Above: Frances Perkins, 1932
Image Source = Library of Congress
Reproduction Number = LC-USZ62-1132
FRANCES CORALIE PERKINS (APRIL 10, 1880-MAY 14, 1965)
United States Secretary of Labor
Frances Perkins read, marked, learned, and inwardly directed potent language from Matthew 25:
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave my drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee, an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, In as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Then shall he say unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
Then they shall also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
–Verses 34-46, Authorized Version
Fannie Coralie Perkins was a native of Boston, Massachusetts. She grew up a Congregationalist in Worcester, Massachusetts. Our saint, born on April 10, 1880, was daughter of Susan Bean Perkins (died in 1927) and Frederick W. Perkins (died in 1916), owner of a stationery business. Both parents were from Maine. Our saint, with encouragement from her parents, attended the mostly male Worcester Classical High School. She went on to attend Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she majored in physics and chemistry. During her undergraduate program she read How the Other Half Lives (1889), by Jacob Riis (1849-1914), the famous muckraking journalist who wrote about, among other things, life in slums. Perkins graduated in 1902. For about the next two years she worked for the benefit of her community in Worcester. Perkins taught part-time and volunteered with social service organizations in the city.
In 1904 our saint moved to Lake Forest, Illinois, to accept a teaching position. She taught there until 1907 and spent free time in Hull House and similar institutions in Chicago. On June 11, 1905, at the Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, she converted to The Episcopal Church. She also changed her first name to Frances. Perkins became an Anglo-Catholic mystic whose faith defined her policy positions. She stood in the tradition of the finest social teaching of Angl0-Catholicism, for she had an active concern for the poor and the downtrodden.
From 1907 to 1909 Perkins studied economics and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. That program led to her work in New York. In 1909 our saint, having received a Russell Sage Foundation fellowship, started work on her M.A. degree in political science (Columbia University, 1910). She surveyed living and working conditions in Hell’s Kitchen.
The people are what matter to government, and a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.
From 1910 to 1912 Perkins served as the executive secretary of the National Consumers League. As she went about her work our saint witnessed the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 1911. In that infamous and avoidable event employees faced a terrifying choice–to die in the flames or to jump from window ledges. The incident added to Perkins’s catalog of motivating factors as she strove for social reform.
From 1912 to 1932 Perkins worked in the administrations of Al Smith and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Governors of New York. While serving on the Committee on Safety of the City of New York (1912-1917) our saint exposed hazardous practices in workplaces. Starting in 1918 Perkins worked via the State Industrial Board, becoming its chair in 1926. Then she served as the state’s Industrial Commissioner.
Perkins was a feminist. Not only did she advocate for women’s suffrage, she decided to keep her last name when she married economist Paul Caldwell Wilson (1876-1952) in 1913. She had to go to court to defend that. Nevertheless, the name engraved on her headstone was “Frances Perkins Wilson,” her name on the records of the federal census of 1930. (The census records of 1920 listed her as “Frances Perkins,” however.)
Our saint had to contend with the fact of her husband’s bipolar disorder. In that time period the treatment was apparently institutionalization, for Paul was in and out of mental hospitals. Perkins became the primary wage earner out of necessity while raising their daughter, Susanna Wilson (1916-2003).
I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen.
Perkins served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. She made history, for she was the first female member of a presidential cabinet in the United States. Our saint was also one of the architects of the New Deal. Her numerous accomplishments included drafting the Social Security Act, helping to establish the federal minimum wage, being instrumental in fighting child labor, helping to create the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), expanding the roles of women in workplaces, extending the rights of labor unions and their members, and advocating for unemployment insurance. Our saint’s unrealized goal was universal access to health care, which has been on the U.S. political landscape since at least 1912, when former President Theodore Roosevelt campaigned on the issue while seeking his old job as the nominee of the Progressive Party. Perkins resigned as Secretary of Labor on July 1, 1945. Later that year she joined the federal Civil Service Commission, serving until 1953.
Most of the sources I consulted regarding our saint’s life and labors ignored or barely mentioned the influence of her faith upon her public life. Not surprisingly, religious-based sources provided that information, including the fact that, while serving as the Secretary of Labor, she made monthly retreats with the All Saints’ Sisters of the Poor at Cantonsville, Maryland.
Perkins wrote books, including the following:
- Women as Employees (1919),
- A Social Experiment Under the Workmen’s Compensation Jurisdiction (1921),
- People at Work (1934), and
- The Roosevelt I Knew (1946).
Our saint spent her final years teaching at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Ithaca, New York, starting in 1957. She died at New York, New York, on May, 14, 1965. She was 85 years old.
Newcastle, Maine, where our saint spent summers with her grandmother, is the site of the Frances Perkins Center.
The Letter of James offers timeless wisdom:
As a body without a spirit is dead, so is faith without deeds.
–Chapter 2, Verse 26 (The New Jerusalem Bible, 1985)
The faith of Frances Perkins was vivacious.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
FEBRUARY 11, 2016 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINT ONESIMUS, BISHOP OF BYZANTIUM
Loving God, we bless your Name for Frances Perkins,
who lived out her belief that the special vocation of the laity is to conduct
the secular affairs of society that all may be maintained in health and decency.
Help us, following her example, to contend tirelessly for justice
and for the protection of all in need, that we may be faithful followers of Jesus Christ;
who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
—Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 369