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The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins--Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage

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“Kirstin Downey’s lively, substantive and—dare I say—inspiring new biography of Perkins . . . not only illuminates Perkins’ career but also deepens the known contradictions of Roosevelt’s character.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR Fresh Air   One of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s closest friends and the first female secretary of labor, Perkins capitalized on the president’s political s “Kirstin Downey’s lively, substantive and—dare I say—inspiring new biography of Perkins . . . not only illuminates Perkins’ career but also deepens the known contradictions of Roosevelt’s character.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR Fresh Air   One of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s closest friends and the first female secretary of labor, Perkins capitalized on the president’s political savvy and popularity to enact most of the Depression-era programs that are today considered essential parts of the country’s social safety network. 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.


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“Kirstin Downey’s lively, substantive and—dare I say—inspiring new biography of Perkins . . . not only illuminates Perkins’ career but also deepens the known contradictions of Roosevelt’s character.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR Fresh Air   One of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s closest friends and the first female secretary of labor, Perkins capitalized on the president’s political s “Kirstin Downey’s lively, substantive and—dare I say—inspiring new biography of Perkins . . . not only illuminates Perkins’ career but also deepens the known contradictions of Roosevelt’s character.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR Fresh Air   One of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s closest friends and the first female secretary of labor, Perkins capitalized on the president’s political savvy and popularity to enact most of the Depression-era programs that are today considered essential parts of the country’s social safety network. 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.

30 review for The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins--Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage

  1. 4 out of 5

    Bill Kerwin

    An absorbing biography of the woman who improved factory fire-safety standards after the Triangle Fire, and who, as FDR's Secretary of Labor, put social security, the minimum wage and unemployment insurance on the agenda and pushed them through to a successful conclusion. (She did fail at getting universal health care, but not for lack of trying.) An extremely important figure of 20th century history, insufficiently remembered today.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jean

    What a team Frances Perkins (1880-1965) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) made. Perkins had the ideas and the ambition to accomplish her goals. FDR had the political clout and knowledge to get the job done. Frances Perkins was the first female cabinet member in American history. She was the Secretary of Labor. She fought into law Section 7 of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933. What was the list she told FDR she wanted to accomplish or else she would not take the job? It was as foll What a team Frances Perkins (1880-1965) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) made. Perkins had the ideas and the ambition to accomplish her goals. FDR had the political clout and knowledge to get the job done. Frances Perkins was the first female cabinet member in American history. She was the Secretary of Labor. She fought into law Section 7 of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933. What was the list she told FDR she wanted to accomplish or else she would not take the job? It was as follows: End child labor, a 40-hour work week, minimum wages, unemployment insurance, Social Security, workplace fire safety, improved working conditions and universal or national health care. She accomplished all but the health coverage. FDR also involved her in areas other than labor such as immigration. Perkins was the author of the New Deal. The book is well written and meticulously researched. I found the book fascinating. It is primarily an academic portrayal of a great legislator and reformer. The author follows Perkins from childhood to death and also touches on some of her ancestors. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and could hardly put it down. The information on the Roosevelts I knew, but most of the information about Perkins was new to me. Some people may not enjoy the academic tenor of the book. Kristin Downey is a journalist. She shared the 2000 Pulitzer Prize with her group at the Washington Post. I enjoyed reading her 2014 biography, “Isabella The Warrior Queen”. I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. The book is almost twenty hours long. Susan Ericksen does an excellent job narrating the book. Ericksen is an actress and multi-award-winning audiobook narrator. Over the years, I have enjoyed listening to her read a wide range of books.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Dinah

    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 st 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.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Mikey B.

    From page 126 (my book) - The Baltimore Sun in 1933 – when Frances Perkins was appointed Secretary of Labor “A woman smarter than a man is something to get on guard about. But a woman smarter than a man and also not afraid of a man, well, good night.” Evidently Frances Perkins had obstacles to face when she was appointed Secretary of Labor in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet after he was elected in 1932. She was the first woman to be in the Cabinet (women were only given the vote in 1920). She held thi From page 126 (my book) - The Baltimore Sun in 1933 – when Frances Perkins was appointed Secretary of Labor “A woman smarter than a man is something to get on guard about. But a woman smarter than a man and also not afraid of a man, well, good night.” Evidently Frances Perkins had obstacles to face when she was appointed Secretary of Labor in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet after he was elected in 1932. She was the first woman to be in the Cabinet (women were only given the vote in 1920). She held this important post for the duration of Roosevelt’s term of office, until he died in 1945. She accomplished a great deal: a federal law abolishing child labor, a forty hour work week, workers compensation (prior to this if a worker was injured on the job he was on his own), a minimum wage (although this could vary by state), unemployment relief, social security (as in old age pensions). All of these today are sacrosanct. She also tried to introduce universal health care – but the struggle for that goes on to this day! Also during her tenure the strength of unions and the ability of workers to unionize increased. Frances Perkins wanted workers to have rights – and she passed legislation ensuring this. This is a great read detailing this woman’s tremendous accomplishments! We follow her upbringing as she came to abandon her staid middle class roots to become more socially involved. She became a social activist in New York City and was very adept at making numerous contacts – among them Franklin Roosevelt when he was Governor of New York. She took the Labor post at a time when unemployment was 30 percent. The author describes her involvement in many of the New Deal programs. We also get a personal feel for who Frances Perkins was as the author describes her troubled marriage and family, and also her relationship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The author humorously compares her relationship with her former boss, Governor of New York Al Smith as being a very straight forward give and take – understanding Franklin Roosevelt’s methodologies was at a totally different level! But we also see how Roosevelt gave great flexibility to his cabinet and staff to get the job done – and this Frances Perkins did. We come away from this book with a greater understanding of how the Roosevelt administration worked. Frances Perkins wanted to resign several times but Roosevelt refused. She faced opposition not only because she was a woman, but as is inevitable in a long political tenure, she made enemies – but this never stopped her from pursuing her social legislation for the working people. I do take issue with the author during the Truman administration when Frances was appointed to the Civil Service Commission and started to investigate communist infiltration in government. If one had been a communist sympathizer or party member the Civil Service Commission could remove you from your post. This just seemed a nefarious advent of the McCarthy witch-hunt era. The author approves of this role, which, to me, seems a contradiction of Frances Perkins prior Labor post of giving more rights to workers. Nevertheless this is a remarkable account of the first woman to hold power in the U.S. government. We are given a view of government working for the people.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    Frances Perkins, born 1880 into an upper-class but no longer well-off Boston family, and she used her connections and her gentility well. An eye-witness to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, she took an early interest in the welfare of the working class and in the settlement-house movement, supporting nascent labor-union activities in New York, finding her strongest support from Tammany Hall. She knew Franklin Roosevelt fleetingly as a young man, but forged a working alliance during his gover Frances Perkins, born 1880 into an upper-class but no longer well-off Boston family, and she used her connections and her gentility well. An eye-witness to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, she took an early interest in the welfare of the working class and in the settlement-house movement, supporting nascent labor-union activities in New York, finding her strongest support from Tammany Hall. She knew Franklin Roosevelt fleetingly as a young man, but forged a working alliance during his governorship of New York and served as his well-trusted secretary of labor throughout his presidential administration. When Truman succeeded, the other cabinet members declared that that they simply could not work with a female at the cabinet level, Truman caved in, and she continued in other lesser positions, eventually teaching at Cornell, until her death. I am old enough to remember her name, and, given her strong influence and accomplishments in the labor movement, in getting Social Security and other programs passed, why isn't her name widely known today? She was much more interested in what she could accomplish than in who got the credit. She used her social connections to bring useful people together. She sagely formed alliances with often-neglected wives-and-mothers of politicians. She studied how to manage her bosses, how to approach them, how to act as a go-between for men who didn't want to commit themselves before knowing the other guy's reaction, how to negotiate. She dressed as if she were a generation older than her real age, to look more like a mother than a potential girlfriend. She had the New England habit of not showing emotion and of keeping her private life private, and, sadly, there were reasons: she was supporting a husband who was in and out of mental asylums for severe bipolar disorder and lived to be old, and a daughter similarly afflicted but functioning at a more social level. All this was in the days before mental health was discussed publicly and before health insurance; it drained her financially, as well as emotionally, and that's why she had to work into her 80's. We don't learn, from her own words, how Frances "felt". We wind up admiring her, not necessarily developing a liking for such a reticent person. We'd probably like her if we knew her in person; she was liked and appreciated in her time by those who were not upset by a woman being in power.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Cynda

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. In December 2017 and January 2018, I read Isabella: The Warrior Queen which was also written by Kirstin Downey. That book also was written in a sparklingly, accessible style. Both women's biographies reveal the character and the strengths of the women. What makes this book so different that I rated the Isabella book a 5 and this Perkins book a 4.25? When writing about Frances Perkins, the writer can easily enough write a dateline biography. With Perkins being such a strong woman striving, always In December 2017 and January 2018, I read Isabella: The Warrior Queen which was also written by Kirstin Downey. That book also was written in a sparklingly, accessible style. Both women's biographies reveal the character and the strengths of the women. What makes this book so different that I rated the Isabella book a 5 and this Perkins book a 4.25? When writing about Frances Perkins, the writer can easily enough write a dateline biography. With Perkins being such a strong woman striving, always striving, to be and do all she can and with Perkins being a leader among women social workers and leaders, too much is going on for the reader--for me--to clearly hold on to at any time. A timeline would have proved valuable in understanding the flow of the life story and where along Perkins doing and accomplishments the reader following. So what makes Perkins life rather challenging to keep up with? Her education through various colleges, degrees, social work as a young woman, developing and maintaining unlikely social friendships/acquaintanceships many of which helped her further her goals. She started at college trying out and finding her multiple decades'-long professional supportive relationship with her mentor, soon became a part of Jane Addams's social worker group at Hull House. Perkins worked for different agencies, including a long-time part of a Progressive women's health, including nursing and midwifery services for the needy. Perkins married a man who helped her open other political doors, but he would soon and would often manifest bipolarism which ended his career. Now she must be the financial support of her husband and daughter who would also develop bipolarism. (Lithium had been pulled from pharmacology until it was again allowed c 1950.) As the financial support of her small family, Perkins became a political machine of a different sort from Tammany Hall. She could rub elbows with the relatively clean social and money powerhouses along with rather clean politicians along with Tammany Hall and it's rougher types. Whatever happened to Perkins or that she did, she always remained true to her Progressive roots--always. * Perkins helped in the administration of the visiting nurses and midwife organization. Fatality rates of mothers and babies dropped significantly. * Perkins played important roles in labor strikes across US during the years of the Great Depression. She developed the dialogic approach to resolution, intuiting that both sides just needed to be heard before they would settle down to negotiation. She often could put into place/fight to put into place the results she had already planned. * Perkins wrote much of the famous/infamous aspects of the New Deal, from Civil Conservation Corp to Public Works Administration to Social Security Act to Unemployment benefits to Aid to Families with Dependent Children, to Medicaid for Children. And More. * Perkins sought to have legislation passed that would provide socialized medicine from cradle to grave, but that was blocked. It was a precious dream for her as can be seen in her administrative work in the nurse and midwife organization in New York City. So how did a woman who was not particularly sexually alluring who was intelligent and educated, competent become so powerful in the first half of 20th century? FDR used Perkins as his consciences. If she wanted something, he whacked her up unfailingly for his the first couple of terms (8ish years) As to why she stopped being so much FDR 's conscience, you too can read the book. About the Writing Style: Dense, Respectful, Comprehensive, Researched. What was lacking: The dateline. Would have helped to keep things organized. So organization was weak.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Carol

    An illuminating look into one of the most important people in 20th century American history. If you like your eight-hour workday and your Social Security, thank Frances Perkins. But her personal life was not idyllic, she was hated by many in and outside of the Roosevelt Administration, and she had to work until the day she died. Downey did a great job researching and presenting this all-too unknown woman, but I wish for stronger writing, as well, to compliment this complex subject.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Drew

    If you don't know who Frances Perkins is, you must read this book by Kirstin Downey. The first female Cabinet member, she was the Secretary of Labor under FDR, from 1933 through 1945. Her ideas and her perseverance created many of the programs that encompassed the New Deal. These included 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, and a revitalized public If you don't know who Frances Perkins is, you must read this book by Kirstin Downey. The first female Cabinet member, she was the Secretary of Labor under FDR, from 1933 through 1945. Her ideas and her perseverance created many of the programs that encompassed the New Deal. These included 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, and a revitalized public employment service. The only thing she advocated for that she didn't get was national health insurance, which took until 2010. I told a friend over dinner recently that I'd never heard of Perkins until 2011, when the Republican Governor of Maine dissed this Maine native and removed a mural that included her and renamed a room that bore her name. I went through grade school, high school and college without ever hearing about her. That is a disgrace. Downey has done the country a great service in resurrecting her name and accomplishments. What's most impressive is that she did this as a woman in the early 20th century. Reading about the sniping that she had to endure as a strong woman in a national position of power was truly sad. More pathetic is that such discrimination still occurs today and remains the bread and butter of the right. The war on women didn't start today or in the 1930s, but its main proponents were then, and are now, Republicans. While Perkins had many great attributes, there were a few that I didn't like. Both Perkins and Downey buy wholesale into the Red Scare and the hounding of decent people for thinking differently. They try to justify the un-American assault on freedom of thought but more often they say one guilty person justifies the wholesale character assassinations that occurred. Perkins helped set up loyalty systems and vetting then complained that the media blew the red scare out of proportion. Downey should read Jay Feldman's "Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America." Perkins also kept quiet about many things, including sexism, racism, and the Holocaust. She and Downey attribute this to her strong New England training to keep quiet, not rock the boat and not embarrass one's boss. In my opinion, leaders need to speak out not embrace outdated codes of conduct. If something is wrong, keeping quiet just perpetuates the problem. A situation that Downey doesn't comment on is when Perkins is replaced by Lewis B. Schwellenbach as Secretary of Labor under Truman. She complains that Schwellenbach showed up in her office after being sworn in and took it over, regardless of Perkins' last minute scheduled items. Perkins herself did the very same thing when she took over as Secretary of Labor in 1933. The situation is ripe for commentary, but Downey only paints Schwellenbach in a bad light. Finally, I was put off by the author and Perkins religiousness, especially toward the end of the book. Perkins believe that secularization was bad, claiming that only her god and Christians had people's best interests in mind. She tries to say that the nation was not founded as a secular nation, going so far as to focus more on the 20th century invention of "in god we trust" rather than the founding motto of "e pluribus unum." As far as the mechanics of the book go, I think Downey should have done another draft or two before publication. The book flow is awkward, jumping back and forth in time as she coves different topics. I felt a little whiplash as each chapter, and sometimes sub-chapters, jerked back to early 1933 before moving ahead to the mid-to-late 30s and then the 40s. Downey also adores her subject, to the detriment of all the other actors. No one is perfect, but in this book you might think Perkins is a god while everyone else is a bumbling fool, devoted acolyte of Perkins or a devious person. There is a special callousness by both Perkins and Downey to Eleanor Roosevelt. They both ignored the great things that woman did, especially with her work related to the United Nations. They snipe at her and diminish her work, claiming that she only showboated, self-aggrandized and road FDR's coattails, which is so incredibly shallow. They do to Eleanor Roosevelt what they rightfully complain about was done to Perkins while she was a national figure. Finally, I wasn't happy that the author called her subject by her first name throughout the book, while rarely referring to the other actors, especially the men, by their first names. Having said all that, I think this is a good book and the topic is something everyone in America should know about. Frances Perkins changed our world and what she did affects every American today.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Olivia

    Completely fascinating. America has no idea what it owes to Frances Perkins, and it boggles my mind that someone who gave SO MUCH to modern society (fire codes, no child labor, social security, labor unions, unemployment insurance, fair work days, SO MUCH MORE) is completely unknown to most of us. Perkins has always been one of my personal heroes, but this book solidifies her place at the very top. What an incredible, brave, wise, clever, devoted American we had in Frances Perkins. Highly recomm Completely fascinating. America has no idea what it owes to Frances Perkins, and it boggles my mind that someone who gave SO MUCH to modern society (fire codes, no child labor, social security, labor unions, unemployment insurance, fair work days, SO MUCH MORE) is completely unknown to most of us. Perkins has always been one of my personal heroes, but this book solidifies her place at the very top. What an incredible, brave, wise, clever, devoted American we had in Frances Perkins. Highly recommended.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Brenda

    I have just concluded my reading of this remarkable biography of Frances Perkins, first woman to hold high office in our federal government. As Secretary of Labor throughout FDR's presidency, she created and executed much of the legislature of the New Deal. I strongly recommend this highly readable and inspiring book to all woman readers. To help us remember how far we have come and who worked tirelessly to set an example of women's intelligence and skill in a male dominated world. Please read t I have just concluded my reading of this remarkable biography of Frances Perkins, first woman to hold high office in our federal government. As Secretary of Labor throughout FDR's presidency, she created and executed much of the legislature of the New Deal. I strongly recommend this highly readable and inspiring book to all woman readers. To help us remember how far we have come and who worked tirelessly to set an example of women's intelligence and skill in a male dominated world. Please read this book!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Susan O

    As you might expect, the book is full of political history. From her early days, Frances Perkins was concerned with working people and the poor, settlement houses, factory workers, etc. After the Triangle Factory fire, she became involved in trying to bring about regulations that would ensure worker safety. As Secretary of Labor, she was largely responsible for crafting much of the New Deal legislation. All of these areas were controversial and she was often attacked in the media and by colleagu As you might expect, the book is full of political history. From her early days, Frances Perkins was concerned with working people and the poor, settlement houses, factory workers, etc. After the Triangle Factory fire, she became involved in trying to bring about regulations that would ensure worker safety. As Secretary of Labor, she was largely responsible for crafting much of the New Deal legislation. All of these areas were controversial and she was often attacked in the media and by colleagues. The fact that Perkins was the first woman to hold a Cabinet position, and the only one for the duration of her tenure, meant that the criticism of her took on a particularly nasty form at times. It also meant that she walked a fine line and adjusted everything from the way she dressed to how she interacted with people. It seems that she was loved or hated. The love had to be won, but the hatred was often simply based on her gender. Perkins and FDR worked together for many years, both before and during his time in the White House, and they were also good friends. She had a difficult personal life and was very religious. All of these things, among others, factor into the type of person she was. Downey does a good job analyzing Perkins's character and supporting this with her actions and interactions with other people. Downey goes into quite a bit of detail about Perkins's work with labor unions as well as the legislative aspect of the New Deal, as you might expect from the title of the book, but she doesn't neglect the rest of her life. Overall I think her treatment was even-handed, showing us both positive and negative aspects of Perkins's character. I would recommend it to people interested in early 20th century american history, women's history, or political history. If you don't like reading about politics though, I would steer clear.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    An apparently "dry" subject--Frances Perkins was a remarkable woman and a major social innovator, with political sense, as a close confidante and adviser to FDR. She was responsible for much of the social aspects of the New Deal--Social Security, child labor laws, minimum wage. She had hoped to include health insurance with her package, but realized that to achieve Social Security she had to postpone that issue (80 years!). Downey does a splendid job of fleshing out her subject, although Frances An apparently "dry" subject--Frances Perkins was a remarkable woman and a major social innovator, with political sense, as a close confidante and adviser to FDR. She was responsible for much of the social aspects of the New Deal--Social Security, child labor laws, minimum wage. She had hoped to include health insurance with her package, but realized that to achieve Social Security she had to postpone that issue (80 years!). Downey does a splendid job of fleshing out her subject, although Frances chose to keep most of her personal life private. She married and had a daughter, but within a few years her husband was mentally ill and she had financial and personal responsibilities for him and for her daughter. She was far in advance for a woman of her time, and had the unusual opportunity for highly visible public service as FDR's Secretary of Labor-- yet there were many other women at the time who shared her concern for workers, and especially women and families. Having lived through these years myself as a school girl and during the war as a college student, I found much I recognized, but at least as much that I hadn't noticed at the time. The applicability to present times is pertinent--she and FDR also faced tremendous battles with conservative and reactionary forces, especially the moneyed class. I found this the best book I have read this year!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey Powanda

    A month ago, I listened to Elizabeth Warren talk about the life work of Frances Perkins, and it struck me that I knew almost nothing about her, even though she is perhaps one of the most important women in U.S. history. Strange. I checked the Seattle Public Library website to see if they had any books about her. Just one, this one. And there was no waiting list. I immediately checked it out. In 1911, Perkins witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a tragedy that led Perkins to become a champion o A month ago, I listened to Elizabeth Warren talk about the life work of Frances Perkins, and it struck me that I knew almost nothing about her, even though she is perhaps one of the most important women in U.S. history. Strange. I checked the Seattle Public Library website to see if they had any books about her. Just one, this one. And there was no waiting list. I immediately checked it out. In 1911, Perkins witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a tragedy that led Perkins to become a champion of workplace safety. She later worked for Governor Al Smith and FDR in Albany, then joined FDR's administration in 1933 as the first woman Labor Secretary. Her hard work led to New Deal programs that we now take for granted: the minimum wage, work-hour limitations, and the Social Security Act. Had FDR given her more support, she might have passed national health care. Although Perkins was an extremely private person, Downey was able to find revealing information about her secret relationships with Mary Rumsey, her frequently institutionalized husband Paul, and her difficult daughter Susanna. Downey's book is an excellent biography of Perkins. It's well-written, thoroughly researched, and painstaking in detail. Perkins was a fascinating, intelligent, hard-working woman who deserves more recognition for all of her achievements.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Rob Prince

    Poorly written, but even poorly written and schmaltzy at times, the life of Frances Perkins is worth the read. Perkins was the first woman member of a presidential cabinet who served as Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor during the New Deal. In her life she crosses paths with many icons (a few of them actually interesting) of early 20th Century American political and cultural life. She made her career by understanding men in power and sucking up to them. At this she was an expert. She also, had, it Poorly written, but even poorly written and schmaltzy at times, the life of Frances Perkins is worth the read. Perkins was the first woman member of a presidential cabinet who served as Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor during the New Deal. In her life she crosses paths with many icons (a few of them actually interesting) of early 20th Century American political and cultural life. She made her career by understanding men in power and sucking up to them. At this she was an expert. She also, had, it seems, genuine principles. A witness of the great Triangle Shirt Factory fire which took the lives of 171 working class women locked in a shirt factory by their pig-capitalist employer. Most of the victims were Italian and E. European Jewish immigrants who jumped to their deaths from the higher floors. Watching flying burning women seemed to make an impression on Perkins who dedicated her life to improving the lot of working and poor Americans.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Liz

    I read an article online over a year ago that had a little blurb in it about Frances Perkins, and I remember being so impressed with her that I thought, "If I ever have a daughter, I will name her Frances." Now that I've finished this book and know even more about her, I am still super impressed. She felt a moral conviction to help those who are vulnerable to the negative effects of capitalism, and the courage and tenacity to follow up that conviction with action. We have Social Security, minimum I read an article online over a year ago that had a little blurb in it about Frances Perkins, and I remember being so impressed with her that I thought, "If I ever have a daughter, I will name her Frances." Now that I've finished this book and know even more about her, I am still super impressed. She felt a moral conviction to help those who are vulnerable to the negative effects of capitalism, and the courage and tenacity to follow up that conviction with action. We have Social Security, minimum wage, worker's compensation, unemployment benefits, an eight-hour work day, as well as a ban on child labor because of her efforts (and her close friendship with FDR). She did all this even while dealing with family troubles and rampant sexism. I still think if I ever have a daughter, Frances would be a very good name indeed.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

    It's hard to overstate how in awe I am of Frances Perkins, and how sorry that no one seems to know the tremendously influential role she played in creating modern America, from workplace safety regulations (fire escapes, sprinklers, standardized fire safety laws) to the reforms of the New Deal - the 8 hour work day, overtime, minimum wage, an end to child labor, Social Security, unemployment insurance, just to hit the highlights. (Her only failure, in her estimation, was in not establishing fede It's hard to overstate how in awe I am of Frances Perkins, and how sorry that no one seems to know the tremendously influential role she played in creating modern America, from workplace safety regulations (fire escapes, sprinklers, standardized fire safety laws) to the reforms of the New Deal - the 8 hour work day, overtime, minimum wage, an end to child labor, Social Security, unemployment insurance, just to hit the highlights. (Her only failure, in her estimation, was in not establishing federal health insurance.) . It's a staggering personal legacy from a woman of great intelligence, faith and selflessness who was driven to help others. I wish I were a Lin-Manuel Miranda, to popularize the virtues of another revolutionary Cabinet Secretary. Every American (unknowingly) benefits from her legacy. I can't recommend this strongly enough.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Beth

    I enjoyed this book. It gave a better understanding of life in america during the time just after WWI throught WWII. Especially for women. Frances Perkins wanted a better life for everyone and did a lot to improve working conditions for all. I recommend this book to all no matter their politcal persuasion. Reading In The Garden of Beasts by Eric Larson along with this one will help to give a better picture of what was going on in the world at the time.

  18. 5 out of 5

    bianca guerrero

    Solid book. Best/most illuminating parts were on how Perkins dealt with the mental illnesses that her husband and daughter suffered from; her strategy for getting FDR on board with her ideas; and her relationship with the press. It was really fascinating to read how she, the first woman to ever serve in a Cabinet position, navigated society and her own expectations of how a woman should act, given the immense amount of power and clout that being Secretary of Labor afforded her. The author could Solid book. Best/most illuminating parts were on how Perkins dealt with the mental illnesses that her husband and daughter suffered from; her strategy for getting FDR on board with her ideas; and her relationship with the press. It was really fascinating to read how she, the first woman to ever serve in a Cabinet position, navigated society and her own expectations of how a woman should act, given the immense amount of power and clout that being Secretary of Labor afforded her. The author could have done a lot more to highlight about the impact of Perkins’ ideas (worker protections especially) on people of color, and failed to mention that Perkins’ idea of universal healthcare was included in Truman’s Fair Deal. Otherwise, solid book.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Carrie

    A well written, sometimes too thorough biography of an amazing woman. Sometimes the author would get bogged down in the details of people peripheral to Frances. The chapter focusing on labor unions is rife with names and acronyms you'll soon forget. It also got a little confusing when the author would be discussing one time period, say 1950, and jump back and discuss an event from 1947 before continuing. However, these are minor complaints and I definitely recommend reading this book to learn mo A well written, sometimes too thorough biography of an amazing woman. Sometimes the author would get bogged down in the details of people peripheral to Frances. The chapter focusing on labor unions is rife with names and acronyms you'll soon forget. It also got a little confusing when the author would be discussing one time period, say 1950, and jump back and discuss an event from 1947 before continuing. However, these are minor complaints and I definitely recommend reading this book to learn more about Frances Perkins.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Incredibly easy to read and informative biography of one of the least-appreciated but most influential woman in our nation, and the world. I’ve long-admired the broad strokes I knew of her, but this riveting biography paints such a fuller and more complex portrait. So grateful for the author’s research and writing skills. This should be required reading for all policy wonks and legislators.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Anne

    An outstanding woman, tireless in her quest to improve working conditions despite facing widespread criticism and dealing with health issues in her family. Descriptive narrative and dialogue about the New Deal initiatives, especially the evolution of Social Security. Learned that a national health insurance program was thwarted even during the 1930's!

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn Miller

    A really inspiring look at a woman largely forgotten, except as the token “first female Cabinet member.” Plus, somehow I didn’t know that she taught at Cornell in ILR and lived out the last years of her life in Ithaca??? I got a little lost in the labor conflicts in the middle of the book and had to put it down for a few months, but I’m really glad I finished it.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Tristan

    Real-life superhero story! There were multiple points in this book where I struggled to comprehend how Perkins could maintain such strength. The later parts of the book (after the New Deal) were slower, but still interesting.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Caseylynn

    Phenomenal book on the Frances Perkins

  25. 4 out of 5

    Trina

    I learned a great deal from this book and highly recommend it.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Denise Cormaney

    I read this one a few years ago for my neighborhood book club, and I read it again this month for the senior book discussion group I lead at the library. I gave it 5 stars the first time, and I’m keeping the rating the same. This is a fascinating look at a woman who gave us many of the labor standards we take for granted today, as well as many of the hallmark policies from the FDR Administration. It is a true shame that most Americans do not know Frances Perkins as a great leader in our history. I read this one a few years ago for my neighborhood book club, and I read it again this month for the senior book discussion group I lead at the library. I gave it 5 stars the first time, and I’m keeping the rating the same. This is a fascinating look at a woman who gave us many of the labor standards we take for granted today, as well as many of the hallmark policies from the FDR Administration. It is a true shame that most Americans do not know Frances Perkins as a great leader in our history. She was a woman who saw problems around her, rolled up her sleeves and worked to foster change. Her career started in local politics in New York after being truly appalled by the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, leading to the fire safety codes that we still employ today. Due to her own traumatic birth experience, she started a public health program, reducing the maternal death rate by 60% (this was before the use of antibiotics.) It’s all the more admirable to note that many of the early policies she was able to push through were enacted before she herself had the right to vote! She was the first female Cabinet member, appointed by FDR to be his Secretary of Labor. The minimum wage, social security, the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, child labor laws, fire safety codes: these are all policies Americans enjoy because of Frances Perkins. The one remaining issue she worked hard to enact never made it through: health care. The country was drawn out of the Depression and into World War II, and Congress and the American people lost their focus on social programs as they turned their attention to fighting the war. We are also still feeling the ramifications of this today. I like to think that if the internet and social media were around in her day, she’d be on par with The Notorious RBG for being a brilliant and tireless feminist icon who accomplished great things in the name of bettering the shared life of her fellow citizens. on't know if that's due to sexism or just how history was written, but this is worth reading.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    Kirstin Downey was on a mission to restore Frances Perkins to her rightful place in history, as the author and moral conscience of much of the domestic legislation of the 1930s. Social security, unemployment insurance, workplace safety, minimum wage -- all of these safety nets were her handiwork, as she served as Secretary of Labor under the sympathetic and supportive benevolence of Franklin Roosevelt. Perkins was the first woman to occupy a seat in a presidential cabinet, and that alone gives he Kirstin Downey was on a mission to restore Frances Perkins to her rightful place in history, as the author and moral conscience of much of the domestic legislation of the 1930s. Social security, unemployment insurance, workplace safety, minimum wage -- all of these safety nets were her handiwork, as she served as Secretary of Labor under the sympathetic and supportive benevolence of Franklin Roosevelt. Perkins was the first woman to occupy a seat in a presidential cabinet, and that alone gives her distinction, but I was equally impressed by her adroitness early in her career at working with the New York State Legislature, already committed to an agenda that could only be regarded as forerunner to the domestic accomplishments under Roosevelt. In fact, that was my favorite part of the book. She was a young woman, a social worker, a devotee of the famous Hull House in Chicago, and yet she was emerging as a complete political animal. She analyzed the people she had to influence, made friends, became acquainted with their mothers; in short, she had the instincts to know how to make things happen, and how to compromise, and she had those talents early. It is all the more remarkable when you realize that she did not even have the right to vote. She finally gained that right at the age of 40, and 12 years later she was in Roosevelt's cabinet. Much that is compelling about this story is the opportunity to see behind the scenes of two tumultuous decades, from 1933 to 1953, covering the presidencies of Roosevelt and Truman. The depression and World War II -- are there any events more deeply imbedded in our national consciousness? I often felt like a privileged spectator. Then, in spite of tragic family circumstances, she persevered to have a rewarding "retirement" on the faculty at Cornell. Indeed, the family circumstances, which required her to be the breadwinner, were the driving force to keep her in the work force. I did not find the writing brilliant, but the story is a fantastic one.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Martha

    This was a fascinating study of a woman with intelligence, tenacity, and strength of vision who followed her calling in spite of some tremendous road blocks that would have intimidated a woman of lesser fortitude. Frances Perkins was a woman who every young woman in this country should have the opportunity to learn about. Of course, few do, and maybe that is because in order to move the labor reforms that she did, including Social Security, minimum wage laws, the 40 hour work week--to say nothi This was a fascinating study of a woman with intelligence, tenacity, and strength of vision who followed her calling in spite of some tremendous road blocks that would have intimidated a woman of lesser fortitude. Frances Perkins was a woman who every young woman in this country should have the opportunity to learn about. Of course, few do, and maybe that is because in order to move the labor reforms that she did, including Social Security, minimum wage laws, the 40 hour work week--to say nothing of fire and safety conditions for workers--as a woman in her time she knew that she needed the male majority around her to be convinced and take credit. Politics is all about manipulation, pulling strings, calling favors, cultivating money, and she proved she could do them all. Author Downey obviously did some meticulous research into long buried letters and papers of Frances Perkins, and it sounds like our first female Secretary of Labor didn't leave behind a lot of controversial material. I found some of the chapters describing her years in FDR's cabinet to be a little bit one step forward, two steps back as the author followed parallel threads of legislation and political maneuvering, especially as Perkins wooed or butted heads with various factions of labor and management and tried to get far flung factions (including the Russians) to take initiative on labor reforms. She sounds like the kind of person who took her work seriously, deftly absorbed her failures while regathering her forces, and could be a charming guest at a dinner party.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Randall Wallace

    What was the radical political platform of the Socialists in 1901? “An eight-hour workday, the right to organize labor unions, and the creation of public parks and children’s playgrounds.” Strange today how wanting such things then made you a wild-eyed radical. Frances’s motivation for helping the poor was, “because it was what Jesus would do”. After the resisted passing of the eight-hour day, Republicans continued fighting against “the minimum wage, as well as maximum hour limitations and restr What was the radical political platform of the Socialists in 1901? “An eight-hour workday, the right to organize labor unions, and the creation of public parks and children’s playgrounds.” Strange today how wanting such things then made you a wild-eyed radical. Frances’s motivation for helping the poor was, “because it was what Jesus would do”. After the resisted passing of the eight-hour day, Republicans continued fighting against “the minimum wage, as well as maximum hour limitations and restrictions on child labor.” How thoughtful! Fighting hard to make sure children work longer hours! Frances got my grandmother to “remove her spectacles and helped her select a new wardrobe” when my grandpa became FDR’s vice-president in 1940. Pearl Harbor forces “the New Deal into the background”. Winston Churchill was half-American. Roosevelt’s cabinet “catered to almost every group”, according to historian James MacGregor Burns. Remember that it is a Democrat, Maurice Dies, who sets the stage for Senator Joseph R. McCarthy with his Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities. McCarthy’s campaign limps until he remembers the Fear Communism ‘schtick’ of Dies, as a way to get press and get his numbers up. Thanks to Frances, around 44 million people get social security every month. Although Eleanor Roosevelt is now more famous, for me Frances Perkins is the harder to duplicate role model.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    I'd say read it and then pass it along... or maybe keep it to re-read it. I didn't learn much of anything in my American History class. I learned more about history in third grade than I did in all of my high school and college years. At least until I picked up this book. I had never heard of the "New Deal" before. I certainly had no idea who Frances Perkins was, and it seems kind of sad to me now... that such an amazingly influential person has faded from fame and recognition. I like how this bo I'd say read it and then pass it along... or maybe keep it to re-read it. I didn't learn much of anything in my American History class. I learned more about history in third grade than I did in all of my high school and college years. At least until I picked up this book. I had never heard of the "New Deal" before. I certainly had no idea who Frances Perkins was, and it seems kind of sad to me now... that such an amazingly influential person has faded from fame and recognition. I like how this book told of Frances Perkins' personal life... or the tatters of her personal life while also showing how successful she was professionally. I think it also helps set the scene for why minimum wage and social security and occupational health and safety standards are important. I think my generation often sees these items as political points of contention, but this book really shows how the regular worker was affected by the lack of these standards. We have it pretty good, actually. For the record, I detest historical non-fiction... the best history books I ever read were by Naomi Novik, and Napoleon rode on the back of a dragon in at least one of them. This book has no dragons, and I still really enjoyed reading it.

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