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

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

4.2 19
by Kirstin Downey

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

No individual-not even Eleanor Roosevelt-exerted more influence over the formulation of FDR's New Deal or did more to implement the programs than Frances Perkins (1880-1965). As former Washington Post staff writer Downey makes plain in this deeply researched biography, the first female Cabinet member was the primary shaper of such new concepts as unemployment insurance, the 40-hour work week and-last but not least-Social Security. At a time when the United States stands at the brink of another economic meltdown calling for sweeping federal interventions, Downey provides not only a superb rendering of history but also a large dose of inspiration drawn from Perkins's clearheaded, decisive work with FDR to solve urgent problems diligently and to succeed in the face of what seemed insurmountable odds. Confronting family issues-a frequently institutionalized husband with severe psychiatric problems; a deeply secret lesbian relationship with Mary Harriman Rumsey (sister of Averell Harriman); a daughter from whom she was often estranged-Perkins nevertheless exhibited tireless grace under pressure again and again, always rising to the occasion in the name of every and any progressive cause. (Mar. 3)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

The public recognition of historical figures ebbs and flows, not least for women who succeeded during times of rampant sexism; often, their popularity dwindles once interest has died down. With issues of sexism rising again, women who broke glass ceilings are now being reconsidered. Take Frances Perkins, one of FDR's confidants and the first female secretary of labor in U.S. history. In the late 1970s, a handful of Perkins biographies appeared, most notably George Martin's Madam Secretary, and now we have Downey's adept psychobiography. Like many biographers, Downey (Washington Post) is enamored of her subject. But her fascination serves her well, allowing her to construct an intriguing catalog of Perkins's achievements and explore the influences that held sway in her life, a psychological approach lacking in previous Perkins biographies. Here Perkins's triumphs and tragedies are compiled into a compelling narrative that never loses its scholarly touch. Recommended for larger public libraries and academic libraries.
—Suzan Alteri

Kirkus Reviews
Pultizer Prize-winning journalist Downey deconstructs the life of a passionate labor advocate who became the nation's first female Cabinet member. Frances Perkins (1880-1965) had clearly delineated goals: reasonable working hours and wages, fire safety, improved working conditions and the end of child labor. Displaying the fortitude and prescience that carried her through three decades of public service, she outlined these during her first meeting with FDR. After being named his Secretary of Labor, she went on to accomplish reform of unprecedented scope. The 40-hour workweek, unemployment insurance and Social Security are but a few of her legacies; her storied relationship with FDR is another. Making excellent use of personal papers and of archival materials that include a 5,000-page oral history, Downey allows Perkins to narrate much of the text, giving new life to this often overlooked historical figure. FDR saw something special in Perkins, and his confidence and support helped her endure years of sexism from fellow Cabinet members and unwarranted criticism from the press. She developed keen insight into the process of successful lawmaking and established a deliberately staid work persona as a "plain, sturdy, dependable woman" that allowed her to exert authority and demand respect on her own terms. Married to a man institutionalized with mental illness, she kept her unhappy personal life out of the papers and away from Washington, stifling her emotions and dedicating herself fully to the country's problems. At times it seemed that FDR involved her in every major policy decision. Perkins essentially authored the New Deal; she handled immigration during the onset of World War II,bending rules to harbor German Jews; she worked to establish fair hearings against suspected communists. Her entire career was devoted to the principals she espoused in 1913: "It is human life and happiness which we are trying to save . . . this is the most important thing." As a progressive president again takes office in a time of economic crisis, Perkins offers a vital role model. Fascinating, if academic portrayal of an inspiring legislator and reformer.
From the Publisher
"Downey provides not only a superb rendering of history but also a large dose of inspiration drawn from Perkins's clearheaded." ---Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.60(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.32(d)

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Chapter 1
Childhood and Youth

Fannie Coralie Perkins knew by the age of ten that she would never be a conventional beauty, that unlike many women of her day she could not rely on physical attractiveness to open doors to her future. Her mother, Susan Bean Perkins, delivered the message when she took her daughter shopping for a hat. It was 1890, and the day's fashionable hats were slim and narrow, festooned with colorful ribbons and topped with flowers and feathers that added inches to a woman's height.

Susan Perkins passed by the pretty hats and pointed instead to a simple three-cornered tricorn style, similar to the ones worn by Revolutionary War soldiers.

"There, my dear, that is your hat," she told the girl in a matter-of-fact way. "You should always wear a hat something like this. You have a very broad face. It's broader between the two cheekbones than it is up at the top. Your head is narrower above the temples than it is at the cheek bones. Also, it lops off very suddenly into your chin. The result is you always need to have as much width in your hat as you have width in your cheek bones. Never let yourself get a hat that is narrower than your cheekbones, because it makes you look ridiculous."1

The hat would come to symbolize the plain, sturdy, and dependable woman who became Frances Perkins, and the mother's blunt advice to an awkward young girl left a lasting impression. From her earliest days, Fannie felt strangely out of step with the women of her time, her mother and sister included. She realized that rather than beauty, she must find other qualities and skills to set her apart, to help her achieve her idealistic goals. The dour-looking figure in the tricornered hat-the image seen throughout the years in filmstrips and photographs--disguised a woman whose intelligence, compassion, creative genius, and fierce loyalty made her an exceptional figure in modern American history.

Her mother's verdict on her looks, seared in memory for life, almost certainly overstated the case, for pictures from the time depict a child romantic in appearance, with long curls and a thoughtful look. Still it became fact that when people spoke of Frances Perkins, they almost always spoke of her character, not her outward appearance.

Fannie Perkins was born on April 10, 1880, on Beacon Hill, a few blocks from Boston Common, but her birthplace was almost a technicality. The place she considered home was where she spent her childhood summers, with her beloved grandmother at a homestead pioneered in the early 1700s by her great-great grandfather.

It was perched on a sweeping bend of the Damariscotta River in Newcastle, Maine, at a site filled with historic debris grown over into green meadows, sprawling over hundreds of acres to a place known as Perkins Point. Frances played amid the rubble pile left from the old stockade, erected in the years when families defended themselves against Indian attacks, and among the remains of discarded, half-baked bricks, reminders of the family's riverfront brick-making factory, which had made the family wealthy for a short time.

Perkins bricks had built many of the buildings in downtown Newcastle and as far away as Boston. The boom came in the 1840s. But the business failed a decade later after Boston financiers bought out the brick production of a number of local companies, including the Perkins operation, and merged them into a single corporation. The new business owners arranged for a large order from the Newcastle area to Halifax, Nova Scotia; the bricks were shipped, only to have the financiers disappear with the money. Every area brickyard went bankrupt. Afterward, all that remained of the once-prosperous Perkins business was the family home, built by their own hands, known as the Brick House.2

The family looked back at its glorious past while its present went to seed. By the 1870s, the decade before Fannie's birth, the family had turned to dairy farming for its sustenance. Her father, Frederick, blue-eyed, fine-boned, and refined, educated as a member of the upper class, had married Susan Bean, plump and down-to-earth, a woman from another old Maine family who was admired locally for her skills at animal husbandry. Soon Frederick was pining for a better life for himself and his family. He and Susan moved to Boston, where his brother Augustus had established a law practice. Frederick took a job as a retail clerk at a Boston department store. That was where Fannie was born, at a house on Joy Street.

But Frederick found his prospects in Boston unpromising. In 1882, he moved his family, this time to a fast-growing and gritty industrial city, Worcester, Massachusetts, some forty miles west of Boston. It was a place where a newcomer could afford to launch a business of his own. With a partner, George S. Butler, he opened a stationery and office supply store, prospering as the city's business base developed. In 1884, when Fannie was four years old, Frederick and Susan had a second child, Ethel.

Fannie grew up middle-class in Worcester, a shopkeeper's daughter. While her father built his business, they lived in boardinghouses before finally settling into a comfortable frame house in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. Staunch Congregationalists, they were faithful churchgoers.3

The family nonetheless thought of their ancestry as storied and heroic, and with some reason. The most dramatic family tales came from a paternal grandmother, Cynthia, who was born in 1809 and lived to be 101. Fannie's tightest family bond was to this woman, who had endless aphorisms about how people should behave when they faced adversity. In her adult life, Fannie frequently referred to her grandmother's witticisms, particularly when facing difficult decisions. She came to pride herself on the "Yankee" values they shared--self-reliance, democratic beliefs, tenacity, physical endurance, contempt for complainers, and a tendency to be close-mouthed, particularly about people and things she held most dear.

Their ancestors were Scotch and English Protestants who arrived in the colonies before 1680, landing first in the Pilgrim settlement of Scituate, Massachusetts, before making their way to Maine. Even Fannie's voice, with its rich and rather British-sounding New England accent, with long A's and dropped R's, carried faint echoes of that original Anglo-American heritage.

Wending their way through the Perkinses' family tree were strains of brilliance, traces of manic depression, and a propensity for acts of public altruism that cost the doers dearly--all key characteristics in Frances's personality as well. The family was particularly proud of one glorious and tragic ancestor, attorney James Otis, the incendiary Revolutionary War patriot who famously railed against "Taxation Without Representation" when he denounced that system as tyranny. Otis was clubbed in the head by a British officer--an injury from which he never fully recovered. Future president John Adams described Otis's disintegration with sadness, observing in his diary that Otis became "liable to great inequities of temper, sometimes in despondency, sometimes in rage."_4

The Civil War was also more than a chapter in a textbook to young Fannie--and provided even more proof of the risks of public participation in political life. Cynthia's cousin General Oliver Otis Howard visited the summer Fannie was fifteen. Howard had lost his right arm at the battle of Fair Oaks in Virginia, and Fannie was drafted into service as his scribe, a chore she found tedious at the time but that she would later vividly remember. Howard had founded Howard University in Washington and became chief of the Freedmen's Bureau, where his efforts on behalf of blacks led to criticism and censure by southern sympathizers. He was pilloried in Washington, falsely accused of misusing funds, and hounded from office, but the family admired him.5

Fannie was an exceptional child, unusually verbal and articulate, and she discovered that she had more in common with her father than with the other members of her immediate family. As a teenager, Fannie had little to say to her mother and sister. Her sister, Ethel, was a moody girl who was uninterested in academic pursuits. She took ill as a teenager, and completed high school only with the help of a tutor. She soon turned her attention to her marriage prospects. Her mother, basically kindly but plain-spoken and peppery to the point of abrasiveness, didn't grasp what a remarkable child she had in Fannie. She was stultifyingly conventional. Fannie's affection for both these women was dutiful rather than heartfelt.

Fannie's father must have been lonely in his marriage. Frederick, handsome and elegant, and Susan, portly and stolid, were ill suited to each other. Susan must have seemed a good choice of wife at the time of their marriage, when he was trying to make a living at dairy farming, but when he opted for another life in Massachusetts, the two seemed to have grown irrevocably apart. He clearly preferred spending time with Cynthia, his mother, who shared his interest in U.S. history, rather than with his wife, who occupied her free time with handicrafts, including painting pottery.

He focused particular attention on his precocious daughter, Fannie. He taught the child to read Greek when she was eight and he began to prepare her for college. At the time, only 3 percent of women went on to higher education. Fannie attended Worcester Classical High School, along with other affluent children, most of them boys. Students learned the traditional curriculum, including Latin and Greek.6

Fannie therefore had an unusual childhood for the time. It was a conservative era, with a string of Republican presidents predominating in politics and straightlaced Queen Victoria on the throne in England. Women were expected to be highly circumspect, protected, and closeted. Even Fannie's parents were conflicted about the way they were raising the girl. They were proud of her intelligence but ambivalent about what the future might hold for an educated woman.

Yet new ideas about giving women a broader social role were creeping into public consciousness, and Fannie's father was a fair-minded man. While on a business trip, he attended an evening lecture on women's suffrage delivered by Anna Howard Shaw, the militant physician and orator. He called it "magnificent" and came back home a convert to the idea that women should have the right to vote.7

Even as a girl Fannie showed qualities that would propel her forward in her adult life. When she was very young, she tended to be bashful in public, at times too timid to exchange a few words while returning a library book. She preferred to allow others to take center stage, but as she grew, she learned she could force herself to speak out and take the lead when it was needed. In an emergency she didn't hesitate to take control, showing her quick wit and calm, such as the time she staunched the blood flow from another child's wound by adeptly twisting a handkerchief into a tourniquet.

Sometimes she felt the urge to shock people and flout authority, and did it with some glee. In staid and middle-class Worcester, where people liked to think of themselves as upwardly mobile, Fannie proclaimed herself a Democrat, a party allied with the urban poor. Worcester, of course, was proudly Republican, as were Fannie's parents, and professing an allegiance with the lower classes drew a satisfyingly startled reaction from adults.8

From her earliest years, Fannie felt other people's pain acutely and lamented their suffering. Her mother, active in the church, frequently tended to the needs of poor neighbors and encouraged her daughter to befriend them as well. Fannie was also greatly affected by the tales brought back by foreign missionaries seeking to win converts to Christianity. Their descriptions of the plight of hungry children touched Fannie and inspired what she called a kind of "vicarious physical agony."_9

But while Fannie's parents were quick to provide a food basket for a hungry family, they also felt themselves superior to the poor. Fannie's parents weren't apt to blame misfortune on social injustice; they were more inclined to see drunkenness as causing poverty than poverty as causing drunkenness.

Fannie found herself pondering more deeply the reasons why some people were poor while others were not. Sometime during her teen or early adult years, she read a book that opened a "new world" to her. Written by Jacob Riis, a friend of progressive Republican president Theodore Roosevelt, it was called How the Other Half Lives. Riis, a police reporter for the New York Tribune and the Associated Press, wrote about life on New York's Lower East Side, where more than one hundred thousand people lived in homes not fit for human habitation and where thousands of abandoned children had no homes at all, surviving on scraps and by street theft. In one account, Riis described a child starving to death after his father grew too ill to work because of lead poisoning he contracted on the job.11

Riis's stories seemed almost unimaginable in quiet and smug Worcester. Writer Frederick Lewis Allen called the era a "time of complacency," once the depression of 1893 passed and populism died. Muckrakers had yet to begin disturbing the peace with their pungent observations. But changes were afoot, and among sensitive people like Frances, Riis's book found fertile ground.

While some recognized it and some did not, large fissures were developing in the nation's social fabric. The gap between rich and poor, urban and rural, grew wider every year of Fannie's childhood. America itself changed dramatically, shifting from an agricultural to an industrial nation, with millions of immigrants flooding into the country. The rapid influx began in 1880, the year Fannie was born. In 1900 about 449,000 immigrants arrived; by 1907, the number rose to 1.3 million. The influx stirred resentment in the native-born population. Fannie saw newcomers being abused by the native born, and it struck her as unjust that people who benefited from their labor would despise them. Fannie was developing an acute sense of social justice, and the treatment of immigrants drew her attention in the same way she had noticed the travails of the poor.12

Upon graduation from high school, Fannie enrolled in Mount Holyoke, the women's college near her Worcester home. Fannie could easily travel to and from the school by train. The eighteen-year-old soon fell in love with the college. Compared with workaday Worcester, the campus was idyllic. A small village green faced the school, with a fountain and a statue of a Civil War soldier. Across the street, the college's Gothic and Romanesque buildings rose amid broad and rolling lawns.

Mary Lyon, the school's founder, had had a spiritual mission, not just an educational one. She sought to prepare girls for lives of high purpose as missionaries and teachers; almost all her students were Protestants and were expected to attend religious services faithfully. Her motto: "Go forward, attempt great things, accomplish great things."

When Fannie entered Mount Holyoke, it had just begun calling itself a college after having been self-consciously labeled a seminary in its first years. Tuition and board cost $250 a year, a relatively modest sum, and the school required about fifty minutes of housework daily from each girl to defray expenses.13

Meet the Author

Kirstin Downey is the author of The Woman Behind the New Deal, which was a finalist for the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Isabella. The managing editor for FTC:WATCH, she previously worked for the Washington Post as an award-winning reporter.

Susan Ericksen lives on the East Coast, where she performs on stage and on television. An Audie Award and AudioFile Earphones Award winner, she has recorded many audiobooks.

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The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
DeborahCunningham More than 1 year ago
If you work a 40-hour work week, have ever received unemployment benefits (or felt safer because they would be available if needed), have a restroom available to you at work, know anyone who is or has collected Social Security or Workers' Compensation, are protected by fire and occupancy laws,and are aware that 8-year-olds no longer work in dangerous mills and are now required to attend school...that's just part of who Frances Perkins was. This long overdue biography serves as tribute to a remarkable woman who persevered on behalf of her fellow citizens. "The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience" by Kirstin Downey is a revelation. Ms. Downey researched for almost eight years in archives, boxes, numerous storage areas and libraries to produce the story of the first woman cabinet secretary who fought to improve the lives of ordinary Americans while moving in the rarified circles of society and government. Frances Perkins is no longer a household name, but she should be. Her influence touches or will touch every household. This is a fabulous book for history buffs, women, and anyone who enjoys a great read. (Note: The Frances Perkins Center is located in her hometown of Newcastle, ME and at http://francesperkinscenter.org)
Reader_RabbitDP More than 1 year ago
The old saying, that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, applies in this case. There were parts of this book describing the run-up to the Great Depression that actually gave me the shivers. I thought I was reading recent headlines, not incidents from the 1930s. The sad part is that there are no Frances Perkins or FDRs around to help us today. Frances Perkins herself is an incredibly interesting woman with a fascinating life and career. Would that we had another like her today. This book is very readable and interesting, the writing is clear and concise. A good read about a time and people we should all know much more about.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A fresh insight to the New Deal and a long overdue recognition to a remarkable lady.
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