Women’s History Month: Frances Perkins, Social Security’s First Champion

Closing out March as Women’s History Month, we salute Frances Perkins, the first Chair of the Committee on Economic Security, and perhaps the person most responsible for establishing our Social Security system.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as Governor of New York in 1929, he made Frances Perkins his chief labor officer. During her tenure, she pushed FDR towards the concept of unemployment insurance, and in 1931, she took a trip to the United Kingdom to see if that country’s systems of unemployment insurance and old-age assistance could be adopted in the United States. As Secretary of Labor, she immediately began pushing for those programs.

Frances Perkins was named Chairman of the Committee on Economic Security, established by FDR in 1934 to investigate social insurance and report on its findings in 6 months. That report recommended unemployment insurance and old-age insurance, but omitted health insurance only because, in the words of Frances Perkins, “the experts couldn’t get through with health insurance in time to make a report on it.” After the Report of the Committee, she campaigned for social security until its passage.

Frances Perkins’ husband, Paul Wilson, suffered from chronic mental illness and spent most of their married life confined to mental institutions. On the day of the signing of the Social Security Act, as she was leaving her office to go to the signing ceremony, she received a phone call breaking the news that her husband had wandered away from his hospital and was lost somewhere in New York City. She went to the White House for the signing and took her place immediately behind FDR for the photographers and newsreel cameramen. As soon as the ceremony ended she rushed to Union Station where she boarded the first train to New York City. There, several hours later, she finally located her confused and disoriented husband wandering the streets of the city.

We celebrate her contributions to our nation’s safety net. Read more about her life: http://www.socialsecurity.gov/history/fpbiossa.html