Frances Perkins and the New Deal

By Leah Jerome

Students will use primary and secondary resources to introduce themselves to the life and works of Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member who served as the Secretary of Labor.

Driving Question: How was Frances Perkins an architect of the New Deal and why has her legacy been largely forgotten?

Supporting Questions:

  • Who was Frances Perkins?
  • How did her experiences in the Progressive Era impact her view on labor and reform?
  • What was Perkins' vision for the New Deal?
  • What is Perkins's legacy?

45 minutes recommended

  1. Students will be able to identify the background of Frances Perkins and her legacy as a pioneering woman and an architect of the New Deal.
  2. Students will identify the pivotal role the Department of Labor played in addressing the economic challenges of the Great Depression.
  3. Students will understand the role of the presidential cabinet in informing executive decisions.

Students should have general U.S. history background, including history through the Progressive Era and the causes of the Great Depression. This lesson picks up with the New Deal unit. Students should know the causes of the Great Depression.



  • PowerPoint
  • Handout of questions for document analysis (questions are also reprinted in the lesson plan)


Primary and Secondary Sources:


Preparation: Teacher should load the PowerPoint and Handout onto a screen that students can see. If students will be annotating the documents online, teacher should share the links to the PowerPoint and handout. If the students are using pen and paper, teacher should print out enough copies of relevant documents in PowerPoint and handout so each group of three has copies of each.


Warm Up: (5 minutes)

As a warmup, students will be paired up with a partner. They will take 5 minutes to answer and discuss the following question before joining a large class discussion:

If you were Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 developing a plan to help people recover during the Great Depression, what type of people would you want to be part of your advisory team?

  • Students might come up with ideas like the following: people with backgrounds in labor unions to address worker needs, people who proved to be Progressive Era reformers, people with government/political expertise and experience, and people who think “outside the box.”
  • It will be interesting to see if the students come up with any qualities that define Frances Perkins.

To conclude the class discussion part of the warmup, tell students that today they will be introduced to one such figure Roosevelt kept by his side for 12 years, one of only 2 cabinet members to be selected for all 4 terms: Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.


Activity: (30 minutes total)

Ask students if they have ever heard of Frances Perkins. Most students will not know who she was or what her legacy is (2 minutes). Read the class Slide 3 of the PowerPoint for some basic background on Frances Perkins.

Students will view the video from NBC’s News Center Maine as a class.  (appx 8 minutes including brief discussion)

  • Think, pair, share: How did France Perkins’ background inform her work as an architect of the New Deal?

Divide into groups of three. All groups of three will be given the same three documents and the guiding questions for each document in a handout. Students will take 3 minutes to read and annotate each document before moving on to the next document based on the guiding questions. Consider modifying for more time if students need more time based on learning level.  (appx 10 minutes). This PowerPoint includes the documents.


Closing: (Final 10 minutes)

As a summary, the teacher will direct the Handout questions to the class for a group discussion. The questions should guide a discussion about Perkins’s background, influence, legacy, and impact. The questions are also reprinted below.

Document 1:

  1. As Frances Perkins reflects on the cause of the passage of Social Security, why do you think she credits the great depression to its passage?
  2. Do you think Social Security could have been passed in a different era? Why or why not?
  3. Secretary Perkins always considered Social Security one of her most important accomplishments. Based on what you know about her, why do you think this was so important to her?

Document 2:

  1. How do you think Perkins’s work during the Progressive Era impacted her vision for the New Deal?
  2. Why do you think Perkins was FDR’s choice for the Secretary of Labor?
  3. Of the reforms noted in this passage, what do you think was Secretary Perkins’s greatest legacy?

Document 3:

  1. Why do you think the Carter administration chose to dedicate the Department of Labor building to Frances Perkins? In doing so, what values does Jimmy Carter convey?
  2. What do you think President Carter meant by a “revolution of a change in habits”?
  3. What do you make of her being called “the best man in the cabinet”? How do you think she took it in the 1930s? What do you think about it today?



  • This lesson can be modified by adding more time for reading activities.
  • To reduce the amount of reading, students can each read one document and share their findings with their group.
  • The teacher might consider reading the documents out loud to help struggling readers.
  • Students can consider other “female firsts” in the position of the cabinet like Madeleine Albright (Secretary of State), Janet Reno (Attorney General), Kamala Harris (Vice President), and Deb Haaland (Secretary of the Interior), Janet Yellen (Secretary of the Treasury) to name a few.
  • As an extension, consider reading this article from NPR about the significance of incorporating Deb Haaland into the presidential cabinet as the Secretary of the Interior under the current administration. Is it important to include a Native American voice in this position?
Assessment / Homework

Students can apply what they learned to the current economic and political situation. They can consider what the role of government is in addressing economic woes.  Students can consider why the American president might want to diversify his/her cabinet with people of various backgrounds such as gender, ethnic background, religion, race, and other identifying elements. How do different perspectives in our highest positions of government determine policies and shape our country?


D4.2.9-12. Construct explanations using sound reasoning, correct sequence (linear or non-linear), examples, and details with significant and pertinent information and data, while acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of the explanation given its purpose (e.g., cause and effect, chronological, procedural, technical).

D4.1.9-12. Construct arguments using precise and knowledgeable claims, with evidence from multiple sources, while acknowledging counterclaims and evidentiary weaknesses.