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Profile: Frances Perkins (1880-1965)

By Katja Heath | 2023

From the 1930s to 1940s, Perkins published the following major texts:

  1. Frances Perkins, People at Work (New York: John Day Company, 1934).

  2. Frances Perkins, “Building the Peace”, Monthly Labor Review, April 1945, 701.

  3. Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I knew (New York: Viking Press, 1946).

Frances Perkins: Shaping International Labor Policies and Advancing Women's Rights through the ILO

Frances Perkins, a prominent American labour activist and politician, made significant contributions to the International Labour Organization (ILO) in the middle of the twentieth century. Her efforts in shaping international labour policies and advocating for women's rights within the ILO have had a lasting impact on global social justice and gender equality.[1]

In 1919, Frances Perkins participated in two global labour conferences—the Women's Labour Congress (WLC) and the ILO's International Labor Conference.[2] These events shifted her perspective towards the international and served as catalysts for her future endeavours.[3]

After the Great Depression, Perkins collaborated with Mary Anderson and Frieda Miller, she championed international policies as a United States Secretary of Labor. In 1933 Perkins, along with Anderson, campaigned for the United States to become a member of the ILO, a successful effort that led to the country's membership in 1934.[4] Perkins continued to advocate for greater U.S. involvement in the ILO, emphasizing its structure as a model for future governance.[5] She believed that the ILO's commitment to leveling up labour standards globally and ensuring that "advantages derived from low wages" were only "temporary" was vital.[6] Perkins also promoted the expansion of social programs, increased production and consumption, and facilitated global exchange as means to drive economic growth and social justice.[7]

During the 1930s, Perkins emerged as the second most influential voice from the United States within the ILO.[8]She chaired multiple U.S. delegations to Geneva and hosted the inuaugural ILO International Textile Conference in Washington in 1937. This conference, the first of its kind, paved the way for future discussions on labour issues in the textile industry.[9]

In collaboration with Frieda Miller, Perkins worked to shape many of the ILO's policies. After the Lima Declaration of Women's Rights in 1938, Perkins promoted it as a blueprint for progress in each country. [10] She approved of the declaration's commitment to the "right of women to equal treatment with men as a civil and political right."[11]Following the end of World War II, Perkins and Miller worked to transform the ILO into a platform for debating women's rights and social justice. Their efforts culminated in the ILO's adoption of the 1944 Philadelphia Declaration, a key moment in the history of feminism. The declaration asserted that labour was not a commodity and emphasized that workers' human rights were more important than commercial and market considerations.[12] It also recognized the rights of all individuals, irrespective of race, creed, or sex, to pursue economic security, equal opportunity, and spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity. The declaration called for "minimum living wages," improved health services for all, and elevated status for female-dominated industries.[13]

In 1941, Perkins became the first woman elected as the President of the ILO. [14] In her presidential address to the 1941 ILO conference, she called for the organization to devise new means to achieve social justice. Perkins advocated for the ILO to expand its scope beyond formulating minimum labour standards and begin influencing global economic planning and policy. She argued for regulated trade between nations, full employment, and increased state-level investment in social welfare.[15] Perkins was a strong influence behind the conference's adoption of the Philadelphia Declaration, which became the "very first International Declaration of Universal Rights." 

Frances Perkins believed that the International Labor Organization (ILO) held the key to achieving global peace and social justice.[16] In 1945, during the ILO conference, Perkins emphasized the importance of the ILO as a tool for establishing stable international relations. She argued that by implementing a comprehensive program focused on improving living standards and ensuring high employment levels, the ILO could contribute to the establishment of stable international relations.[17]

Perkins envisioned the ILO as a moral force capable of guiding humanity towards social justice. [18] During the 1945 ILO conference in Paris, she called for significant strides in employment levels and living standards. Recognizing the crucial role of women in the industrial world, Perkins concluded her speech by advocating for the adoption of a policy ensuring equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender.[19]

The year 1952 marked Perkins' final participation in an ILO conference. During this meeting, the ILO set a minimum rate for maternity benefits, expanded their coverage, and stipulated that access to these benefits should not be subjected to age, race, religion, or nationality discrimination. [20]This development showcased Perkins' ongoing dedication to promoting gender equality and ensuring the welfare of workers, particularly women, in the labour force.

Frances Perkins's commitment to the ILO's mission of social justice and her efforts to advocate for improved living conditions, equal pay, and inclusive maternity benefits left a lasting impact on the organization. 

[1] On her role in encouraging women’s participation in the ILO, see Carol Riegelman Lubin, Anne Winslow, Social Justice for Women: The International Labor Organization and Women (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 73. On her role in championing the greater participation of the US in international organizations, see Guy Fiti Sinclair, “A ‘Civilizing Task’: The International Labour Organization, Social Reform, and the Genealogy of Development,” Journal of the history of International Law 20 (2018), 175.

[2] Dorothy Sue Cobble, For the Many: American Feminists and the Global Fight for Democratic Equality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021), 52.

[3] George Martin, Madam Secretary Frances Perkins: A Biography of America’s First Woman Cabinet Member (Boston: Plunkett Lake Press, 1976), 141–45. On Perkins’ recollections of 1919, “Record of Proceedings: Conference of the International Labour Organisation, New York and Washington, D.C., 1941.” 1941. In Montreal: ILO., 7–8.

[4] Francis Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew (London: Penguin, 2011), 340; ILO, Edward Phelan and the ILO: The Life and Views of an International Social Actor (Geneva: ILO, 2009), 227–58.

[5] Perkins, Roosevelt, 340; ILO, Edward Phelan and the ILO, 227–58.

[6] Frances Perkins, “Address before the Tripartite Conference on Textile;” “Miss Perkins Finds No U.S. Labor War,” New York Times, 13 June 1938.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cobble, For the Many, 201.

[9] “Textile Conference Hailed by ILO Chief,” New York Times, 2 May 1937.

[10] Cobble, For the Many, 216.  

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 250; Alain Supiot, The Spirit of Philadelphia: Social Justice vs. the Total Market (London: Verso, 2012), 1; Daniel Roger Maul, “The International Labour Organization and the Globalization of Human Rights, 1944–1970,” in Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, ed. Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 301.

[13] “Record of Proceedings: International Labour Conference, 26th Session, Philadelphia, 1944.” 1944. In Montreal: ILO., 521–621. Quote from David A. Morse, The Origin and Evolution of the ILO and its Role in the World Community (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1969), 29.

[14] 1941 ILC Proceedings, 7–8, 11–12.

[15] 1941 ILC Proceedings, 7–8, 11–12.

[16] Frances Perkins, “Building the Peace”, Monthly Labor Review, April 1945. 

[17] “Record of Proceedings: International Labour Conference, 27th Session, Paris, 1945.” 1945. In Geneva: ILO., 136-137.

[18] Ibid

[19] 1945 ILC Proceedings, 136-137.

[20] Cobble, For the many, 312.

Reference anything from this site as:

Heath, Katja (2023) 'International Economic Thinkers-Profile: Francis Perkins', ECOINT IET Profile #6, available at:


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