3 Groundbreaking Women You Should Know
Previous industrial commissioners had lived in Albany, but by this time Perkins had a family that she did not want to uproot from New York City. In 1913, she married an economist named Paul Wilson and they had a daughter, Susanna. A complicating factor was that Wilson suffered from a mental illness that became increasingly severe. With the lack of understanding or treatment that we have today, he was eventually institutionalized. Perkins (who, in an unusual move, had kept her own name) was the breadwinner in the family and the caregiver to both her husband and daughter.
When the stock market crashed on October 24, 1929, Perkins' priorities shifted. She focused on enforcing workers' compensation regulations and revamped the state employment service. Refusing to be intimidated by the scale of the problem, she declared "the human race just doesn't lie down under these things."
In 1932, two-term governor of New York Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. Soon after, he made a critical appointment, asking Perkins to be secretary of labor. After being assured that she would have the latitude to propose the bold new initiatives she felt were needed, she agreed, thus becoming the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.
The reaction was intense, almost exclusively because of her gender. The president of the American Federation of Labor, William Green, told the press that she was an inappropriate choice and he would have no dealings with her. Much of the media attention focused on her looks, her emotions and the nature of her femininity.
But Perkins did not let it distract her. Her first act was to root out corruption within the Department of Labor, which she did so deftly that she won many former adversaries over. She also reached out to labor leaders like Green and carefully cultivated healthy working relationships.
At the height of the Great Depression, Perkins refocused the Department of Labor to make it immediately responsive to the needs of workers. Working with key legislators, she successfully shepherded New Deal legislation such as the work-relief programs, the minimum wage and unemployment insurance. The effects were immediate, and the role of government was transformed.