04/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Woman Who Got it Right

Today marks the 76th anniversary of Frances Perkins' nomination as Labor Secretary in Franklin Roosevelt's cabinet, and it's worth revisiting her distinguished career for insights into weathering our current economic crisis. Not only was she the first women ever nominated to serve in a president's cabinet, but she was also nominated to serve on a team tasked with guiding the country out of the worst economic depression in our nation's history. In 1933 our nation was well into the 3rd year of economic contraction in the Great Depression. When Perkins was appointed to President Roosevelt's cabinet, the civilian unemployment rate in America was 25.2 percent. Thankfully, we're nowhere near that level of unemployment, but the unrelenting job losses of the current crisis have seldom been seen since Perkins' day.

As Labor Secretary, Perkins helped enact crucial New Deal legislation: the first minimum wage, massive programs to put people back to work and enhance our infrastructure, standardized hours for workers, and the expanded right to organize a union. In 1934, she was appointed Chairwoman of the President's Committee on Economic Security. From this post she issued reports and conducted hearings that lead to the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935. She stayed alongside President Roosevelt throughout his entire 12-year Presidency. By the time she left the cabinet, in 1945, the unemployment rate had dropped to 1.9 percent.

Perkins is remembered today for her groundbreaking service to our country. The bold but necessary government initiatives she spearheaded guided our country out of a depression and into a generation-long period of economic expansion. Guided by the lessons of history, President Obama has taken quick action to address the three key problems in our economy today: job loss, the housing collapse, and failures in the financial system. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was a crucial first step in creating and saving jobs in the months and years ahead. The housing plan proposed by the President builds on the important work of Congress last year to keep families in their homes and stem the tide of foreclosures by reducing mortgage payments for families who are either underwater or at risk of losing their home. Finally, we are working to fix the Troubled Asset Relief Program by imposing new measures and conditions to strengthen accountability, oversight and transparency to the financial system.

Frances Perkins was undoubtedly smiling when Congress recently passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act - which was the first bill that our new President signed into law - guaranteeing women will finally be protected from gender discrimination on their pay checks. This lives up to Perkins' legacy of fighting for workers and fair pay. In this spirit, we now have the opportunity to strengthen worker's rights in hard economic times by taking action on the Employee Free Choice Act.

Perkins demonstrated by her deeds and words that an ailing economy should not be used as an excuse to push aside the long-term initiatives that would move our country forward. Instead, we should push forward - as she did, in the face of strong Republican opposition -- to rebuild our economy in a way that recognizes that workers make our economy grow, and their contributions to our general prosperity must be fairly rewarded. The best way we can honor the legacy of this remarkable American trailblazer is to remember the lessons she taught us.