Pultizer Prize–winning journalist Downey deconstructs the life of a passionate labor advocate who became the nation’s first female Cabinet member.
Frances Perkins (1880–1965) had clearly delineated goals: reasonable working hours and wages, fire safety, improved working conditions and the end of child labor. Displaying the fortitude and prescience that carried her through three decades of public service, she outlined these during her first meeting with FDR. After being named his Secretary of Labor, she went on to accomplish reform of unprecedented scope. The 40-hour workweek, unemployment insurance and Social Security are but a few of her legacies; her storied relationship with FDR is another. Making excellent use of personal papers and of archival materials that include a 5,000-page oral history, Downey allows Perkins to narrate much of the text, giving new life to this often overlooked historical figure. FDR saw something special in Perkins, and his confidence and support helped her endure years of sexism from fellow Cabinet members and unwarranted criticism from the press. She developed keen insight into the process of successful lawmaking and established a deliberately staid work persona as a “plain, sturdy, dependable woman” that allowed her to exert authority and demand respect on her own terms. Married to a man institutionalized with mental illness, she kept her unhappy personal life out of the papers and away from Washington, stifling her emotions and dedicating herself fully to the country’s problems. At times it seemed that FDR involved her in every major policy decision. Perkins essentially authored the New Deal; she handled immigration during the onset of World War II, bending rules to harbor German Jews; she worked to establish fair hearings against suspected communists. Her entire career was devoted to the principals she espoused in 1913: “It is human life and happiness which we are trying to save…this is the most important thing.” As a progressive president again takes office in a time of economic crisis, Perkins offers a vital role model.
Fascinating, if academic portrayal of an inspiring legislator and reformer.