Blog Emerging Gender Topics in Public Administration

From the Margin to the Center

By: DeLysa Burnier

Immy Humes, a documentary filmmaker, recently published The Only Woman (2022), a fascinating visual study of gender in/equality. Her book features 100 photographs, dating from 1862 to the present, all of which show “one woman” surrounded by men. The women are writers, artists, activists, revolutionaries, politicians, educators, musicians, entertainers, scientists, athletes, journalists, doctors, lawyers, and industrial workers from 20 countries. Some of the women are well-known historical and contemporary figures, but many are women whose names and accomplishments have been long forgotten with the passage of time.

I found Humes’s project intriguing because Frances Perkins, one of the subjects in my chapter for The Handbook on Gender and Public Administration (2022), was “the only woman” in the photograph for twelve years as the first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet. President Franklin Roosevelt appointed her Secretary of Labor in 1932 and she served until his death in 1944. Selected for her experience in New York state government and her expertise in social welfare and employment policy, Perkins was charged by Roosevelt with the task of developing key pieces of New Deal legislation. She was the primary architect of the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act that citizens still depend upon today. These laws established old-age insurance, unemployment compensation, welfare, federal assistance for blind and disabled citizens, the eight-hour workday, overtime, and the minimum wage.

When Humes’s book arrived, I was pleased to see that she had included “an only woman” photograph of Perkins. Taken in 1939, the photograph shows Perkins with six men in a group standing outside on what appears to be the steps of the White House portico. The men stand on two steps behind Perkins, wearing nearly uniform clothing of winter overcoats, white shirts, ties, and hats. Perkins, however, stands alone on a lower step wearing a coat with her signature tricorne hat and pearls. She is clutching gloves in her hands and a purse filled with papers. She seems symbolically to be of the government but not fully, in the same way she is of the group but not fully. That she is depicted looking in the opposite direction from her male colleagues only reinforces her separateness and distance from them.

Although Perkins was the only woman in Roosevelt’s cabinet, she was not the only woman in Roosevelt’s Administration. For the first time, there was a large network of women in important leadership and administrative positions throughout the federal government. Like Perkins, they had been working for years through settlement houses, local and state agencies, and nonprofits to embed social justice, equity, and care in public policy and administrative practices. Roosevelt’s presidency gave these women, as well as men who shared their social justice commitments, the opportunity to transform federal domestic policy.

Critical to this network was Jane Addams, the co-founder of Hull House in Chicago, Illinois. Addams, the second subject in my Handbook chapter, mentored and inspired Perkins and many other women administrators through her care-centered leadership approach and her belief that government at all levels must commit to meeting ordinary citizens’ needs. Addams pioneered a care-centered approach to leading that emphasized relationality, viewing situations from multiple perspectives, learning from others, and cooperative problem solving. Hers is a perspective that emphasizes contextual, concrete knowledge in policy and administrative practice, as well as values such as attentiveness, responsibility, competence, and responsiveness. As I note in my chapter, retrieving Addams’s and Perkins’s stories “is important because it enables contemporary scholars, practitioners and students who share their values to understand that they too are part of a long historical tradition in public administration” (p. 63).

Just as women historically were so often the “only one” in the photograph, it is also the case that for years books, symposia, and handbooks in public administration typically included one chapter on gender. Slowly and steadily public administration’s “gender scholarship picture” changed so that one chapter or article has become many. The Handbook represents the culmination of this change. Its editors, Patricia M. Shields and Nicole M. Elias, gathered some 40 scholars to write 27 chapters that explore the “theoretical and historical roots” of gender in public administration, the “pillars of public administration,” and different “contexts of gender and public administration.” The scholarly picture that emerges is diverse, intersectional, and global. Many different theoretical and analytical frameworks are represented, and the chapters themselves range across multiple topics relating to gender. The presence of this project sends a signal to the larger public administration scholarly community that women, more specifically, gender issues no longer belong alone on the margin.


Burnier, D. (2022). The long road of administrative memory: Jane Addams, Frances Perkins and care-centered administration. In P. Shields & N. Elias (Eds.), Handbook on Gender and Public Administration (pp. 53-67). Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Humes, I. (2022). The Only Woman. New York: Phaidon Press.

Shields, P. & N. Elias. (Eds.) (2022). Handbook on Gender and Public Administration. Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

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About the author:

DeLysa Burnier is a professor of political Science at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.  She received her Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her current research interests are gender and public administration, gender and leadership, teaching pedagogy, interpretive approaches to policy analysis, and public administration during the New Deal. Specifically, her work is focused on the development of a care-centered approach to public administration. Her research appears in Administration & Society, Public Administration Review, Administration Theory and Praxis, Journal of Public Affairs Education, and Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. Earlier scholarship appears in Economic Development Quarterly, Political Research Quarterly, Feminist Teacher, and Journal of Urban Affairs. She serves on the editorial board for Administrative Theory & Praxis. Additionally, she has published several book chapters, and was the recipient of two national grants in the areas of campaign finance and political advertising.