May 13: Frances Perkins, Public Servant and Prophetic Witness, 1965

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Frances Perkins was the first woman to serve a President of the United States as a member of the cabinet.

Born in Boston in 1880 and educated at Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University, Perkins was passionate about the social problems occasioned by the continuing effects of industrialization and urbanization.

As a young adult she discovered the Episcopal Church and was confirmed at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest, Illinois, on June 11, 1905, and was a faithful and active Episcopalian for the remainder of her life.

After moving to New York, she became an advocate for industrial safety and persistent voice for the reform of what she believed were unjust labor laws. This work got the attention of two of New York’s governor’s, Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt, in whose state administrations she took part.

President Roosevelt appointed her to a cabinet post as Secretary of Labor, a position she would hold for twelve years. As Secretary of Labor, Perkins would have a major role in shaping the “New Deal” legislation signed into law by President Roosevelt and which had great impact upon the nation as it emerged from the Great Depression of the early 1930’s.

During her years of public service, Frances Perkins depended upon 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 of the time. During her time as Secretary of Labor, she would take time away from her duties on a monthly basis and make a retreat with the All Saints’ Sisters of the Poor in nearby Catonsville, Maryland.

Following her public service she became a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. She remained active in teaching, social justice advocacy, and in the mission of the Episcopal Church until her death in 1965.


I.  Loving God, whose Name is blest for Frances Perkins, who lived out her belief that the special vocation of the laity is to conduct the secular affairs of society that all may be maintained in health and decency: Help us, following her example, to contend tirelessly for justice and for the protection of all in need, that we may be faithful followers of Jesus Christ; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II.  Loving God, we bless your Name for Frances Perkins, who lived out her belief that the special vocation of the laity is to conduct the secular affairs of society that all may be maintained in health and decency. Help us, following her example, to contend tirelessly for justice and for the protection of all in need, that we may be faithful followers of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Psalm 37:27–31

Deuteronomy 15:7–11

Ephesians 4:25–5:2

Luke 9:10–17

Preface of Baptism

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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22 thoughts on “May 13: Frances Perkins, Public Servant and Prophetic Witness, 1965

  1. Ths collect, like others in HWHM, leans toward being didactic rather than prayerful, particularly in the first clause, and as a result is wordy and unwieldy. Proposed rewrite below.

    Loving God, we bless your Name for Frances Perkins, who in faithfulness to her Baptismal vocation sought to build a society in which all may live in health and decency. Help us….

  2. The collect is ponderous and unsingable…..please take to heart the rules of poetry and good journalism–short words/sentences, metaphor and poetry rather than facts and a history lesson (that’s what the hagiography is for!)

  3. This commemoration is for Trial Use. All elements (Title, Collect, Lections, and Proper Preface) are new.

  4. Bio. 4th paragraph. There is an extra apostrophe in the last sentence: ‘New York’s governors, Al Smith and FDR, …”.
    6th paragraph. The word ‘time’ is mentioned too often: ‘problems of the time’, ‘During her time’, ‘time away form her duties.’
    And they are the All Saints Sisters of the Poor, no apostrophe.

  5. Paragraph 4: “governor’s” is wrong. Drop the apostrophe. The apostrophe is properly used to indicate a missing letter [isn’t] or a possesive (dog’ ‘s dinner [sing] or dogs’ dinners [plur])

    Paragraph 5: drop the ” ” enclosing New Deal. Calling it the “New Deal” suggests to the reader that the writer really means “the so-called ‘New Deal.’

  6. One of my colleagues, also a retired priest, jumped the gun last week at a weekday Eucharist by commemorating Frances Perkins; he noted that he gives thanks for her ministry every month when he receives his Social Security check. And now so will I! Yes, the bio should specifically mention Social Security.

    The first clause of the collect is not only wordy and unwieldy, it is simply wrong. “The special vocation of the laity is to conduct the secular affairs of society that all may be maintained in health and decency”…. Yes, of course, that can be an important vocation for many lay people (and for some ordained persons as well, maybe especially for some deacons) but to talk about “the special vocation of the laity” is clericalist claptrap. Jack’s proposed rewrite is much much better.

    Cynthia’s point about “New Deal” is very well taken.

    The SSA bio is indeed well worth reading. Too long for our purposes, but we would do well to plagiarize some of it!

  7. While cabinet officers are nominated by and serve at the pleasure of the President, they are confirmed by the Senate and serve the nation as heads of their several departments. How about replace the first sentence of the bio with something like “Frances Perkins was the first woman to serve as an officer of the U. S. Cabinet.”
    The Department of Labor ( has this lovely quote “I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen” and this summary of her service, significant parts of which are lacking in the current write-up:
    “Frances Perkins became Secretary of Labor during the Great Depression when there were 13 million jobless — one quarter of the workforce. She moved quickly to help create and administer landmark legislation to lead the Nation out of its economic paralysis, including establishment of the U.S. Employment Service, a law guaranteeing the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, and the establishment of a minimum wage for the neediest. But most important of all, Frances Perkins directed the formulation and enactment of the Social Security Act — perhaps the most important piece of social legislation in U.S. history.”
    She’s definitely a keeper for HWHM, especially as the current governor of Maine seems intent on erasing her memory elsewhere:

  8. Colin Mathewson – I found and replied to a comment yesterday by clicking “comments” on the dark bar (next to “posts”) at the top right of the page. I can’t find my way back there unless that original comment or my reply happens to be listed on that same list (sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.) How do we get there otherwise? Thanks, -JFL

  9. I think this is the worst of the bios I have seen in the ten months during which I have been studying them.

    Many sources give the year of her birth as 1882.This needs to be researched carefully: did she “trim” a couple of years off her age?

    Other records give the date of her death as May 14. This should be carefully checked, and the commemoration should be moved to that date, if this is correct

    Why is this Holy Woman being brought forward before the customary fifty years have passed since her demise? Shouldn’t she be held back until 2015?

    Why is the date of her confirmation of sufficient significance to be included?

    Delete the “Journalism 101” first paragraph. The reasons for her selection here should be evident from the bio. (See below for a better place to record her distinction as the first woman to serve in the cabinet.).
    Line 1, second paragraph: substitute “on April10” for “in”.

    Line 2, second paragraph: substitute her Christian name (Frances) for the journalese “Perkins”.

    Line 3, third paragraph: this long sentence would be improved if it were ended with the confirmation account, and a new sentence begun: “She was a faithful..”..

    Line 2, fourth paragraph: add “a” after “and”.

    Line 3, fourth paragraph: substitute “drew” for the lazy, ugly “got”.

    Line 4, fourth paragraph: delete.the misplaced apostrophe in “governors”. (This is a plural, not a possessive.)

    Lines 1 & 2, fifth paragraph: rewrite as “When President Roosevelt appointed her Secretary of Labor, Frances became the first woman to serve in a cabinet post, in a position she would hold for twelve years..”

    Line 3, fifth paragraph: substitute “Frances had ” for “Perkins would have”.

    Line 4, fifth paragraph: delete “and” (only a comma is needed here)

    Line 1, sixth paragraph: delete “Perkins”.

    Lines 5 & 6, sixth paragraph: substitute “each month to” for the sloppy “on a monthly basis and”.

    Line 1, seventh paragraph: substitute “Frances” for “she”.

    Line 4, seventh paragraph: add “New York, on May 14,” after “in”.

    • Another thing is the way the verbs are expressed. Everything seems passive, intransitive, subjunctive (woulds…), or pluperfect (had). Very little is expressed as a simple, straightforward, historical, indicative, transitive, past tense assertion: i.e., — what she in fact DID.

      • Presumptuous or not, I took the liberty of playing with more direct verb forms, rearranging some data from the narrative, and adding some from another online source (which I have NOT fact-checked). This is meant simply to illustrate my comment above, about directly stated verbs as contrasted with verb forms hedged about with unnecessary auxiliary verb forms:
        Frances Perkins was born in 1880, in Boston, Massachusetts. She earned her undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College and her masters degree from Columbia University. As a young adult she embraced the Episcopal Church, becoming an outstanding, loyal and devout member and Christian. In 1913 she married Paul Caldwell Wilson, a marriage lasting 39 years until his death in 1952.
        Her professional career began In 1910, when she accepted leadership of the New York Consumers League, and soon witnessed the tragic death of more than 100 factory workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 in New York City. Later, as Industrial Commissioner, and then, in 1929, by appointment of Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, as Labor Commissioner of New York State, her efforts with improved safety regulations for workers earned her the respect of the country and the distinction of becoming the first female presidential cabinet member as Secretary of Labor for the United States of America, under President Roosevelt. She held that post for 12 years, until 1945, during which she created and supported policies such as minimum wage laws, Social Security, and New Deal legislation, all of which helped the nation emerge from its Great Depression. Afterwards, she served with the U.S. Civil Service Commission, then, until her death, lectured in the School of Industrial Relations at Cornell Univeresity advocating for social justice.
        Frances Perkins’ faith and her life of prayer provided strength to face the enormous problems of the time. During her years in Washington she made monthly retreats with the All Saints Sisters of the Poor, Catonsville, Maryland. She remained active in the Episcopal Church until her death. She died on May 14, 1965.

  10. Nice to see her here. I met her at an Episcopal function when I was at Cornell. Very lively, outgoing woman.

  11. My re-write seems flat. The original seems indirect and circuotous. I hope something better than either can be written.

  12. Frances Perkins

    COLLECT: Jack Z. and Bill M. are exactly right about the collect: Jack’s revision is a vast improvement. Still, I think “Loving God” as the invocation sidesteps the theological corrolary of the commemoration’s emphasis on work (and treatment of workers) or public service (shepherding of community, governing of society, stewardship of the nation, etc). Which is more germane, Labor,or Love?.
    The petition, though wordy and a bit grandiose, makes sense here (“Help us, following her example, to contend tirelessly for justice and for the protection of all in need,”) and it is good to see a “so that” clause, — but its completely generic drift (“that we may be faithful followers of Jesus Christ”) foregoes any specific tie with the commemoration’s characteristic content. The whole collect needs some “beauty of holiness.”
    PREFACE: Seems like the best available in BCP for the commemoration.
    READINGS: The Epistle is excellent, with emphasis on Industriousness, Truth (honesty) and Justice. Gospel also good – withdrawing for prayer, food/feeding, and Eucharist.
    The OT selections are weak. Lesson is about charity to the poor – not quite a bullseye for this commemoration. Psalm lacks a sense of context (because it’s a wrenched chunk of verses clawed off from the wholeness of the psalm), and is a polarizing eulogy of one group but a curse on the demonized contrasting group (by cursing their children). We can do far better than settling for this poor choice!
    GENERAL: I find this woman a powerful inspiration, but Nigel’s question stands, regarding waiving the “50 year rule” we arbitrarily ignore when convenient. Our pride and enthusiasm are running away with our principled judgment, and we seem to be just going along for the ride. Where is our corporate wisdom and discipline?

  13. Re 50-year wait: The mandatory wait will no doubt be up by the time this expanded feast book is at the press.
    Frances Perkins was a remarkable person, who lived her faith resolutely: she was the face of Christ to the laboring masses. Her estimable role in the Roosevelt Administration was but one aspect of her life as a holy woman, hard at work.

  14. I think this needs to be more specific about why she is being included. Many Presidents and other political figures have been Episcopalians — they aren’t included as holy . . . I don’t know why Frances Perkins is. Is every woman who is the first to be allowed to do something political also included? only if she is an Episcopalian? If Frances Perkins were not an Episcopalian would she be included?

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