When the New York State Factory Investigating Commission was formed and called a hearing, Perkins was invited to testify. The vice chair of the commission was a young assemblyman named Al Smith, a fantastic personality who would go on to be governor of New York, and the first Catholic nominee for president. Smith was so impressed with her intellect and thorough knowledge of working conditions that he appointed her director of investigations. Rather than just writing a report, she took elected officials on unannounced tours through working conditions around the state. She later recalled, "We saw to it that the austere legislative members of the commission got up at dawn and drove with us for an unannounced visit to a Cattaraugus County cannery, and there they saw with their own eyes the little children-not adolescents but 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds-snipping beans and shelling peas." Smith later called these tours "the greatest education" he had ever had. When Smith became governor of New York in 1918, he took the unprecedented step of naming Perkins to the state industrial commission, a position unprecedented for a woman. Her work was so effective that when Franklin Delano Roosevelt succeeded Smith as governor, he asked her to be the industrial commissioner, beginning a professional relationship that would change history.
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.