As women have expanded their power and ability to enact change, they have redefined their places in political office. They have served in the Presidential Cabinet, where each member promotes the interests of a specific issue or sector of government. Women have been promoted to roles in the foreign service, where they represent the nation abroad. The women that have worked in these positions have devoted themselves to the interests of others and promoting progress.
Facing the turmoil of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt built a team of leaders dedicated to returning prosperity to the country. Francis Perkins (1880-1965) was the perfect candidate, becoming the first woman appointed to a presidential cabinet. She had a reputation of successful work with labor groups, having spent 20 years improving working conditions in New York. As Secretary of Labor she was a vital force behind the Social Security Act of 1938, helping to create standards for minimum wage, working hours, worker safety, and unemployment benefits. She continued her work under President Truman as chair of the Civil Service Commission.
Patricia Harris (1924-1985) was raised to believe that education was the means for success. She graduated first in her class in the Howard University law school and began a long, distinguished career as a lawyer, educator and public administrator. At Howard, she served as dean and professor as well as President Kennedy’s appointed chairperson of the National Women’s Committee. Harris’ work continued as she became the first female African American U.S. ambassador and the first African American woman appointed to a presidential cabinet.
In 1927, Frances Willis (1899-1983) joined the Foreign Service, beginning a historic career. During her time as secretary in the U.S. legation in Stockholm in 1934, Frances assumed the responsibilities of the minister in his absence. Francis became the first U.S. woman to serve as a chief of missions abroad. She quickly rose through the ranks to become an ambassador, serving in places around the world and in the United Nations. She was an extraordinary diplomat who remained active even in retirement. She was honored by the U.S. Postal Service as one of five trailblazing diplomats in the Distinguished American Diplomats series.