Frances Perkins is no longer a household name, yet she was one of the most influential women of the twentieth century. Based on eight years of research, extensive archival materials, new documents, and exclusive access to Perkins’s family members and friends, this biography is the first complete portrait of a devoted public servant with a passionate personal life, a mother who changed the landscape of American business and society.
Frances Perkins was named Secretary of Labor by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. As the first female cabinet secretary, she spearheaded the fight to improve the lives of America’s working people while juggling her own complex family responsibilities. Perkins’s ideas became the cornerstones of the most important social welfare and legislation in the nation’s history, including unemployment compensation, child labor laws, and the forty-hour work week.
Arriving in Washington at the height of the Great Depression, Perkins pushed for massive public works projects that created millions of jobs for unemployed workers. She breathed life back into the nation’s labor movement, boosting living standards across the country. As head of the Immigration Service, she fought to bring European refugees to safety in the United States. Her greatest triumph was creating Social Security.
Written with a wit that echoes Frances Perkins’s own, award-winning journalist Kirstin Downey gives us a riveting exploration of how and why Perkins slipped into historical oblivion, and restores Perkins to her proper place in history. Amazon Exclusive: Kirstin Downey on Frances Perkins
Housing prices had been pumped up by crazy new kinds of loans, and foreclosures of homes and farms were surging as borrowers faltered under the payments. Companies had enjoyed record profits and ploughed the money into machinery designed to boost productivity, cutting their workforces. The unemployment rate skyrocketed. Companies slashed the wages of the remaining workers, and asked them to work longer and longer hours. And then Wall Street imploded as the stock market crashed.
This was the scenario Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced as he entered the presidency in 1933.
An era of rampant speculation had come to an end. A women stepped in to put things right.
FDR turned to a long-time friend for guidance about how best to proceed, and asked her to join his Cabinet as Secretary of Labor. The middle-aged woman, a social worker named Frances Perkins, had spent a lifetime preparing for the job. She had studied economic boom and bust cycles, and knew they were a recurring pattern in modern industrial economies. She had a vision for how to blunt the worst of the hardship that American families were suffering, until business recovered again on its own.
She proposed a system of unemployment insurance, so that when workers lost their jobs through no fault of their own, they would have some income to keep their families fed while they looked for new jobs. Senior citizens had lost their life savings as real estate values fell and the stock market tumbled, and they needed some sort of income support, some kind of social security, when they grew too old to work. Employed people were stumbling under long work hours. She advocated the creation of a 40-hour workweek and a minimum wage. Companies were hiring teenagers instead of adults to save money, and she thought the time was ripe to place new restrictions on child labor.
“Nothing like this has ever been done in the United States before,” she told him. “You know that, don’t you?”
Within weeks she would head to Washington, D.C. by his side. The challenges they would face would be great. The conservative Supreme Court, businessmen, free-market ideologues and even some labor leaders would oppose them. They would try to block her work. They would argue that the poor should be left to fend for themselves. They would savage Frances’s reputation, they would eventually try to impeach her.
But she would not give up.
Frances Perkins, the first woman to take a position in the top tier of federal government, would succeed. The institutions she created would help future generations cope with the recurring economic downturns that she had predicted would come again. Her extraordinary achievements make her one of the most influential women of the twentieth century, one whose legacy should be widely celebrated. --Kirstin Downey
(Photo © Evan Giordanella)
Starred Review. 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)
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