The Woman Who Changed America

When Frances Perkins was appointed Sec­retary of Labor in 1933 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 25 percent of the American labor force was out of work. Perkins, the first woman to hold a U.S. Cabinet position, is widely credited as being one of the prime intellects and moving forces behind Roosevelt’s New Deal. She was FDR’s “conscience.”

Prior to her Cabinet ap­pointment, Perkins met with Roosevelt privately. According to Kirstin Downey’s new book, The Woman Behind the New Deal, Perkins held a scrap of paper in her hand as she addressed the president-elect. Scribbled on it was her visionary platform for a new economy: Social Security, a public works program, the 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment benefits, a federal law banning child labor, and health insurance. It would take a complete government overhaul and changes in the Constitution, but Perkins was convinced it could be done. She convinced Roosevelt too.

But there was another side to Perkins. She was a religious mystic in the Anglo-Catholic tradition; when she first moved to Washington, D.C., she had hoped to live simply and quietly with Anglican nuns at a convent in the Maryland suburbs while carrying out her official duties. Though this idea was scuttled when she realized what the press would do with the story and how it might disrupt the lives of the cloistered community, Perkins went monthly to All Saints Sisters of the Poor convent for a day of silent retreat all 12 years she served in the Cabinet. In fact, she drafted our national Social Security program and Fair Labor Standards Act there. “The nuns found her in the early morning hours in the chapel,” writes Downey, “praying on her hands and knees for guidance.”

THOUGH PERKINS GREW up in Boston as a Congregationalist, she was confirmed at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit near Chicago, where she was teaching and volunteering at Jane Addams’ Hull House. With her Book of Common Prayer in one hand and Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives in the other, Perkins waded into the tenement houses and sweatshops to interview immigrant women about their lives. For the rest of her life, she used this triad—liturgy, analysis, and the voices of those at the bottom—as a tool for shaping public policy.

Donn Mitchell, editor of The Anglican Examiner, told me that Perkins had a deeply sacramental spirituality, which helped shape a “politics of generosity”—in which the state was the instrument through which the national community expressed its compassion. This was no small shift, said Mitchell, who published an article about Perkins in May. Her vision of the New Deal was a radical theological shift away from the judging and punitive God of Puritan and Calvinist theologies and toward the community-based solidarity of the immigrant Catholics and Jews.

“Frances Perkins was a social scientist and an artist,” Mitchell said. “She had a strong aesthetic orientation and the sacramental language spoke to her. Beauty was a manifestation of God’s graciousness. She saw that many people were cut off from this beauty by industrial problems and poverty. It became an incarnational act for her to bring provisions to the people who needed it. Since she couldn’t do that for everyone, she developed legal structures through which she could deliver the necessary things of life to those in need.”

The New Deal flowed from Perkins’ under­standing of sacrament as an outward, material sign of God’s love and grace. It was her way of manifesting the Corporal Works of Mercy outlined in Matthew 25. When she resigned as labor secretary in 1945, she wrote: “I came to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain, common working men [and women].” That she did. May God raise up another Frances Perkins for us today.

Rose Marie Berger, associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet. For Mitchell’s article on Frances Perkins, visit

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