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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

The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage

4.2 19
by Kirstin Downey

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“Kirstin Downey’s lively, substantive and—dare I say—inspiring new biography of Perkins . . . not only illuminates Perkins’ career but also deepens the known contradictions of Roosevelt’s character.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR Fresh Air
One of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s closest friends and the


“Kirstin Downey’s lively, substantive and—dare I say—inspiring new biography of Perkins . . . not only illuminates Perkins’ career but also deepens the known contradictions of Roosevelt’s character.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR Fresh Air
One of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s closest friends and the first female secretary of labor, Perkins capitalized on the president’s political savvy and popularity to enact most of the Depression-era programs that are today considered essential parts of the country’s social safety network.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Kirstin Downey’s excellent new biography of Perkins . . . is timed perfectly as the U.S. faces the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression.” —Dierdre Donahue, USA Today
“The book is more than a biography of an extraordinary woman. It is a window to another time through which we are able to observe the birthing pains of reforms we now take for granted. . . . Many passages dealing with the Great Depression, immigration and the impending world war could have been lifted from today’s news." —Charlestown Post and Courier
“The New Deal was a big deal for America — and, as Kirstin Downey shows in this illuminating and sparkling book, Frances Perkins, my predecessor as Labor Secretary, was the moving force behind much of it. Her legacy included Social Security, unemployment insurance, and other initiatives that have improved the lives of generations of Americans. With wit and insight, Downey recounts the accomplishments of this singular woman and invites us to celebrate her life.”  —Robert B. Reich, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and former U.S. Secretary of Labor

“Kirstin Downey gives Frances Perkins the biography she deserves, the story of a fierce advocate who put people first, a public servant who was actually worthy of the name, and a bracing reminder of what inspired government can do. Perkins ignored the glass ceiling and changed America. This book is a joy!” —Nick Taylor, author of American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work

“For all of her apparent modesty and fierce sense of privacy, Frances Perkins wanted to be known by posterity for her contributions to FDR and his New Deal, particularly Social Security. An investigative reporter, Kirstin Downey has uncovered France Perkins’s extraordinary strengths in shaping and securing the central domestic accomplishments of the New Dealers. Despite continuing impediments, Perkins, a social worker, successfully broke into a man’s world and was a major player for all twelve years of FDR’s administration. Downey deftly links the Progressive movement of the early 1900s with the reforms Perkins helped FDR achieve, particularly in his first two terms. In Downey’s skilled hands, Frances Perkins at last emerges as a pivotal figure in the most transformative twelve years of twentieth century American history.” —Christopher N. Breiseth, President and CEO of The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute

“For his presidency to succeed, FDR needed a strong labor secretary to restore jobs and confidence. Perkins was that loyal lieutenant, as well as his unrelenting prod and social conscience.”  —Mary Leonard, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“The story of Ms. Perkins turns out to be, in the sympathetic hands of Ms. Downey, a remarkably good read, surprisingly full of dramatic twists despite that motherly hat and low-profile manner.”  —Priscilla Taylor, The Washington Times
“The current economic woes have, among other things, focused attention once again on the New Deal. Books about the economics, the politics and the personalities of the time have surfaced.  Still, as a new book by award-winning business journalist Kirstin Downey suggests, one of the most influential figures in shaping the New Deal turns out to be a name few know today—and turns out to be a woman.  Eight years of research, new documents and interviews with family members were among the many sources Downey drew on for her new and compelling portrait of ‘The Woman Behind the New Deal.’” —Sarah Bagby, NPR
“It’s a provocative title, but Downey convinced me that Fannie Perkins, of Beacon Hill, Worcester, and Mount Holyoke College, was the woman behind the New Deal. Her book could not be more timely.” —Alex Beam, Boston Globe
“Reading the biography of FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins brings to mind the old saying about how Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, except backward and in high heels. Perkins, the first female Cabinet member, not only had to do more than her male counterparts to prove herself. . . .  Perkins would have notched a place in history simply by taking the job. But she earned it through a jaw-dropping number of accomplishments. Perkins took a major role in shepherding through Social Security, unemployment insurance, child labor laws and the minimum wage.”  —Michael Hill, Associated Press
“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.”  —Publishers Weekly
“Prize-winning journalist Downey deconstructs the life of a passionate labor advocate who became the nation’s first female Cabinet member. . . . 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. . . . As a progressive president again takes office in a time of economic crisis, Perkins offers a vital role model.”  —Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.30(w) x 7.96(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

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

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Kirstin Downey is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post, where she was a staff writer from 1988 to 2008, winning press association awards for her business and economic reporting. She shared in the 2008 Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Post staff for its coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. In 2000, she was awarded a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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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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