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Frances Perkins 18801965
Will Cotton's pastel of Frances Perkins, commissioned by Vanity Fair in the mid-1930s, muses playfully on the position of a professional woman in a man's world. When Franklin Roosevelt appointed Perkins secretary of labor in 1933, she became the first female in American history to hold a cabinet post. Serving throughout Roosevelt's presidency, Perkins became a leading author and advocate of New Deal legislation.

The hat, black suit, and string of pearls was a trademark costume that Perkins contrived to appear formal, ladylike, and unthreatening. Juxtaposed against the looming figure of a laborer, Perkins appears pale and delicate, but her assured gaze and casual pose suggest confidence. The pink of her lipstick resonates with the red shirt behind her, perhaps hinting of the Communist sympathies that her critics implied. Cotton's spoof of Perkins's carefully negotiated stance between male and female stereotypes never appeared in Vanity Fair, which folded in 1936 shortly after this portrait was drawn.

William Henry Cotton (18801958)
Pastel on illustration board, circa 1935
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
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