Skip to main content

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


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

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 ( on January 24, 2011

The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, Fdr's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience
by Kirstin Downey

  • Publication Date: March 3, 2009
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese
  • ISBN-10: 0385513658
  • ISBN-13: 9780385513654