The Woman Behind the New Deal

The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience

Downey, Kirstin

Book - 2009
Average Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.
The Woman Behind the New Deal
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.

Publisher: New York : Nan A. Talese, c2009
ISBN: 0385513658
Branch Call Number: B P4194D 2009
Characteristics: xiii, 458 p., [16] p. of plates : ill. ; 25 cm


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Dec 30, 2014
  • Chapel_Hill_KenMc rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

Well-researched and very readable account of the career of a woman who should be much more widely known. Frances Perkins can be given much of the credit for creating our Social Security system, as well as numerous occupational health and safety measures we now take for granted.

Dec 09, 2013
  • salamanderA rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

As the previous commentators have said, this is the story that needed to be told about the "woman behind the throne" (not Eleanor) in FDR's New Deal world. It is amazing that Frances Perkins is not better known, since the programs she spawned still have such influence on public policy in both the U.S. and Canada.

Jun 13, 2013
  • dboy1523 rated this: 3 stars out of 5.

Though one of the few biographies written on Perkins, it is not well-written.
While giving more color on her marriage, Downey tends tp highlight parts of her life that fits into today's agenda like the Holocaust or the 2008 downturn.

Dec 17, 2012
  • dbrh852 rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

This was a fascinating biography...dragged a bit in some places. Overall, a worthwhile read. This woman did more to impact our society and the safety net we take for granted today than anyone realizes. Full of valuable insights on the practicalities of pushing social policy forward in a political climate. After reading this book, i believe FDR would have been a far less effective President without Frances Perkins as his Secretary of Labor. She was a strong, heroic woman with heartbreaking vulnerabilities. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in feminist history, U.S. labor policies, the Great Depression, or Franklin Roosevelt.

Jul 04, 2011
  • floy rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

I had heard of Frances Perkins and knew she was the first woman Cabinet member but this book about her twenty years of government service amazed me. So much lost history that now is being shared with us! Even books on feminism often don't mention her. This book makes it obvious that she was a model of feminism and labor advocacy. I urge everyone to buy this book and add it to your library.

Jun 23, 2011
  • Ellington4 rated this: 3.5 stars out of 5.

Highly recommended. A fascinating biography about an extraordinary woman--Frances Perkins, the first woman U.S. cabinet member and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor. The book details her movement from being a devoted social worker and suffragette to her work in Roosevelt's New Deal Administration, championing social security, the 40-hour work week, unemployment insurance, child labor laws and other major social advances. Written by a former investigative reporter for the Washington Post who is a great admirer of Perkins, the book is refreshingly well written and constantly absorbing.

Jan 27, 2011
  • pandas_paw rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

Very insightful book about a truly American heroine. It gives a great view into the inner circles of FDR's administration and the depth of the brain trust FDR had supporting him.


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