Every day, I come to work in a building named for Frances Perkins. Her biography is on my bookshelf and her portrait hangs directly above my desk. She is the Labor Department’s matriarch and lodestar. She wasn’t just the first woman to hold a seat in the President’s Cabinet. She is one of American history’s most influential advocates for workers and their rights.
Unfortunately, not all of Secretary Perkins’ contemporaries judged her on her merits. Throughout his presidency, Franklin Roosevelt received many letters of complaint about her. One man wrote in April, 1941: “Would it not be a much more desirable thing to have a man such as Wendell Wilkie holding the portfolio of Secretary of Labor, who from actual experience is familiar with the viewpoint of the laboring man?” (That’s the same Wendell Wilkie that the president had defeated in the election five months earlier).
Others were more overt in their sexism. “With all kindness and respect to Miss Perkins, it is the opinion of many that a man should head this important department,” wrote another gentleman.
But FDR’s confidence in Secretary Perkins never wavered. Nor did Secretary Perkins’ belief in herself and her work. “Being a woman has only bothered me in climbing trees,” she said. And she continued representing the interests of laboring men – and women – as effectively as anyone before or since. She did so for 12 years, making her the longest-serving Secretary of Labor in the Department’s history.
At the Labor Department, we continue to draw inspiration from Frances Perkins. And not just because she fearlessly shattered a glass ceiling, but because the impact of her leadership is still felt in homes and workplaces nationwide. She was the architect of so many important labor protections – unemployment benefits, minimum wage, overtime, pensions and more – that Americans rely on.
So much of our work today is about continuing her legacy and helping women climb ladders of opportunity:
These efforts all benefit working women, but their impact is in fact much greater. With women now comprising roughly half the workforce, we cannot separate women’s issues from the nation’s overall economic strength. As President Obama said in his State of the Union address: “When women succeed, America succeeds.”
Tom Perez is the Secretary of the Department of Labor.