation. Late that year, her partner, Rumsey, was thrown from a horse and severely injured. She died with Perkins at her side.

Perkins faced a Christmas deadline to finish the plan for what would become Social Security. Alone in her big house, she called in members of her team, all men, “placed a large bottle of Scotch on the table and told them no one would leave until the work was done,” wrote Kirstin Downey in her book “The Woman Behind the New Deal.”

After Congress passed the law and Roosevelt signed it on Aug. 14, 1935, The Washington Post declared it the “New Deal’s Most Important Act … because this legislation eventually will affect the lives of every man, woman, and child in the country,” according to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

A tourist captured rare footage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who usually used a wheelchair after battling polio, walking at the White House in 1935. (Video: FDR Presidential Library)

In 1938, Perkins helped draft the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set a 40-hour workweek and a federal minimum wage of 25 cents an hour for men and women (the equivalent of about $4.65 today). It also sharply restricted child labor.

Perkins had her critics. John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers, once called her “woozy in the head.”

Conservatives accused Perkins of being a socialist or worse. In 1939, the House Un-American Activities Committee began impeachment proceedings against her for failing to deport Australian-born labor leader Harry Bridges as an alleged communist. The Immigration Service then was part of the Labor Department. The House soon dropped the impeachment, and Bridges wasn’t deported.

As the threat of World War II loomed, Perkins adjusted U.S. immigration rules to try to help Jewish refugees escape the rise of Adolf Hitler. She served into Roosevelt’s fourth term as one of only two of his original Cabinet members. (The other was Interior Secretary Harold Ickes.)

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Soon after FDR died on April 12, 1945, Perkins resigned. She once said her appointment “has not made it necessary to have a woman in the Cabinet, but it has made it possible.”

There wasn’t another female Cabinet member until 1953, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Oveta Culp Hobby secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It was another 22 years before President Gerald Ford named Carla Hills secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Perkins dodged personal publicity and gave Roosevelt full credit for the New Deal. She championed women’s rights but opposed the Equal Rights Amendment as counterproductive. She died in 1965.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter renamed the Labor Department’s Washington headquarters as the Frances Perkins Building. In 2015, Perkins was one of the Equality Forum’s icons for LGBT History Month. Her D.C. home at 2326 California St. NW, where she lived with Rep. Caroline O’Day (D-N.Y.) after Rumsey’s death, is a national historic landmark.

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