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Frances Perkins: The Woman Behind the New Deal

There are a few things more core to the American way of life than the safety net instituted by The New Deal, and it turns out that a woman who is hardly known today was "the moving force" behind it all.


In a lively, engaging, and detailed book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Kirstin Downey, it was Frances Perkins who laid out the reforms that President Roosevelt would have to back before she would accept the post as America's first female Secretary of Labor.


"She ticked off the items: a 40-hour workweek, a minimum wage, workers compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service, and health insurance.... The scope of her list was breathtaking. She was proposing a fundamental and radical restructuring of American Society, with enactment of historic social welfare and labor laws."


Robert B. Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, says that "Francis Perkins was the moving force behind much of [The New Deal]. Her legacy included … initiatives that have improved the lives of generations of Americans."


And her daughter nagged her into championing the WPA's inclusion of artists, which is responsible for some of the excellent murals in public buildings by Diego Rivera and others.


According to influential authors studying the period, "Francis Perkins (was) a fierce advocate who put people first, a public servant who was actually worthy of the name, and a bracing reminder of what inspired government can do."


Downey spent eight years researching and had access to new documents and interviews with family members to produce The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins – Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage. She concludes that "it was a job Perkins had prepared for all her life. She had changed her name, her appearance, even her age to make herself a more effective labor advocate."


The book is a compelling chronology of her rise to power and her involvement in almost every important social movement of the time including women's suffrage, improved living conditions for immigrants, aid to the poor and the end of child labor. It also details of the way that conservatives tried to undermine her. It was a particularly hard road in the beginning: remember that "even though the reformers had friends in high places … the women lobbying for the bill did not even have the right to vote."


"Francis Perkins built her closest female friendships around the suffrage movement. She spoke regularly on street corners, advocating constitutional change to permit women to vote... and a dramatic change in the relationships between men and women. "Feminism means revolution, and I am a revolutionist," she said. "I believe in revolution as a principle. It does good to everybody... I fear that only a somewhat antiquated reverence for plate glass windows keeps me from being one of the stone throwing kind (of revolutionaries.)"


"She shocked her friends from Mount Holyoke [College] by trumpeting her support for the family limitation movement, which was illegal because birth control information was deemed obscene."


Early in her career, Perkins "took a job running the New York City office of the National Consumers League and focused on four areas: poor conditions in cellar bakeries, long hours and poor wages for women, child labor, and workplace fire hazards," a battle she took on during the era of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  "The league lobbied against sweatshops, long hours, and unsanitary conditions. It sought corrective legislation at the state level because the US Supreme Court had repeatedly ruled that federal laws on these subjects were illegal because they violated contract law or restricted Interstate commerce."


The book is also enlivened by personal details: Sinclair Lewis "yelled a marriage proposal up to her bedroom window from the street below." Her husband became a patient in a sanatorium but had left Frances as the breadwinner for years. Her daughter, whom she groomed to be a high society woman, took advantage of Frances but ultimately suffered from the by-polar disorder that had committed her husband. Society women often provided both emotional and financial support for her.


It's a great read and after checking the eBook out of the library, I ordered the paperback copy to be an essential part of my collection on unsung women.

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