When Kathleen Sebelius resigned recently as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and President Obama announced his intention to nominate Sylvia Mathews Burwell as her successor, it was just business as usual in our nation's capitol. Not that many years ago, however, it was rare to have even one woman in the cabinet. Let's learn about some early women who broke new ground and paved the way for others to be in the President's Cabinet.
The first female cabinet member, Frances Perkins, was appointed Secretary of Labor by Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in 1933. Perkins had been introduced to social reform issues while attending Mount Holyoke College. After her graduation, she taught in Chicago and became familiar with the new field of social work and the efforts undertaken by Jane Addams and others at Hull House. In 1911, she witnessed the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City in which 146 workers, mostly women, were killed. Perkins was appointed to New York Governor Al Smith's administration and continued to serve when FDR was elected governor. Perkins served as Secretary of Labor throughout all four of Roosevelt's terms as President. She said, "I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen." Perkins has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
A few years later, the only woman to serve in the cabinet of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Oveta Culp Hobby was the first Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (1952-1955). Hobby had cut her teeth earlier as the Director of the Women's Interest Section of the War Department, where she was paid $1 per year (1941). In 1942, Congress created the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps. Hobby became its director and the first women colonel in the U.S. Her challenges were many including recruiting, organizing and training women in a military environment. By the end of World War II, she had commanded 100,000 women at 200 posts throughout every theater of war operations. Hobby has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
The first woman named to two cabinet posts, Patricia Roberts Harris served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Secretary of Health and Human Welfare. She had many other firsts to her credit as well: first African-American woman to serve as an Ambassador (1965 - Luxembourg), the first African-American woman to become dean of a law school, and the first African-American woman to serve in a presidential cabinet. During her confirmation hearing, when asked if she could relate to the needs of the poor, Harris said:
"I am one of them. You do not seem to understand who I am. I am a Black woman, daughter of a dining-car worker. I am a Black woman who could not buy a house eight years ago in parts of the District of Columbia. I didn't start out as a member of a prestigious law firm, but as a woman who needed a scholarship to go to school. If you think that I have forgotten that, you are wrong."
Harris has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Like Patricia Roberts Harris, Janet Reno is also a woman of many firsts. The first U.S. Attorney General (1993, President Clinton), Reno was also the first woman to head a county prosecutor's office in Florida. Faced with many controversial decisions while serving as the U.S. Attorney General, Reno remembered the words of her mother "Good, better, best. Don't ever rest until good is better and better is best." Reno has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Like all of the women profiled in this article, Madeleine Albright, the first female Secretary of State, paved the way for other women. Escaping with her family from Czechoslovakia and emigrating to the U.S., Albright has made major contributions to American society. A leader in international relations, Albright has created policies and institutions in the U.S. and through her work at the United Nations and elsewhere to help the world become a more peaceful and prosperous place for all. Albright has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
These pioneering members of the President's Cabinet are among the more than 850 women profiled in the book Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. I am proud to stand on the shoulders of these groundbreaking women.