Remembering Social Security's Forgotten Shepherd

FDR signs the SSA bill. Credit: Library of Congress. i i

President Franklin Roosevelt signs the Social Security bill into law. Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor and the first woman to hold a Cabinet-level post, stands just behind him. Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Library of Congress
FDR signs the SSA bill. Credit: Library of Congress.

President Franklin Roosevelt signs the Social Security bill into law. Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor and the first woman to hold a Cabinet-level post, stands just behind him.

Library of Congress
Frances Perkins at a SSA event. Credit: Social Security Administration History Archives. i i

Frances Perkins (right) at an event with Martha Carlson who, in 1938, received the 26 millionth Social Security number. In the enlargement, Social Security Board Chairman Arthur Altmeyer stands with them. Social Security Administration History Archives hide caption

itoggle caption Social Security Administration History Archives
Frances Perkins at a SSA event. Credit: Social Security Administration History Archives.

Frances Perkins (right) at an event with Martha Carlson who, in 1938, received the 26 millionth Social Security number. In the enlargement, Social Security Board Chairman Arthur Altmeyer stands with them.

Social Security Administration History Archives

Social Security Milestones

  • Aug. 14, 1935: Social Security Act signed into law
  • November 1936: First Social Security numbers issued
  • January 1937: Social Security taxes collected for the first time
  • 1939: Law changed to provide survivor benefits and benefits for the retiree's spouse and children
  • January 1940: Payment of regular monthly benefits begins
  • 1956: Disability benefits added
  • 1975: Cost of Living Allowances (COLAs) first paid
  • 1984: Congress, the president and vice president, federal judges, many federal employees and most political appointees begin paying into the program

Source: Social Security Administration

The Social Security program is one of President Franklin Roosevelt's most enduring legacies. On August 14 it will be 70 years since he signed the bill that brought Social Security to life.

Standing right behind him that day was Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor and the first woman to hold a Cabinet-level post. She was more than just window dressing for the ceremony. Perkins was the driving force behind this landmark legislation.

Biographer Penny Colman says Perkins — little-remembered today — loomed large in the political struggle to make Social Security a reality.

Perkins led the working team that created the Social Security plan, and steered the bill through Washington's treacherous political waters.

She was born on April 10, 1880, in Boston, Mass. She was educated at Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University, earning degrees in 1902 and 1910. Her masters from Columbia was in sociology.

She spent her life fighting for social reform and workers' rights. After a number of positions in New York, including working for then-Gov. Roosevelt, she was appointed secretary of labor in 1933. Perkins served 12 years, longer than other secretary of labor.

She followed her Cabinet years with a stint on the United States Civil Service Commission. She resigned in 1952, after the death of her husband.

Frances Perkins died 13 years later, in 1965.

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A Woman Unafraid

The Achievements of Frances Perkins

by Penny Colman

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