Adam Cohen, who teaches at Yale Law School, recently sang the praises of Frances Perkins: “If American history textbooks accurately reflected the past, Frances Perkins would be recognized as one of the nation’s greatest heroes — as iconic as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine.”
Perkins is often remembered as the first woman to be a United States cabinet secretary. She remains the longest-serving Secretary of Labor (1933-45). More significantly, however, she helped establish several public policies beneficial to hundreds of millions of people. The title of Kirstin Downey’s 2009 biography sums up her major contributions to our national life: The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins—Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage. In these ways and others she endeavored, in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s phrase, “to make a country in which no one is left out.”
As part of a major expansion of its calendar of saints, the Episcopal Church now celebrates the feast of Frances Perkins, Public Servant and Prophetic Witness, on May 13. A biographical note about Perkins appears with the proper for this feast in Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (Church Publishing, 2010). This brief note mentions that Perkins depended on “her faith, her life of prayer, and the guidance of her church for the support she needed to assist the United States and its leadership to face the enormous problems” then challenging the country. While Secretary of Labor, Perkins made a monthly retreat at an Episcopal convent.