How the First Woman in the U.S. Cabinet Found Her Vocation

Frances Perkins discovered her calling after she witnessed one of the worst industrial disasters in American history.

Library of Congress
On March 25, 1911, Mrs. Gordon Norrie was just sitting down to tea with a group of friends when they heard a commotion outside. One of her guests, Frances Perkins, then thirty-one, was from an old but middle-class Maine family, which could trace its lineage back to the time of the Revolution. She had attended Mount Holyoke College and was working at the Consumers’ League of New York, lobbying to end child labor. Perkins spoke in the upper-crust tones befitting her upbringing—like Margaret Dumont in the old Marx Brothers movies or Mrs. Thurston Howell III—with long flat a’s, dropped r’s, and rounded vowels, “tomaahhhto” for “tomato.”
A butler rushed in and announced that there was a fire near the square. The ladies ran out. Perkins lifted up her skirts and sprinted toward it. It was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, one of the most famous fires in American history. Perkins could see the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the building ablaze and dozens of workers crowding around the open windows. She joined the throng of horrified onlookers on the sidewalk below.
Some saw what they thought were bundles of fabric falling from the windows. They thought the factory owners were saving their best material. As the bundles continued to fall, the onlookers realized they were not bundles at all. They were people, hurling themselves to their death. People had just begun to jump as we got there,” Perkins would later remember. “They had been holding on until that time, standing in the windowsills, being crowded by others behind them, the fire pressing closer and closer, the smoke closer and closer."
“They began to jump. The window was too crowded and they would jump and they hit the sidewalk,” she recalled. Every one of them was killed, everybody who jumped was killed. It was a horrifying spectacle.”
The firemen held out nets, but the weight of the bodies from that great height either yanked the nets from the firemens hands or the bodies ripped right through. One woman grandly emptied her purse over the onlookers below and then hurled herself off.
Perkins and the others screamed up to them, “Dont jump! Help is coming.” It wasnt. The flames were roasting them from behind. Forty-seven people ended up jumping. One young woman gave a speech before diving, gesticulating passionately, but no one could hear her. One young man tenderly helped a young woman onto the windowsill. Then he held her out, away from the building, like a ballet dancer, and let her drop. He did the same for a second and a third. Finally, a fourth girl stood on the windowsill; she embraced him and they shared a long kiss. Then he held her out and dropped her, too. Then he himself was in the air. As he fell, people noticed, as his pants ballooned out, that he wore smart tan shoes. One reporter wrote, “I saw his face before they covered it. You could see in it that he was a real man. He had done his best.”
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The horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire traumatized the city. People were not only furious at the factory owners, but felt some deep responsibility themselves. In 1909 a young Russian immigrant named Rose Schneiderman had led the women who worked at Triangle and other factories on a strike to address the very issues that led to the fire disaster. The picketers were harassed by company guards. The city looked on indifferently, as it did upon the lives of the poor generally. After the fire there was a collective outpouring of rage, fed by collec- tive guilt at the way people had self-centeredly gone about their lives, callously indifferent to the conditions and suffering of the people close around them. “I cant begin to tell you how disturbed the people were everywhere,” Perkins remembered. “It was as though we had all done something wrong. It shouldnt have been. We were sorry. Mea culpa! Mea culpa!”
The fire and its aftershocks left a deep mark on Frances Perkins. Up until that point she had lobbied for worker rights and on behalf of the poor, but she had been on a conventional trajectory, toward a conventional marriage, perhaps, and a life of genteel good works. After the fire, what had been a career turned into a vocation. Moral indignation set her on a different course. Her own desires and her own self became less central and the cause itself became more central to the structure of her life. The niceties of her class fell away. She became impatient with the way genteel progressives went about serving the poor. She became impatient with their prissiness, their desire to stay pure and above the fray. Perkins hardened. She threw herself into the rough and tumble of politics. She was willing to take morally hazardous action if it would prevent another catastrophe like the one that befell the women at the Triangle factory. She was willing to compromise and work with corrupt officials if it would produce results. She pinioned herself to this cause for the rest of her life.
Today, commencement speakers tell graduates to follow their passion, to trust their feelings, to accept no limits, to reflect and find their purpose in life. The assumption behind these clichés is that when you are figuring out how to lead your life, the most important answers are found deep inside yourself. When you are young and just setting out into adulthood, you should, by this way of thinking, sit down and take some time to discover yourself, to define what is really important to you, what your priorities are, what arouses your deepest passions. You should ask certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? What do I want from life? What are the things that I truly value, that are not done just to please or impress the people around me?
By this way of thinking, life can be organized like a business plan. First you take an inventory of your gifts and passions. Then you set goals and come up with some metrics to organize your progress toward those goals. Then you map out a strategy to achieve your purpose, which will help you distinguish those things that move you toward your goals from those things that seem urgent but are really just distractions. If you define a realistic purpose early on and execute your strategy flexibly, you will wind up leading a purposeful life. You will have achieved self-determination, of the sort captured in the oft quoted lines from William Ernest Henleys poem “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.”
This is the way people tend to organize their lives in our age of individual autonomy. Its a method that begins with the self and ends with the self, that begins with self-investigation and ends in self- fulfillment. This is a life determined by a series of individual choices. But Frances Perkins found her purpose in life using a different method, one that was more common in past eras. In this method, you dont ask, What do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life what from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do?
In this scheme of things we dont create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs. You job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the worlds deep need?”
Your ability to discern your vocation depends on the condition of your eyes and ears, whether they are sensitive enough to understand the assignment your context is giving you. As the Jewish Mishnah puts it, “Its not your obligation to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from beginning it.”
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire wasnt the only event that defined Frances Perkinss purpose in life, but it was a major one. This horror had been put in front of her. And like many people, she found a fiercer resolve amid a flood of righteous rage. It wasnt just that so many people had died—after all, they could not be brought back to life; it was also the “ongoing assault on the common order that the fire came to symbolize.” There is a universal way people should be treated, a way that respects their dignity as living creatures, and this way was being violated by their mistreatment. The person who experiences this kind of indignation has found her vocation.
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New York's governor Al Smith was Perkin's first and greatest political love. He was loyal, approachable, and voluble and had the common touch. Smith also gave Perkins her first big break in government. He appointed her to the Industrial Commission, the body that regulated workplace conditions across the Empire State. The job brought a generous $8,000 a year salary and put Perkins in the middle of the major strikes and industrial disputes. She was not only a rare woman in a mans world, she was in the manliest precincts of the mans world. Shed travel to factory towns and throw herself in the middle of bitter disputes between energized labor organizers and determined corporate executives. There is no boasting in any of her reminiscences that this was a brave and even reckless thing to do. To her, this was simply a job that needed doing. The word “one plays a crucial role in her descriptions of her own life. Sometimes she would use the formulation “I did this,” but more often her diction was formal and archaic: “One did this... ”
Nowadays we think of the use of “one as pompous and starched. But for Perkins it was simply a way to avoid the first person pronoun. It was a way to suggest that any proper person would of course be duty-bound to do what she had done under the circumstances.
During the 1910s and 1920s in Albany, Perkins also had occasion to work with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He did not impress her. She found him shallow and a bit arrogant. He had a habit of throwing his head back as he spoke. Later, when he was president, that gesture suggested confidence and buoyant optimism. But when he was young, Perkins just thought it made him look supercilious.
Roosevelt disappeared from Perkinss life when he suffered his polio attack. When he returned, she felt he had changed. He almost never spoke of his illness, but Perkins felt it “purged the slightly arrogant attitude he had displayed.”
One day, as Roosevelt was reentering politics, Perkins sat on a stage and watched him drag himself up to the podium to deliver a speech. His hands, supporting his weight on the podium, never stopped trembling. Perkins realized that after the speech, someone would have to cover his awkward movements as he lurched down from the stand. She gestured to a woman behind her, and as he concluded, they hurried up to Roosevelt, nominally to congratulate him, but actually to shield his movements with their skirts. Over the years, this became a routine.
Perkins admired the way Roosevelt gratefully and humbly accepted help. “I began to see what the great teachers of religion meant when they said that humility is the greatest of virtues,” she later wrote, “and if you cant learn it, God will teach it to you by humiliation. Only so can a man be really great, and it was in those accommodations to necessity that Franklin Roosevelt began to approach the stature of humility and inner integrity which made him truly great.”
When Roosevelt was elected governor of New York, he offered Perkins the job of Industrial Commissioner. She wasnt sure she should take it, because she wasnt sure she could successfully manage an agency. “I believe that such talent as I may have for public service lies much more in the judicial and legislative work of the Department than in the administrative,” she wrote in a note to Roosevelt. On the day he offered her the job, she told him that she would give him a day to reconsider, to consult with others. “If anyone says its unwise to appoint me or will make trouble with the leaders, just disregard today... Im not going to tell anyone so youre not sewed up.”
Roosevelt responded, “Thats very decent, I must say, but Im not going to change my mind.” He was pleased to appoint a woman to such a senior job, and Perkinss reputation as a public servant was exemplary. As one biographer, George Martin, put it, As an administrator she was good, perhaps even more than good; as a judge or legislator she was quite extraordinary. She had a judicial temperament and a strong sense in all situations of what was fair. She was always open to new ideas and yet the moral purpose of the law, the welfare of mankind, was never overlooked.”
When he was elected president, Roosevelt asked Perkins to become his secretary of labor. Again, she resisted. When rumors of her potential nomination circulated during the transition, Perkins wrote FDR a letter saying that she hoped they were untrue. You are quoted as saying that the newspaper predictions on cabinet posts are 80 percent wrong. I write to say that I honestly hope that what theyve been printing about me is among the 80 percent of incorrect items. Ive had my ‘kick out of the gratifying letters etc., but for your own sake and that of the U.S.A. I think that someone straight from the ranks of some group of organized workers should be appointed—to establish firmly the principle that labor is in the Presidents councils." She also touched lightly on her family problems, which she feared might become a distraction. Roosevelt wrote a little squib on a piece of scratch paper and sent it back: “Have considered your advice and dont agree."
Perkinss grandmother had told her that when somebody opens a door, you should always walk through. So Perkins confronted FDR with terms if she was to become his labor secretary. If she were to join the cabinet, FDR would have to commit to a broad array of social insurance policies: massive unemployment relief, a giant public works program, minimum wage laws, a Social Security program for old age insurance, and the abolition of child labor. “I suppose you are going to nag me about this forever,” Roosevelt told her. She confirmed she would.
Perkins was one of only two top aides to stay with Roosevelt for his entire term as president. She became one of the tireless champions of the New Deal. She was central to the creation of the Social Security system. She was a major force behind many of the New Deal jobs programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Works Agency, and the Public Works Administration. Through the Fair Labor Standards Act she established the nations first minimum wage law and its first overtime law. She sponsored federal legislation on child labor and unemployment insurance. During World War II she resisted calls to draft women, sensing that women would benefit more over the long run if they could take the jobs that were being abandoned by drafted men.
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Perkins was aware that there was a fragility within herself. If she relaxed the hold she had on herself, then all might fall apart. Over the years, Perkins had made frequent visits to the All Saints Convent in Catonsville, Maryland. She would go to the convent for two or three days at a time, gathering for prayers five times a day, eating simple meals, and tending the gardens. She spent most of those days in silence, and when the nuns came to mop her floor, they sometimes had to mop around her, for she was on her knees in prayer. “I have discovered the rule of silence is one of the most beautiful things in the world,” she wrote to a friend. “It preserves one from the temptation of the idle world, the fresh remark, the wisecrack, the angry challenge... It is really quite remarkable what it does for one.”
She also reflected on a distinction that had once seemed unimportant to her. When a person gives a poor man shoes, does he do it for the poor man or for God? He should do it for God, she decided. The poor will often be ungrateful, and you will lose heart if you rely on immediate emotional rewards for your work. But if you do it for God, you will never grow discouraged. A person with a deep vocation is not dependent on positive reinforcement. The job doesnt have to pay off every month, or every year. The person thus called is performing a task because it is intrinsically good, not for what it produces.
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If you look back at her college yearbook photo, you see a small, timid young lady. It would be hard to foresee from that vulnerable expression that she would be able to endure so much hardship—the mental illnesses of her husband and daughter, the ordeal of being the solitary woman in a hypermasculine world, the decades of political battles and negative press.
But it would also be hard to foresee how much she would accomplish throughout the hardship. She faced her own weaknesses—laziness, glibness—early in life and steeled herself for a life of total commitment. She suppressed her own identity so she could lobby for her cause. She took on every new challenge and remained as steadfast as her motto. She was, as Kirstin Downey would put it in the title of her fine biography, “The Woman Behind the New Deal.”
On the one hand she was a fervent liberal activist, of the sort we are familiar with today. But she combined this activism with reticent traditionalism, hesitancy, and a puritanical sensibility. Daring in politics and economics, she was conservative in morality. She practiced a thousand little acts of self-discipline to guard against self-indulgence, self-glorification, or, until the impeachment and the end of her life, self-reflection. Her rectitude and reticence pinched her private life and made her bad at public relations. But it helped her lead a summoned life, a life in service to a vocation.

This article has been adapted from David Brook's forthcoming book, The Road to Character.