Frances Perkins home
“The Brick House”
Frances Perkins (1880-1965), FDR’s secretary of labor, was the first woman ever to hold a presidential Cabinet post. The primary architect of some of the New Deal’s greatest programs, including Social Security and unemployment insurance, she played a major role in helping to bring the country out of the Great Depression. This 1836 house (see photo) on the coast of Maine was her family home; she and her sister inherited the site, and Perkins used it as a special retreat. It is still standing, and plans are in the works to transform it into the Frances Perkins Center, a place for students and scholars to work on projects that mesh with Perkins’ vision.
A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University, Perkins was a lifelong social reformer and activist. Early in her career, she was part of the committee that investigated the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, which killed 146 workers, mostly immigrant women, who were trapped in the burning building. Following a career as a settlement worker and factory inspector, Perkins eventually held the post of N.Y. State Commissioner of Labor under Gov. Franklin Roosevelt. When Roosevelt became president in 1932, he invited her to join him in Washington, and the rest is herstory. Perkins served in the Cabinet for the next 12 years. In her later life, she was guest professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Although she married economist Paul Wilson in 1913, a 2009 biography of Perkins by journalist Kirstin Downey reveals that she had a secret affair with Mary Harriman Rumsey, the sister of Averell Harriman. The book further examines how and why Perkins, surely one of the greatest Cabinet members and social reformers of all time, has slipped into oblivion.