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84 of 85 people found the following review helpful
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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78 of 83 people found the following review helpful
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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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
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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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
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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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2009
Seldom do I read political books more than once,and often I don't read every chapter. But The Woman Behind the New Deal is hard to put down. Frances Perkins was a complicated woman - pleasant on the outside, tough on the inside. As Secretary of Labor and the first woman cabinet member she had to be. Well-grounded in the lives and problems of working people, she was a valuable advisor to the president, and usually got him on her side when she wanted to make politically risky changes.

Frances and Roosevelt were close. They advised and trusted each other, and Frances spoke bluntly when she needed to. Her efforts greatly improved the lives of working people. Social Security was her most significant accomplishment.

Today Frances' work is imperiled by right wing ideologs who will destroy even Social Security if we let them. Read this book and you will understand the importance of Frances Perkins' work and what we need to learn from the first Great Depression.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2009
This book was a fascinating "alternative view" of the FDR presidency and the programs we came to know as the New Deal. I say alternative view because so much more has been written regarding New Dealers Harry Hopkins, Raymond Moley, Henry Wallace, Louis Howe and even Lewis Douglas. It's ironic that Frances Perkins was the force behind Social Security, child labor laws, worker safety, minimum wage, unemployment compensation, the 40 hour work week and more but has been largely ignored by posterity. However, to be effective as a woman during that period, Frances Perkins often chose to research a problem, then propose solutions or programs that FDR and others could put forth as their own.

Frances Perkins was born in 1880; a 1900 Mount Holyoke graduate, she was an anomoly based on her education and her interest in the early social work movement. Not content to be an idle blue-stocking, she became involved in Hull House in Chicago and the settlement house movement. Her employment as an early social worker drove a wedge between her and her conservative New England family.

Francis Perkins was a cabinet member for the entirety of FDR's presidency. She supported organized labor when labor didn't support her, understanding when few did, how organized labor helps a democratic society. She did these things and many more while staying in the background as much as possible. Hence the value of this book.

Kirsten Downey did a good job in researching and writing this book. Biographies pose unique challenges to a writer and I found myself wondering if publication of this book was pushed forward to take advantage of the obvious analogies between FDR and Obama and the economic challenges that faced their administrations. There were multiple places where the writing seemed less than elegant and frankly, I attributed that to editing (or lack thereof).

The book includes the challenges of her personal life which included a husband who suffered from bipolar disorder and a daughter who may also have suffered from mental illness and the economic necessity of working to support both. The book and several reviews alude to multiple lesbian relationships that Ms. Perkins may or may not have had. Given her deeply held religious beliefs and personal ethics, I'm dubious about her having had a sexual relationship outside her marriage, regardless of the gender of the partner.

I highly recommend this book. Perkins was a fascinating person. Amid all the other New Dealers jockeying for access to the President and posterity, Frances Perkins quietly instituted lasting programs that touch us today.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 16, 2010
Frances Perkins knew FDR well before she moved to Washington as Secretary of Labor. She had worked for him for years as a progressive reformer in state government, raiding New York factories for harsh working conditions, getting unemployment insurance, and a raft of other labor legislation for the liberal minded governor and his constituents.

But Perkins knew FDR's blind spots too. He had spent most of his early years vacationing in posh Adirondack "camps" enjoying outdoor life and becoming an athlete. Now, as the country faced its worst unemployment rate in contemporary times, he wanted to set up a federal program and send thousands of poor, urban men into the deep countryside to work and make a small stipend while they did it.

"Well, Mr. President, what are they going to do when they get to the woods......you know an awful lot of them have heart trouble, varicose veins and everything else. Just because they are unemployed doesn't mean that they are natural born lumbermen."

But Rooosevelt won Perkins over and before she knew it, she was working closely with the U.S. army, which did, indeed set up the camps -- for the Civilian Conservation Corps-- for the three million people who took part in the program. It was to become of of FDR/s most successful programs.

Former Washington Post reporter and author of this current biography of Frances Perkins has done a marvelous job of bringing Perkins and her former boss to life, as they created the New Deal. The amount of work they did to help out unemployed people is amazing. If only they were around now! Except in today's world, the CCC would be considered to be a pure waste of time.
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