Dana Frank grew up in Los Altos, California and graduated from what is now Mountain View High School in 1974. She attended the University of California, Santa Cruz, from which she received a B.A. in American Studies in 1978. In 1980 she moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to attend graduate school in American Studies at Yale University. She received her MA in 1982 and her Ph.D. in 1988, with an emphasis on US labor and women's history. She received the George Washington Eggleston Prize for best dissertation in US History. During her years at Yale she was active in solidarity work with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union representing Yale clerical, technical, and blue-collar workers; she also served on the Executive Board of the Union for Radical Political Economics. In 1987-88 she taught history at the State University of New York, Binghamton and from 1988-90 at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
In 1991 she returned to Santa Cruz to teach at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the American Studies Department (to 2002) and then History Department.
Frank’s research topics included but were not limited to U.S. social and cultural history, labor history, gender studies, working-class history and culture, comparative ethnic studies, contemporary political economy, and modern Central America.