National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman in the United States to hold a cabinet post, served throughout Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, becoming a leading advocate and author of New Deal legislation. Will Cotton's pastel muses playfully on the position of a professional woman in a man's world. Perkins devised her trademark costume-black hat, dark suit, and string of pearls-in order to appear formal, ladylike, and unthreatening. Cotton juxtaposes her pale, small face against a looming, earth-toned image of a laborer, but with her hand casually draped between mallet and cogwheel, Perkins confidently dominates the picture. The pink of her lipstick resonates with the red shirt behind her, perhaps gently hinting at the Communist sympathies some critics implied. But Cotton's portrait, commissioned by Vanity Fair in the mid-1930s, is more a spoof of her careful avoidance of gender stereotypes.