Fannie Coralie Perkins was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 10, 1880. She was the daughter of Susan Bean Perkins and Frederick W. Perkins, the owner of a stationer's business. The family could trace their roots to colonial America, and the women had a tradition of work in education. She spent much of her childhood in Worcester, Massachusetts. Perkins attended the Classical High School in Worcester. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry and physics in 1902. While attending Mount Holyoke, Perkins discovered progressive politics and the suffrage movement. She was also named class president.
After college, she held a variety of teaching positions including a position teaching chemistry from 1904 to 1906 at Ferry Hall School (now Lake Forest Academy), an all-girls school in Lake Forest, Illinois. In Chicago, she volunteered at settlement houses, including Hull House where she worked with Jane Addams. She changed her name from Fannie to Frances when she joined the Episcopal Church in 1905. In 1907, she moved to Philadelphia and enrolled at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School to learn economics. After two years in Philadelphia, Perkins moved to Greenwich Village, where she attended Columbia University and became active in the suffrage movement. In support of the suffrage movement, Perkins attended protests, meetings, advocated for the cause on street corners. She obtained a master's degree in political science from Columbia in 1910.
She achieved statewide prominence as head of the New York Consumers League in 1910 and lobbied with vigor for better working hours and conditions. Perkins also taught as a professor of sociology at Adelphi College. The next year, she witnessed the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a pivotal event in her life. It was because of this fire Frances Perkins would leave her office at the New York Consumers League and, on the recommendation of Theodore Roosevelt, become the executive secretary for the Committee on Safety of the City of New York. In 1913, Perkins was instrumental in getting New York to pass a "fifty-four-hour" bill capping the number of hours women could work. Perkins pressed for votes for the legislation, encouraging proponents including legislator Franklin Delano Roosevelt to filibuster while Perkins called state senators to make sure they could be present for the final vote. In 1912, Perkins resigned as New York secretary of the Consumers League to take the position of executive secretary with the Committee on Safety. The Committee on Safety was formed to increase fire safety following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. As part of the Committee on Safety, Perkins investigated the fire at the Freeman plant in Birmingham, New York in which 63 people died. Perkins blamed lax legislation for the loss.
In 1913, Perkins married New York economist Paul Caldwell Wilson. She kept her maiden name because she did not want her activities in Albany to affect her husband, then the secretary to the New York City mayor. On February 18, 1919 Perkins was confirmed as a New York City commissioner, becoming one of the first female commissioners in New York. The state senate confirmed position made Perkins one of three commissioners overseeing the industrial code and was the supervisor of both the bureau of information and statistics and the bureau of mediation and arbitration. In 1929 the newly elected New York governor, Franklin Roosevelt, appointed Perkins as the inaugural New York State industrial commissioner. As commissioner, Perkins supervised an agency with 1,800 employees. Having earned the co-operation and the respect of various political factions, Perkins ably helped put New York in the forefront of progressive reform. She expanded factory investigations, reduced the workweek for women to 48 hours and championed minimum wage, and unemployment insurance laws. She worked vigorously to put an end to child labor and to provide safety for women workers.
In 1933, Roosevelt nominated Perkins as Secretary of Labor. The nomination was met with support from the National League of Women Voters and the Women's Party. The American Federation of Labor criticized the selection of Perkins because of a perceived lack of ties to labor. As Secretary, Perkins oversaw the Department of Labor, Perkins went on to hold the position for twelve years, longer than any other Secretary of Labor. She became the first woman to hold a cabinet position in the United States and thus became the first woman to enter the presidential line of succession. As Secretary of Labor, Perkins played a key role in the cabinet by writing New Deal legislation, including minimum-wage laws. Her most important contribution, however, came in 1934 as chairwoman of the President's Committee on Economic Security (CES). In this post, she was involved in all aspects of the reports, including her hand in the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the She-She-She Camps. Perkins also drafted the Social Security Act of 1935.
Following her tenure as Secretary of Labor, in 1945 Perkins was asked by President Truman to serve on the United States Civil Service Commission. Perkins left the Civil Service Commission in 1952, when her husband died. During this period, she also published a memoir of her time in FDR's administration called The Roosevelt I Knew, which covered her personal history with Franklin Roosevelt, starting from their meeting in 1910. Following her government service career, Perkins remained active as a teacher and lecturer at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University until her death in 1965 at age 85.