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

by Kirstin Downey


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400078561
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/23/2010
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 105,232
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.96(h) x 1.00(d)

About 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.

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.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Prologue 1

Chapter 1 Childhood and Youth 5

Chapter 2 Becoming Frances Perkins l6

Chapter 3 The Young Activist Hits New York 25

Chapter 4 The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 33

Chapter 5 Finding Allies in Tammany Hall 37

Chapter 6 Teddy Roosevelt and Frances Perkins 46

Chapter 7 A Good Match 54

Chapter 8 Married Life 61

Chapter 9 Motherhood 67

Chapter 10 The Indomitable al Smith 75

Chapter 11 FDR and al Smith 88

Chapter 12 With the Roosevelts in Albany 96

Chapter 13 FDR Becomes President 106

Chapter 14 Frances Becomes Secretary of Labor 114

Chapter 15 The Pioneer 126

Chapter 16 Skeletons in the Labor Department Closet 138

Chapter 17 Jump-Starting the Economy 149

Chapter 18 At Home with Mary Harriman 160

Chapter 19 Blue Eagle: A first Try at "Civilizing Capitalism" 172

Chapter 20 Refugees and Regulations 187

Chapter 21 Rebuilding the house of labor 197

Chapter 22 Labor Shakes off its Slumber 206

Chapter 23 The Union Movement Revitalizes and Splits Apart 218

Chapter 24 Social Security 230

Chapter 25 Family Problems 246

Chapter 26 Court-Packing, Wages, and Hours 256

Chapter 27 Impeachment 270

Chapter 28 War Clouds and Refugees 285

Chapter 29 Frances and Franklin 303

Chapter 30 Madness, Misalliances, and a Nude Bisexual Water Sprite 313

Chapter 31 The War Comes 319

Chapter 32 Last Days of the Roosevelt Administration 334

Chapter 33 Harry Truman 341

Chapter 34 The Truman Administration 352

Chapter 35 Communism 362

Chapter 36 End of the Truman Era 374

Chapter 37 Many Transitions 377

Chapter 38 Last Days 394

Notes 399

Bibliography 433

Index 445

Reading Group Guide

"A rich, nuanced portrait of one of the most significant figures of the Age of Roosevelt." —Jon Meacham, author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Woman Behind the New Deal by Kirstin Downey.

1. Why is Frances Perkins a forgotten figure in history? Is a deep-rooted sexism to blame, because people are reluctant to credit a woman's obvious successes? Is her antipathy to reporters the problem? Did she seem to consciously hide herself, knowing that much more can be done in Washington if people are willing to let others take the credit? Why were so many men of her era and later generations, even New Deal scholars, willing or eager to dismiss her importance? Is a woman's lack of physical beauty an impediment to fame?

2. Frances Perkins reinvented herself in a remarkable series of ways: She changed her name from Fannie to Frances; she converted from the Unitarian Church to the Episcopalian church, she changed from the Socialist to the Democratic party, she changed her appearance to be more matronly; she even changed her age. Was she being cynical or slippery about her true identity in making these changes, or did they reflect a frank awareness of the obstacles she faced unless she made these adaptations?

3. Perkins's public persona was somewhat stiff and fusty, both in appearance and in speech—quite in contrast to her vivacious qualities in private. Was her public character necessary for a woman in power at that time? Did it help or hinder her effectiveness?

4. Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt were colleagues who worked together for a lifetime and shared the same political viewpoints, but they were never close friends. Why? Is it likely that two such powerful women were naturally competitive with each other? Did they in some ways compete for FDR's affections? Was Frances Perkins envious of Eleanor's easy affluence, when she had to struggle to survive? Was Eleanor jealous of Frances's close relationship with her husband, who greatly respected Frances and consulted her before making major political decisions, including who to select for vice president? Were they just two different kinds of women—with Eleanor more open and easy with people, and Frances more secretive and inscrutable? Were their educational differences—Frances had a graduate degree, and Eleanor had a finishing-school education—a source of conflict?

5. What explains Frances Perkins's close relationship with Franklin? Did she love him in some way, or did she sometimes seem to view him as an older sister would a wayward younger brother? Why was Franklin so uniquely able to see the talents and abilities of the women around him?

6. Should Frances Perkins have more astutely cultivated the press? First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and U.S. Congresswoman Mary Norton realized that reporters needed quick and easy stories they could deliver to their editors, and that woman reporters, relegated to the society pages, particularly needed to be fed material about clothes, hats, and family arrangements to have their stories published. Should Frances have swallowed her pride and given reporters more material of that nature? Or was Frances right? Do public officials need to take steps to protect their personal privacy? Frances thought the Roosevelts made problems for future political leaders by throwing their lives open to public scrutiny. Does the public have the right to know these personal details?

7. Perkins's background in social work was valuable to her, in that it kept her focused on the ultimate goal of having the laws improve people's lives. But did this “romantic” familiarity with street-level reality sometimes lead her to focus too much on government actions that directly affected individuals and to possibly neglect more efficient policies that might have benefited individuals indirectly by improving the general business climate?

8. Would Frances Perkins be disappointed with the diminished vigor of America's labor unions? What would she think needs to be done to reinvigorate them and permit more workers to unionize, if they wish to do so? Does the loss of much of America's manufacturing base make it impossible for unions to gather members as they did in the past?

9. National health insurance was the one main item on Perkins's agenda that did not get enacted. Should it be enacted now? Can it be enacted now, or are the potential demands for services too great to be undertaken?

10. If Frances Perkins had quickly deported union organizer Harry Bridges as an alleged communist, as many congressmen demanded, would she have avoided suffering an impeachment attempt? If she had cast him out, would she have been better able to maintain her role as head of the U.S. Immigration Service and saved more of the thousands of refugees fleeing oppression during World War II?

11. To what degree were Perkins's policies shaped by her roots in New England colonial culture? Did that same cultural background shape the New Deal in general? Did some of the New Deal policies work less well than anticipated because they had to apply to a large and multicultural nation at a time when social attitudes also changed?

12. Perkins's husband and daughter both suffered from mental illness. How well do you think she dealt with those problems? Did she sacrifice her own financial well-being too much? Or did she contribute to the problems in some way? Should she have quit her work to care for them at home, as some might suggest?

13. What was the nature of her long-term relationship with wealthy Mary Harriman Rumsey, the daughter of the railroad magnate Edward Harriman, and sister of Averell Harriman? It was certainly a close friendship, and it was also financially advantageous for Frances, but was it more than platonic?

14. What role did religion play in Frances Perkins's life?

15. How did Frances Perkins's extraordinary accomplishments pave the way for women in political life today, women like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Dole, Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin, and Elaine Chao? Which women in political life have had careers most similar to Frances's? What role do prominent husbands play in women's political advancement, even today?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit


"A rich, nuanced portrait of one of the most significant figures of the Age of Roosevelt." —Jon Meacham, author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Woman Behind the New Deal by Kirstin Downey.

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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. 22 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
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.
snash on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Frances Perkins was an amazing woman who had a major impact upon modern America. Her role in instigating and then pushing to reality most parts of the New Deal is awe inspiring. This was done when women in such roles were viewed very skeptically. As a public woman she was a success. Her private life, while never as important to her as her public one, was difficult and painful. The author has done a good job in presenting the whole person, even the private parts which Frances kept as hidden as possible. Along the way, personality profiles of other figures of the 30's to 60's are exposed including FDR, Truman, Al Smith, etc.
ACQwoods on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Eleanor Roosevelt gets a lot of credit for being a powerful woman but Frances Perkins was unbelievable. She was the first ever female cabinet secretary. She spent her whole life fighting for laborers, advancing the 40 hour workweek, the end of child labor, and the beginning of unemployment insurance and Social Security. You've probably seen bumper stickers that say "The 40 Hour Work Week: Brought to you by Unions". Well they should say brought to you by Frances Perkins! As for the book itself, I really enjoyed it. There were a few chapters in the middle that got dragged down in policy and lost focus on Frances in particular but overall it was a great look at an incredible woman.
juglicerr on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I thought I knew about Frances Perkins, but this superb biography has made me realize that she was much more significant than I realized. Much of Roosevelt's New Deal was in fact the brainchild of Perkins, and laid out at least in outline form by her before she accepted the cabinet post. I respect her enormous achievements all the more for realizing that they were in the face of personal problems that would have overwhelmed me in her place. Perkins was deeply religious, and one hopes that her concern for the poor and the powerless will be a model for contemporary Christians as they are currently wrestling with the issue of social action. Recommended for all Americans who want to understand the society in which they live, and the situation from which it arose. This is extremely relevant in the current financial and social crises that we are facing.
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