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Frances Perkins (1880–1965)

The Woman Behind the Modern Social Welfare

It would be hard to say goodbye to 2020 without talking about Frances Perkins, the woman who helped shape the world’s current social welfare system.

Born on April 10, 1880 to an upper middle-class family, Frances was brought up by parents whose strong sense of social responsibility and religious faith instilled a strong desire to “live for God and to accomplish something in life”. Despite her privileged upbringing, Perkins paid little interest in living a luxurious, comfortable life. Instead, she was passionately involved in women’s and workers’ rights since her university years, and always volunteered for social service organizations, visiting factories to talk with employees about their working conditions.

After completing her Master’s Degree in economics and sociology in 1910, her active involvement in the issue led to her position as head of the National Consumers League (NCL). Here she succeeded in lobbying for better working hours and improved working conditions for workers, particularly those for women and children.

In 1933, Perkins became the first woman in the US to hold a cabinet position when President Franklin D Roosevelt appointed her as his Secretary of Labor. She was instrumental in writing New Deal legislation and other federal measures to help jobless workers, including the social security system, a government-run social insurance system, which has since proved to be a life-saving program for billions of workers around the world.