Frances Perkins: The Woman Behind the New Deal

Early Years & Family > Early Years & Family

Early Years & Family

Fannie Coralie Perkins, called Fanny by her family, was born in Boston on April 10, 1880. Her parents soon moved to Worcester, but both were from Maine. The Perkins farm, the Brick House in Newcastle, Maine, where they returned every summer, is still in family hands. Today, it is the site of the Frances Perkins Center, created by her grandson, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall.

Perkins's father, a stationer, enrolled her in the Worcester Classical High School. Unusual for that era, it was assumed that she would go to college. She entered Mount Holyoke in 1898, was elected vice-president of her class in her third year, president in her final year, and after graduation, permanent class president. The class motto, "Be ye steadfast," from 1 Corinthians 15, would become her own motto throughout a life of public service.

At Mount Holyoke, Perkins took a new course in American history taught by Annah May Soule where the students made a survey of working conditions in factories. This, a reading of Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives, and a speech made on campus by Florence Kelley, impressed her deeply. She joined the newly formed Mount Holyoke chapter of the National Consumers' League. After college she taught sciences in various places, but found her way to Chicago's Hull House and Chicago Commons, then to the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association that helped immigrant girls, including African-Americans from the South, who were often preyed on when they reached the city.

She began studying economics at the University of Pennsylvania under Simon N. Patten who sent her to New York to work at the New York School of Philanthropy and to begin courses at Columbia University leading to a Master's degree in Economics and Sociology. In April 1910, she became Secretary of the New York City Consumers' League, and following the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, took a similar position with the Committee on Safety. In 1913, she married Paul C. Wilson, then working for John Purrier Mitchel, who would become Mayor of New York. They would have one surviving child, Susanna, born in 1916.


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