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on March 12, 2009
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
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on March 3, 2009
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.
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on June 30, 2009
As an American History teacher high school teacher, all my texts include a sidebar, or mention of sorts, about Frances Perkins. This book exceeded all my expectations, and I found myself breathless (?) as I raced to read more! In fact, I almost had a sick feeling of what would have happened if I hadn't read this book, a kind of "near miss," for it is that good. For a history teacher of 20+ years, I count it in my top 5 books or educating me about a person's impact on history. Even after reading it, I went back and learned about how Downey sleuthed to find all the details about Perkins--a feat that allows us to understand an appreciate her subject's life.

The pivotal role of Perkins' accomplishments begins with her ties to the suffrage movement and crusade for better labor laws--as she herself said--"I'd rather have laws than a union." It highlights her close relationship with Florence Kelley, but also the New York of Tamany Hall, and the ins and outs of Albany politics. She even witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire herself...then, later, she continues to press for changes in labor laws (a man's world) for women, and her particular crusade against child labor. Downey discusses Perkins' deep religiousness--how she prayed and pondered over the draftmanship of the Social Security proposal while in isolation at a priory. Do not blame Perkins for the state of Social Security today--for, as this book makes clear, it was an immediate lifesaver for millions of elderly Americans. She wanted to oversee it after she retired from the cabinet, but was not able to obtain the post. The background information of the causes of the Great Depression read very similar to what is occurring today, and Perkin's disappointment over the failure to produce some sort of national health care foreshadows our own current dialogue.
Equally amazing is Francis Perkins teaching at Cornell into her eighties! And living in a sort of "frat house," as the only woman among young male students! I am glad that the book makes clear how Frances Perkins has been almost forgotten...and Downey has done a wonderful work here in assessing her importance. I, for one, am going to use a great deal of this information in my classroom next year and the years to come.
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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.
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on January 11, 2014
When FDR asked Frances Perkins to be his Secretary of Labor she came to him with a list of what she wanted to accomplish and let him know that without his support she wouldn't take the job. The list? A 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, worker's compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal child labor law, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service and health insurance. She accomplished ALL of it except health insurance and we're still working on that one. These are all things we take for granted today.

This woman deserves a statue or three ...really! Her lack of recognition is partly her own fault; she didn't like reporters and didn't cultivate them. The author, a reporter herself, points out that reporters can shape how history remembers you.

She also was a Yankee with a Yankee reticence to reveal much of herself. A mentally ill husband was a skeleton in her closet she didn't care to expose more than necessary and thirdly she had a shrewd habit...after she found the perfect person to head some project she wanted done, she would publicly laud that person for HIS brilliance, foresight and capability.

FDR clearly needed and admired her, yet he abandoned her on numerous occasions. She wasn't blind to FDR's faults and actually had preferred Al Smith, but she was loyal and forbearing of his flaws.

This book is so relevant to the era we are in now and probably should be read for that reason alone. She seemed to regard Labor, Industry and Consumer interests in the same way we regard the balance of powers in government. Each an entity "tainted" with self interest that needs to be balanced against the other two. She seems to have been one of the first to see Consumer rights as part of the equation and she was always trying to even up the balance between the three.
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on May 19, 2009
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.
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on May 31, 2015
First the book review:

The book was extremely well written, the author has an enjoyable writing style and she did a wonderful job of sharing Frances' life, accomplishments, and challenges with the reader. It was very sad that Frances spent her life helping others only to die alone neglected by her family thanks to her daughter's selfishness. Kirstin's description of the daughter was wonderful on page 392, "more ornamental than useful, who felt contempt for people who worked for a living." while she sponged off her mother whom she hated. Despite having a mentally ill husband and daughter who took most of her money and a great deal of her time and were continuous burdens Frances made the world a better place to live.

Then my observations:

Frances was amazing, too bad FDR did not better support her. Strange how history has forgotten Frances and credits FDR with her work. The portrayal of FDR was fairly accurate which surprised me. The book left me with three questions, did Frances receive social security payments, how much of FDR's success came from Frances, and how much better would things be today if FDR had fully supported Frances?

Frances worked extremely hard to make things better while dealing with horrible family problems that would have incapacitated most people. What a contrast to most of today's politicians who only take while making things worse.
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on May 22, 2009
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.

Bruce E. McLeod, Jr.
Las Vegas, Nevada
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on June 11, 2010
If you work a 40-hour week; have ever received unemployment benefits (or felt safer because they would be available if needed); have a staff restroom at work; have a fire escape or fire stairs in your apartment building or workplace; know anyone collecting Social Security or receive benefits yourself; were injured at work and received payments until you could return to work; and the fact that 8-year-olds no longer work in dangerous mills instead of going to school...that's who Frances Perkins is...and more.
This is a long overdue biography of Secy. of Labor Perkins. If we had to wait for this wonderful biography by Kirstin Downey, then it was worth the wait. Ms.Downey researched archives and new documents for eight years to produce the story of the first NYS Industrial Commissioner, recommended by Theodore Roosevelt himself, and the first woman cabinet secretary under his distant cousin, FDR.
Standing across the street, watching the horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, was a pivotal point in Ms. Perkins' life. She spent the rest of her life fighting to improve the lives of ordinary Americans while still moving in the rarified circles of society and government. This intelligent, highly educated woman, was a powerful force and voice at a momentous time in our the 'woman behind the New Deal'.
Hers is no longer a household name, but it should be. There should be a monument to her somewhere.
Frances Perkins' influence touched, touches or will touch every American household.
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on June 6, 2012
Those of us who lived through the New Deal tend to forget how hounded by the opposition the Roosevelt administration was. No one was put upon more than Sec. of Labor Frances Perkins. Although her ancestors arrived in Scituate, MA in 1680 the birthers claimed she was a Russian Jewish immigrant so they could try to brand her a communist. Then they tried to impeach her. When that failed they tried to censure her. That failed too but the perception she had been censured never died. Frances Perkins refused to take the job at Labor unless FDR committed to passing the New Deal legislation. You have her to thank for the 8 hour workday, unemployment insurance, workers compensation and on and on. She was a dynamo and could bring people together to pass an enormous amount of legislation. The first woman cabinet member, Frances Perkins has never been given the credit she so richly deserves. You will marvel at reading her story. I couldn't put it down.
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