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The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Paperback – February 23, 2010

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Editorial Reviews Review

Book Description
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)

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (February 23, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400078563
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400078561
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (121 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #68,181 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Kirstin Downey recently completed a biography of Queen Isabella of Castile, which is being published by Random House on October 28, 2014. She also serves as editor of FTC:WATCH, a newsletter that follows the Federal Trade Commission and the antitrust division of the Justice Department. She previously was employed as a writer and investigator for the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, whose report became a New York Times bestseller. She wrote the book's first chapter, which detailed the many warnings that were issued to business executives and government officials about the looming problems in the mortgage market, but which were ignored. Ms. Downey is also the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins," which was published in 2009, and was named one of the best biographies of the year by the American Library Association, Library of Congress and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Ms. Downey was a reporter for The Washington Post 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 Alexandria, Virginia.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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78 of 83 people found the following review helpful By PlanktonEater on March 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Sigrid Olsen on June 30, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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.
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