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The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience (2009)

by Kirstin Downey

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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349873,060 (4.17)16
Frances Perkins is no longer a household name, yet she was one of the most influential women of the twentieth century. Frances Perkins was named Secretary of Labor by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. As the first female cabinet secretary, at the height of the Great Depression, she spearheaded the fight to improve the lives of America's working people while juggling her own family responsibilities. Perkins's ideas became the cornerstones of the most important social welfare legislation in the nation's history, including unemployment compensation, child labor laws, the forty-hour work week, and Social Security. Also, as head of the Immigration Service, she fought to bring European refugees to safety. Based on eight years of research, extensive archival materials, new documents, and exclusive access to family and friends, this 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.--From publisher description.… (more)
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5823. The Woman Behind the New Deal The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, by Kristin Downey (read 1 Dec 2023) This is a good book and well researched. It is laudatory as to its subject but does not fail to point out her faults. I knew nothing of her life after 1945. She died 14 May 1965. Her private life was tough--her husband did not work and was an alcoholic and her only child was also no prize. I am glad I read the book. ( )
  Schmerguls | Dec 1, 2023 |
Frances Perkins was a trailblazer, as she was the first woman ever to be named to a cabinet post, that of Secretary of Labor in the FDR administration. She had worked for FDR when he was governor of New York in a similar role, running the state industrial commission. Greatly affected by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, she devoted her life to a progressive agenda. When Roosevelt became President and approached her about running the Labor Department, she reeled off a list of things she would want to work on: a forty-hour workweek, minimum wage, worker's compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, Social Security, revitalized public employment service and national health insurance. If Roosevelt wasn't willing to back her on these items, she was not interested in the role. But fortunately for us, he agreed to support her, and she made history, fulfilling most of these agenda items. These accomplishments are made more extraordinary by the fact that her husband was seriously mentally ill, and was in and out of institutions his whole life. Her daughter seemed to inherit her father's mental illness, and so Frances, living on a small government salary, had to provide for them while performing these groundbreaking tasks.She handled immigration during WWII, working to bring as many refugees over from Europe, at a time when most US citizens were isolationist. Even in 'retirement', she worked for the Civil Service Commission during the Red Scare, and so was smack in the middle of the paranoia that swept the country.

I enjoyed the book very much, even though I had to sometimes plow my way through its density. It could be said that Frances had a full life, and I often used my iPad to reference the cast of characters she encountered. I have a couple of impressions from the book. First, the blatant discrimination she had to endure was, frankly, shocking, even given the times. Entering and then exiting the office of Sec'y of Labor, she was met with a cold shoulder from her predecessor and successor. Her predecessor, in particular, seemed surprised that she was actually going to attempt to work at the job, and hadn't planned on leaving the office until Frances, in a sense, took over. Throughout her career, she was shunned by her all-male colleagues (for the most past). The key to her success was that she had Roosevelt's ear.

Another impression: It seems that Roosevelt took credit for most of her ideas. She disappeared from the history books, and it became Roosevelt's New Deal. He sometimes comes across as a typical politician, swaying with the current winds. This is not how we normally think about Roosevelt, and this book helped me understand the nuances of his personality.

This is a book about a woman who, from her earliest years, had an agenda that she was compelled to fulfill. At the end, she received very little credit for her accomplishments, and sadly, was estranged from the daughter she had supported her entire life. She deserves recognition for many of the things was currently take for granted: Social Security, elimination of child labor, unemployment, and fair labor practices. I was very glad I read this book. ( )
1 vote peggybr | Aug 15, 2020 |
This is a rather gossipy book. Seriously lacking in detail of the policies brought forward by an extraordinary woman. Really, does it matter what she wore while doing any of the good work she did.

This is missed opportunity to explore the policies, what brought them to a political place where it was possible to consider and pass the necessary legislation, over what time period? What was the focus of each law and how was it implemented and when? How many people did these changes impact, how many lost in the process?

Sadly, there is far more about Perkins' social relationships, whether she was or was not gay, her financial issues. Should have been more on work she had done and what she had seen and experienced that gave her the empathy and understanding of the issues she was dedicated to in her various positions.

Documentation and sourcing is unprofessional, at least for anything to be considered a scholarly or historical. Many citations are newspaper references or what someone said---secondhand at best.

The reader will get an overview of the period, some facts and a lot of fluff. ( )
  bonsam | Jul 14, 2013 |
Giving background into Miss Perkins' character and the issues she battled and held dear, Downey gives the reader insight into a woman that bent to tasks she believed were right, regardless of the accolades or condemnations she would receive for the results. Miss Perkins wasn't always right, and she didn't always get her way, but she had the character to face the tasks that didn't score her any points and weren't the shiny thing to be pursuing.

Frances Perkins was a labor advocate, in every sense of the word. She went from working with unions and politicians in New York to being the first woman United States cabinet member - as the Secretary of Labor. She didn't let tradition, political entropy, or detractors steer her away from what she thought was right - passing the 40 hour work-week, Social Security, Medicare, and many things that workers in this country now take for granted. She tackled immigration reform, created a formidable and reliable Bureau of Labor Statistics, which we use to know what's going on with our workers and economy to this day. And watched her department be split, duties taken out from under her, and handed out as her popularity waxed and waned, as her work was appreciated or not over time.

Ms. Downey admires Miss Perkins greatly, and that comes through very clearly in this work. Miss Perkins reads as very worth admiring. ( )
1 vote storyjunkie | Jul 24, 2011 |
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. ( )
1 vote ACQwoods | Jul 10, 2011 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kirstin Downeyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Ericksen, SusanNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"...be ye stedfast..." I Corinthians 15:58
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On a chilly February night in 1933, a middle-aged woman waited expectantly to meet with her employer at his residence on East 65th Street in New York City.
Quotations
It is a great historic irony that Frances is now virtually unknown. Factory and office occupancy codes, fire escapes and other fire-prevention mechanisms are her legacy. About 44 million people collect Social Security checks each month; millions receive unemployment and worker's compensation or the minimum wage; others get to go home after an eight-hour day because of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Very few know the name of the woman responsible for their benefits." (p. 397)
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Frances Perkins is no longer a household name, yet she was one of the most influential women of the twentieth century. Frances Perkins was named Secretary of Labor by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. As the first female cabinet secretary, at the height of the Great Depression, she spearheaded the fight to improve the lives of America's working people while juggling her own family responsibilities. Perkins's ideas became the cornerstones of the most important social welfare legislation in the nation's history, including unemployment compensation, child labor laws, the forty-hour work week, and Social Security. Also, as head of the Immigration Service, she fought to bring European refugees to safety. Based on eight years of research, extensive archival materials, new documents, and exclusive access to family and friends, this 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.--From publisher description.

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