The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience

 
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Frances Perkins is no longer a household name, yet she was one of the most influential women of the twentieth century. Based on eight years of research, extensive archival materials, new documents, and exclusive access to Perkins’s family members and friends, this biography is the first complete portrait of a devoted public servant with a passionate personal life, a mother who changed the landscape of American business and society.

Frances Perkins was named Secretary of Labor by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. As the first female cabinet secretary, she spearheaded the fight to improve the lives of America’s working people while juggling her own complex family responsibilities. Perkins’s ideas became the cornerstones of the most important social welfare and legislation in the nation’s history, including unemployment compensation, child labor laws, and the forty-hour work week.

Arriving in Washington at the height of the Great Depression, Perkins pushed for massive public works projects that created millions of jobs for unemployed workers. She breathed life back into the nation’s labor movement, boosting living standards across the country. As head of the Immigration Service, she fought to bring European refugees to safety in the United States. Her greatest triumph was creating Social Security.

Written with a wit that echoes Frances Perkins’s own, award-winning journalist Kirstin Downey gives us a riveting exploration of how and why Perkins slipped into historical oblivion, and restores Perkins to her proper place in history.

Amazon Exclusive: Kirstin Downey on Frances Perkins

Housing prices had been pumped up by crazy new kinds of loans, and foreclosures of homes and farms were surging as borrowers faltered under the payments. Companies had enjoyed record profits and ploughed the money into machinery designed to boost productivity, cutting their workforces. The unemployment rate skyrocketed. Companies slashed the wages of the remaining workers, and asked them to work longer and longer hours. And then Wall Street imploded as the stock market crashed.

This was the scenario Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced as he entered the presidency in 1933.

An era of rampant speculation had come to an end. A women stepped in to put things right.

FDR turned to a long-time friend for guidance about how best to proceed, and asked her to join his Cabinet as Secretary of Labor. The middle-aged woman, a social worker named Frances Perkins, had spent a lifetime preparing for the job. She had studied economic boom and bust cycles, and knew they were a recurring pattern in modern industrial economies. She had a vision for how to blunt the worst of the hardship that American families were suffering, until business recovered again on its own.

She proposed a system of unemployment insurance, so that when workers lost their jobs through no fault of their own, they would have some income to keep their families fed while they looked for new jobs. Senior citizens had lost their life savings as real estate values fell and the stock market tumbled, and they needed some sort of income support, some kind of social security, when they grew too old to work. Employed people were stumbling under long work hours. She advocated the creation of a 40-hour workweek and a minimum wage. Companies were hiring teenagers instead of adults to save money, and she thought the time was ripe to place new restrictions on child labor.

“Nothing like this has ever been done in the United States before,” she told him. “You know that, don’t you?”

Within weeks she would head to Washington, D.C. by his side. The challenges they would face would be great. The conservative Supreme Court, businessmen, free-market ideologues and even some labor leaders would oppose them. They would try to block her work. They would argue that the poor should be left to fend for themselves. They would savage Frances’s reputation, they would eventually try to impeach her.

But she would not give up.

Frances Perkins, the first woman to take a position in the top tier of federal government, would succeed. The institutions she created would help future generations cope with the recurring economic downturns that she had predicted would come again. Her extraordinary achievements make her one of the most influential women of the twentieth century, one whose legacy should be widely celebrated. --Kirstin Downey

(Photo ? Evan Giordanella)



Frances Perkins is no longer a household name, yet she was one of the most influential women of the twentieth century. Based on eight years of research, extensive archival materials, new documents, and exclusive access to Perkins’s family members and friends, this biography is the first complete portrait of a devoted public servant with a passionate personal life, a mother who changed the landscape of American business and society.

Frances Perkins was named Secretary of Labor by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. As the first female cabinet secretary, she spearheaded the fight to improve the lives of America’s working people while juggling her own complex family responsibilities. Perkins’s ideas became the cornerstones of the most important social welfare and legislation in the nation’s history, including unemployment compensation, child labor laws, and the forty-hour work week.

Arriving in Washington at the height of the Great Depression, Perkins pushed for massive public works projects that created millions of jobs for unemployed workers. She breathed life back into the nation’s labor movement, boosting living standards across the country. As head of the Immigration Service, she fought to bring European refugees to safety in the United States. Her greatest triumph was creating Social Security.

Written with a wit that echoes Frances Perkins’s own, award-winning journalist Kirstin Downey gives us a riveting exploration of how and why Perkins slipped into historical oblivion, and restores Perkins to her proper place in history.

Customer Reviews:

  • Road map for Obama
    The Amazing Frances Perkins, March 9, 2009

    Kirstin Downey has brought the life and times of one of our most important national heroes, Francis Perkins to a living contemporary icon.
    Perkins contributions through her works have given all of America a better chance for a higher quality of life. Taking the moral high road, combined with great intelligence and humanity, Perkins was able to guide the Social Security Act, Child Labor Laws, and Safety in the Work Place, unemployment insurance and minimum wage into reality. In her personal life she was forced to overcome extreme personal problems and adversity she made her life an important beacon to all who care for their fellow man. She downplayed her natural flirtatious and charming personality to be taken seriously in the world of all powerful men. But the book gives great insight into deep understanding FP had in the political world. It could be said that FP was a woman before her time, but I believe this book shows Francis Perkins to be a woman for all seasons and all times. She fought for the right, the underprivileged, and all peoples regardless of race or religion. Her work in the Economic Recovery Act could truly be a road map today for Osama. Eight years in the writing, and this book couldn't be more timely than today in our own desperate economic times

    ...more info
  • I'm glad someone wrote this book
    This book should have been written years ago. Really. Being Sec. of Labor for 13 years is a big deal and should be considered one. Unfortunately, Perkins is the butt of too many jokes in DC "in labor for 12 years and gave birth to nothing!" and that god-awful ugly building over 395.

    It's great to think that we once had someone better versed in social work than a lawyer as Sec. of Labor. Washington had a heart back then.

    The thing that bothered me about this book is that the author seems to have completely bought into the rivalry - albeit, one-sided - between Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt. I don't think Eleanor was aware of it. And I don't think it was a rivalry until later in life. There was then and is now, room for two prominent women, not just one. I don't think a comparison between a bureaucrat and a First Lady is an apt one. It's as if Eleanor Roosevelt is a dragon this author must slay to reveal Perkins' contribution. They had a lot of things in common.

    It was interesting to read of the ways that sexism affected her career. In unexpected ways, actually. I was saddened to read of Perkins' deliberate efforts to downplay her appearance. Her exclusion from cabinet social events - and her awkward inclusion in cabinet wives social events.

    I found the 1920s very interesting reading. The '20s were tough for both Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt. As Louis Howe once said, being in the White House was easy compared to the '20s for Eleanor. The same could be said of Perkins as Sec. of Labor.

    The discussion of the establishment of Social Security is a good read for those interested in the politics of today and the arguments over 'fixing' SS and broadening access to healthcare.

    The best part of this book is about the New York years while FDR was governor and a lot of the programs that would be associated with the New Deal were tested. It was also at this time that Perkins and Eleanor were in regular contact. Earl Miller - [Eleanor's handsome boytoy] noted to Joe Lash that Eleanor and Perkins "had a lot of huddles." Roosevelt's influence on FDR the governor was huge, hence Sam Rosenman's call to the Brains Trust "to get the pants off of Eleanor and onto Franklin."

    It had to have been tough for Perkins' star to fall as far as it did after the FDR admin and to see Roosevelt's continue to climb. Even today, the US has only so much room for women as leaders of any kind. But the author should not have followed Perkins' lead in this way. Perkins did enough in her own right under very difficult circumstances.

    The author also seems to buy into Perkins' disdain for Eleanor's path to political participation that was typical of women: no college, volunteer work, connections through husbands, etc. while praising Perkins' path which was more male in pattern - college, job, breadwinner, etc. Anyone who has read Susan Ware's work wouldn't find this dichotomy [I hate that word] fair to either Roosevelt or Perkins. Each had different opportunities and burdens. There's really no comparison and the comparison is fair to neither, but, because they're both women, they are often compared. Perkins was a bureaucrat and Roosevelt became a politician. A comparison of Perkins to Ickes is more relevant. Ickes' responsibilities got wider every year and he saw FDR socially-both points provide a relevant contrast to Perkins' relationship with FDR.

    Eleanor had to walk a political tightrope that Perkins did not. Eleanor also got spread out a lot thinner in having to accommodate FDR's needs and schedule and those of their unruly spawn and the improvisational nature of work/responsibilities that fell to her - such as dealing with scientists working on the atomic bomb. I was glad to read somewhere - not here I don't think - that Perkins credited Roosevelt with the fact that the press never asked her about her husband. Evidently, in looking back, she decided that Roosevelt must have given them a 'heads up' about the situation.

    The author also misses the point that BOTH Perkins and Roosevelt in many ways got somewhat marginalized by the war.

    FDR was straight with neither - and no one else for that matter - telling Perkins he wanted her to stay but taking authority from her on a regular basis, making fun of her in notes at cabinet meetings, etc. FDR also made no effort whatsoever to protect her during the Harry Bridges controversy. He should have done so. Morgenthau seems to have had a clearer take on FDR's manipulative nature.

    It is, however, really stretching it to say Perkins authored the New Deal and the author does Perkins no favors by making this claim. The New Deal was very improvisational and, overall, very male. Male cabinet members went on train trips and fishing trips with FDR, not Perkins. Hopkins, Ickes, Tugwell, Will Alexander, Aubrey Williams, etc. could make this claim as easily, if not better.

    No, one, person had that much influence on FDR. Eleanor knew that and admitted it, so it's a stretch to say that of anyone else.

    Nevertheless, this book makes an important contribution and could not have come at a better time. Once again, we have a progressive woman at the Dept. of Labor. Here's hoping she's got a little of Frances Perkins in her.

    ...more info
  • The Woman Behind the New Deal
    The book arrived in exactly the condiiton that the seller had mentioned - slight damage to a page - so overall, I was happy with the purchase. I would make a purchase from this seller again, as they appear to be honest....more info
  • Great book of a forgotten heroine...
    As a big fan of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I am well aware that his secretary of labor was Frances Perkins, the first woman in a cabinet post. But I never realized until I read Kirstin Downey's "The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience" how much Perkins influenced the policies of FDR.

    Perkins was the most interesting woman. She obtained not just a college education but also a master's degree when many women didn't even finish high school. She started out as a social worker and latched on to Hull House, a situation that she considered "life-changing." The tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire helped to change her focus to labor issues, and she realized that politicians were needed "to correct social problems." She began working with Al Smith and went to Albany, NY when he became governor. When Smith ran for president and Roosevelt took over the governor's mansion, she then started working with FDR. When FDR became president and he asked Perkins to sign on as labor secretary, she rattled off a list of labor demands that she insisted he support. "She ticked off the items: a forty-hour workweek, a minimum wage, worker's compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service, and health insurance." She realized that "She was proposing a fundamental and radical restructuring of American society, with enactment of historic social welfare and labor laws." FDR pledged to back her, and Perkins took the job.

    Downey does an admirable job of bringing Perkins to life, starting with her early childhood and following her through her long public career. She also details how Perkins and Roosevelt developed a working and flirtatious friendship and mutual respect. At first, Perkins felt that FDR possessed a "streak of vanity and insincerity." His contracting polio caused a fundamental change in Roosevelt that caused him to be "more approachable, kinder, more introspective, and Frances found herself warming to him." Still, the ever-loyal Perkins was often not supported by FDR in many situations--especially when she was impeached.

    In many ways, Perkins' life was a tragic life. Her husband had to be hospitalized for much of their married life with depression. Her daughter also developed bi-polar disorder and depression when she reached college age. They were estranged for long periods of time. Even though she was brilliant, many men were against her (even fellow cabinet members) because she was a woman. But the religious Perkins looked proudly on the many things she accomplished as labor secretary. In fact, she managed to bring about almost everything on her list except for health care (something that still hasn't been resolved in 2009). But even her accomplishments bring some sadness in that most people who enjoy the benefits of her labors don't even know her name.

    I thoroughly enjoyed The Woman Behind the New Deal and it will be a great book to add to my Roosevelt collection.


    ...more info
  • A Much Deserved Recognition for a Truly Remarkable Woman
    I was moved beyond comprehension after reading "The Woman Behind The New Deal". Kirstin Downey's presentation of her life gave it character, substance and brought into focus the magnificent talents of a woman who gave so much and yet received so little. The many Federal programs she envisioned and brought to fruition live on with us today,and they are a testament to her memory. The unswerving dedication, loyalty and prescient observations did not warrant the innuendoes and verbal abuses she received from her male colleagues. She had to endure this and much more in a country, at the time, ravaged with sexism, racism and chauvinism.

    As I initially began to read the book, I was nonchalant as I read page after page and then, by page 50, I was vividly jolted to learn that this was an awesome woman! For the next three days, I went along with "Frances" on her journey--feeling her pain, languishing in her sorrows, rejoicing in her triumphs. I remember Frances Perkins from past readings but became reacquainted with her in Kirstin's book,which provided a more in-depth history of her achievements and her remarkable accomplishments.

    I think Frances Perkins would be pleased and proud of the manner in which Kirstin Downry portrayed her life.I know I am.

    Bruce E. McLeod, Jr.
    Las Vegas, Nevada...more info
  • The Life of Frances Perkins -- A Pleasant But Not Very Scholarly Biography
    Perhaps more than any other single member of FDR's Administration Frances Perkins, the nation's first female Secretary of Labor, was responsible for the creation of Social Security, unemployment compensation and other New Deal programs that have so benefited generations of workers, the elderly and the infirm. Yet there is no definitive biography of this transformative American progressive activist. The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins by Kirstin Downey is a well-written, engaging sketch of Ms. Perkins' life and of the creation of the New Deal. Ms. Downey, who is a journalist and not an historian, writes in a chatty journalistic style that relies far too much on personal reminiscences and memoirs rather than on primary sources. The result is a very good introduction to Ms. Perkins and her times but skips far too lightly over the details of policymaking during the Roosevelt Administration. Also, Perkins is no longer the central figure in the book after World War II begins, because war policy and foreign relations were out of her domain. As a result, Ms. Downey winds up straining to find something relevant to say about Perkins after about 1940. It would have been better if she had chosen to focus more intensively on Perkins' pivotal role in the early New Deal and skip much more lightly over the war years. Finally, this biographical sketch is a clear product of the "great man" - or in this case, woman - school of history. For example, Ms. Downey is far too charitable in her defense of Perkins' work screening federal employees for Communist connections during the postwar witch hunts for leftist New Dealers. If you don't mind a book that borders on hagiography and avoids any detailed analysis of the development of Roosevelt's social programs, you can do far worse than this. But if you are waiting for a definitive biography of Frances Perkins, you must continue to wait....more info
  • We could use a few more women like her now
    This was a pleasant surprise. I had predicted that it would be an average biography. I'd like to see Merle Streep act in this role if it is ever made into a movie. ...more info
  • I'll read this book again
    Seldom do I read political books more than once,and often I don't read every chapter. But The Woman Behind the New Deal is hard to put down. Frances Perkins was a complicated woman - pleasant on the outside, tough on the inside. As Secretary of Labor and the first woman cabinet member she had to be. Well-grounded in the lives and problems of working people, she was a valuable advisor to the president, and usually got him on her side when she wanted to make politically risky changes.

    Frances and Roosevelt were close. They advised and trusted each other, and Frances spoke bluntly when she needed to. Her efforts greatly improved the lives of working people. Social Security was her most significant accomplishment.

    Today Frances' work is imperiled by right wing ideologs who will destroy even Social Security if we let them. Read this book and you will understand the importance of Frances Perkins' work and what we need to learn from the first Great Depression....more info
  • The Raw Deal
    This book presents the premise that F.D.R. saved us from the depression with social programs(THE NEW DEAL).
    Nothing could be further from the truth.
    F.D.R. actually prolonged the depression,but made a brilliant political move for the democratic party.
    The event that brought us out of the depression was world war two.
    I have to give F.D.R. and the democratic party credit,they know how to get and keep voters....more info
  • Very Readable With A Message
    Kristin Downey's biography of Frances Perkins is an extremely readable insight into the New Deal and provides a unique perspective of how life was for working women for most of the 20th Century. It also provides a unique look at FDR. The contributions made by Frances Perkins are extremely important to every American, but yet they have all but been forgotten. Her dedication to her husband and daughter show a woman who was deeply devoted to home and family but was largely wanting for both. This is a biography that I would strongly recommend to anyone who is interested in the New Deal while it also provides many insights into the economic problems of today. ...more info
  • Frances Perkins: A Woman Ahead of her Time?
    Kristen Downey's biography of Frances Perkins reveals Perkins as a serious activist for social justice causes born out of her early experiences as a student, intern, and community organizer. That she would also become an architect of the New Deal legislation and a major policy developer is a testament to her vision, intellect, determination and social skills. Like many women who have followed her in history, her personal struggle to balance life and career was a private anguish, but a personal story that will ring familiar to many women today....more info
  • Gives a fully rounded portrait of this complex woman and makes a good case for her relevance in today's world
    In this age when Presidential cabinet members come and go almost with the frequency of auto salesmen, several generations of politics watchers have grown up pretty much ignorant of the name Frances Perkins.

    Her time in the national spotlight was brief --- the 12 years of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. As FDR's Secretary of Labor she was especially prominent during the years 1933-1940, when domestic concerns were on the front burner and she played a leading role in pushing for such causes as the Social Security Act, wage and hour laws, immigration reform, workplace safety, the right of workers to organize, pensions, welfare and old-age insurance. When World War II erupted, she was less often in the news but still active in matters like pushing for admission of Jewish refugees into the U.S. As the first woman ever to serve in a President's cabinet, she was subject to blatant sexist attitudes and scurrilous rumors not only from know-nothing outsiders but also from her own colleagues in government.

    Author Kirstin Downey was perhaps too young to have known anything about Perkins at first-hand, but she has done a thorough job of bringing this determined yet personally complex woman to life for a new audience. She shows how Perkins's complex character was molded by early revolt against her family background and by a conscious strategy of working with "imperfect people" to attain ends she thought important. Downey is sympathetic toward her subject's sly tactic of first studying closely the people she wanted to use, then playing up to them in ways that helped her get things done.

    She had a gift for ingratiating herself with people who could help her. She was an early associate of Jane Addams and Al Smith. Sinclair Lewis wanted to marry her, and when Franklin Roosevelt came into her orbit, she played him as a great pianist plays a Steinway, feeding him ideas and plans and usually letting him take credit for carrying them out. Downey calls her FDR's "moral conscience," which seems in hindsight only a very slight exaggeration. Downey's portrait of FDR meshes closely with those drawn by other writers: a cagey operator who gave you the impression of agreeing to your ideas, then went his own often different way.

    Frances was not Perkins's real name. She was born Fanny Coralie Perkins in Boston in 1880, but during her college years she changed her first name as a calculated stratagem for getting on in the world. She also shaved two years off her age, a move that came back to haunt her later when critics came howling after her, hatchets in hand. Her zeal for improving the lot of working people was awakened in 1911 when she was an eyewitness to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York, in which 146 people died mainly because the company had locked the exit doors they might have used. When governor-elect Roosevelt of New York offered her a post on the State Industrial Commission, it set her course for life and began her long association with the future President.

    Downey does not downplay Perkins's shortcomings --- her intense dislike of the press, burning ambition and personal secretiveness. The book also lays bare the scars Perkins earned from her difficult personal life with a husband immobilized for many years by severe mental illness, and a wrenchingly dysfunctional relationship with her only child, Susanna, herself a victim of mental illness. Downey also gives in occasionally to the urge to smother her story in too much detail --- and perhaps in a bow to modern sensibilities, she suggests subliminally that there may have been lesbian tendencies at work in Perkins's close relationships with several women.

    Downey may not be a totally unbiased biographer, but her book does give a fully rounded portrait of this complex woman and makes a good case for her relevance in today's world, 44 years after Perkins's death. Women have come a long way over those 44 years in politics and in life in general; THE WOMAN BEHIND THE NEW DEAL gives a vivid idea of what they had to go through to get to where they now are.

    --- Reviewed by Robert Finn...more info