Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first American president to appoint a woman to his cabinet, naming Frances Perkins Secretary of Labor in 1933. Perkins had served as FDR’s Labor Commissioner when he was Governor of New York, and he brought her “up” with him when he transitioned to the White House. Very impressive moves for his time.
In her position as New York Labor Commissioner, Perkins had worked tirelessly to improve pay and working conditions in industries that employed women as well as men. She also focused public attention on the plight of poor working women, an issue often ignored by politicians.
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As Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins served from 1933 to 1945, the longest tenure of any holder of that cabinet post. President Roosevelt also appointed her to head a new cabinet-level Committee on Economic Security. In both roles, Perkins figured prominently in helping FDR craft ground-breaking legislation such as the Social Security Act, unemployment insurance and federal minimum wage laws.
Nonetheless, men benefited more than women because they were considered family bread-winners. The significant majority of jobs created by the CCC and WPA went to men. Minimum wage laws allowed women to be paid less for the same work, and newly-instituted Social Security legislation did not cover domestics or retail workers, two groups comprised largely of women.
Frances Perkins may have held the highest position for a woman in government during the Roosevelt presidential years, but she was not alone. Women came to fill many key roles, especially in agencies and programs associated with FDR’s New Deal. Josephine Roche served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. Hilda Smith directed Workers Education for the WPA. Clara Beyer served as Associate Director of the Division of Labor Standards, and Mary McLeod Bethune headed the Division of Negro Affairs within the National Youth Administration.
And then there was Eleanor. Like many Presidential wives throughout our history, Eleanor Roosevelt served as confidante and unofficial political advisor to her husband. But she was the first to transform the role of First Lady into a highly visible advocacy position.
Eleanor used her prominence as First Lady to promote coverage for women in federal relief programs. A women’s division was created under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and a woman was appointed to head the division. States were required to appoint their own women’s programs, headed by women.
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In 1940, the women’s division of the Democratic National Committee met in Washington, DC. Anticipating a turnout of around a hundred women, FDR and Eleanor, who was a leader in the organization, extended an invitation to meet at the White House. The President wanted a chance to “chat a little” with them. However, when 4,000 women arrived in the capital for the gathering, the meeting had to be moved elsewhere. Perhaps both Roosevelts had seriously underestimated the desire of women across the country to take an active role in politics.
One thing is certain: Franklin Delano Roosevelt had two smart, strong women working in the Executive branch of the government. Whether FDR was a deliberate advocate for women or he simply respected and appreciated what they could contribute to his administration, he did instigate and preside over dramatic economic and social programs that had profound effects on women as well as men. And he will always be known as the president who opened the cabinet door to woman.
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