Frances Perkins: From Greenwich House to the White House
This is one in a series of posts marking the 50th anniversary of the designation of the Greenwich Village Historic District in 2019. Check out our year-long activities and celebrations at gvshp.org/GVHD50.
In 1909, Frances Perkins was living in Greenwich Village and pursuing a master’s degree in political science at Columbia University. She was, in her own words, “a late bloomer,” nearly thirty years old, deeply invested in her studies, and delighted to be at the center of the artistic, intellectual and bohemian world. It was here in the Village that she cultivated many of the relationships that would define her landmark career, culminating in her appointment as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor. The first woman assigned to a cabinet position, she spent her life fighting to enact social welfare laws under the New Deal, eliminate child labor, establish a minimum wage, and promote the Social Security and Fair Labor Standards Acts.
Frances Perkins was born on April 10, 1880 in Boston, Massachusetts. After attending Mount Holyoke College, where she majored in physics and chemistry, she moved to Chicago to work as a teacher, and started volunteering in settlement houses. This new line of work captured Perkins’ interest and led her to accept a position as the general secretary for the newly organized Philadelphia Research and Protective Association in September 1907. Meanwhile, she enrolled in evening and weekend classes at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In 1909, at the encouragement of economics professor Simon N. Pattern, she moved to New York City to complete a fellowship on survey-making methods and pursue a master’s degree at Columbia.
After first living in Hartley House, a settlement house in Hell’s Kitchen within her fellowship study area, Perkins moved to the Greenwich House at 27 Barrow Street. According to her biography, Madam Secretary Frances Perkins by George Martin, she was thrilled to be here, calling it “the very heart of both the theoretical and practical efforts to socialize the life of the modern city.” She was impressionable and enthusiastic about her new life in the Village, listening to Jack Reed, becoming infatuated with Russian Communism, and attending meetings and speaking on street corners about local suffrage efforts. Swept up in the art galleries and restaurants, she tried her hand at acting, writing, and painting, even submitting one of her happy-ending stories to The Delineator, then edited by novelist Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser ultimately rejected the piece, calling it too sophisticated for the magazine’s audience, which discouraged Perkins from writing further.
Though she remained unsure what shape her life would take, Perkins excelled at connecting with many of the most prominent figures in New York society at the time: the Astors, Vanderbilts, Cuttings, and Livingstons. She was skilled at talking to people, she knew how to tell a good story and how to mediate and deflect conflict. In her adopted neighborhood of Greenwich Village, she attracted many of the area’s emerging literary and political figures. On a picnic trip with Perkins, a young Robert Moses confessed his vision for remaking the city, plans he would undertake decades later. Young Sinclair Lewis also asked Perkins for help editing his manuscript for what would become Our Mr. Wrenn, a book that set him on his way to win his Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. Lewis is said to have stood on the sidewalk outside Perkins’ apartment, called out to Perkins through her open window, and asked her to marry him. Though she declined, the two remained steadfast friends.
The April before she graduated from Columbia, Perkins had already received a job to lead the New York Consumers League. In this position, she lobbied for a state bill to limit women’s work hours to a fifty-four hour week, arguing that women required this legislative protection on account of their additional home and family obligations. She relied on her friends to introduce her to influential figures in Albany, and by January 1911 she had caught the attention of the increasingly liberal President Theodore Roosevelt. Responding to her invitation to attend a League meeting in New York, he provided a letter she could circulate outlining his support for laws of the kind she was advocating.
One year later, on March 25, 1911, Perkins was at her friend Margaret Morgan Norrie’s house at 26 Washington Square North when a fire erupted at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place. Running to the scene of the catastrophe, Perkins watched as many of the women who worked at the factory, left with no other escape route, jumped from the high stories. That day, in which 146 individuals, primarily immigrant workers, lost their lives, was a pivotal moment for Perkins. Determined to promote political change, she began cultivating relationships with the powerful Tammany Hall party, through which she befriended Al Smith, whom she later helped win the governorship of New York in 1918. She gained more and more attention for her accomplishments and work ethic, and by 1912 was recommended by Theodore Roosevelt to become the Executive Secretary for the Committee on Safety in the City of New York. Here, Perkins continued to push for legislation that would make factories safer for workers, limit the number of hours women could work, and secure a minimum wage.
The following year Perkins married the economist Paul Caldwell Wilson, who worked as a member of the Bureau of Municipal Research. Little is known about the couple’s wedding, which took place in the chantry of Grace Church, except that few acquaintances were informed about or attended the ceremony. Perkins moved out of her apartment at 164 Waverly Place and starting on October 1st the newlyweds rented 121 Washington Place from artist Clara Davidge, who started and operated the Madison Gallery where the landmark 1913 Armory Show took place. Wilson and Perkins (professionally, Perkins kept her last name) hired a German couple to manage their household, and in 1916 gave birth to their daughter Susanna. Wilson began showing signs of mental illness shortly thereafter, and spent much of his life moving in and out of psychiatric institutions. By the time Davidge sold the building at No. 121 in 1919, Perkins and her family had moved out to take a smaller apartment with one servant, a more affordable option as Wilson’s care became increasingly costly. Though Wilson stayed in New York thereafter, Perkins lived with other women for parts of her life, including Mary Harriman Rumsey and Representative Caroline O’Day.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became Governor of New York in 1929, Perkins was appointed as the first New York State Industrial Commissioner. Following the stock market crash that year, Perkins continued to fight even more urgently to expand factory inspections and investigations, establish unemployment insurance laws, improve factory safety conditions, end child labor, and revitalize industry. When Roosevelt ascended to the presidency in 1933, he brought Perkins with him, announcing her appointment as the Secretary of the Department of Labor on February 28, 1933 and making her the first woman in the presidential cabinet. The tireless Perkins became one of two members of Roosevelt’s cabinet to serve throughout his entire presidency, and played a key role enacting New Deal social welfare laws and programs, including the Social Security Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. She was a deeply controversial figure throughout her tenure, facing pressure from labor leaders (who wanted to be represented in the cabinet), from the media, and from the political right (which found her too radical and attempted to launch an impeachment inquiry against her).
Perkins’ term ended when President Harry Truman was inaugurated in 1945, and for the next seven years she worked in federal service on the United States Civil Service Commission, resisting discrimination in federal hiring. When her husband died in 1952, Perkins left the Commission and began teaching at Cornell University and other institutions until her death on May 14, 1965. The house where she lived in Washington D.C. with Representative Caroline O’Day from 1937 to 1940 was designated a National Historic Landmark on July 17, 1991, and the Frances Perkins Homestead, her family home in Newcastle, Maine, was designated a National Historic Landmark on August 25, 2014.
It is only appropriate, then, that three of the buildings she called home sit in the Greenwich Village Historic District, the place that ignited Perkins’ intellectual interests, solidified some of her most formative relationships and friendships, and set Perkins’ political life in motion. For more information on the many transformative women and social change champions like Perkins who grew out of and shaped the Greenwich Village Historic District, explore our Greenwich Village Historic District 50th Anniversary Map and Tours here.
The Woman Behind the New Deal by Kirsten Downey
Madam Secretary Frances Perkins by George Martin
Frances Perkins: Champion of the New Deal by Naomi Pasachoff