The Revolutionist

The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience
By Kirstin Downey
New York: Nan A. Talese, 2009, 480 pp., $35.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Susan Feiner


The economic catastrophe of the Great Depression would have been much worse if Frances Perkins, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and the first woman to serve in the US cabinet, had not been there to push, prod, and cajole Roosevelt into doing the right thing. Kirsten Downey’s exciting, fast-paced biography makes it clear that FDR depended on Perkins’s formidable legislative skills, her ability to bring opposing sides to the table, and her near infallible insight into people’s characters.

Reading about Perkins’s heroic contributions, I kept wondering why her story is being told only now, nearly 65 years since she stepped down from her twelve-year, record-setting stint as secretary of labor. Although Perkins engineered many of the most important New Deal victories, her feminist sensibilities relegated her to the sidelines. She ranked social justice above personal fame and glory. From 1933 until 1945, she was every bit as powerful as the men around FDR. She was so effective, in fact, that many in Congress, the labor movement, and various cabinet offices resented her presence. Perkins’s life is an object lesson in what women—Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and even Sarah Palin—endure in the rock-’em-sock-’em chauvinistic dust up of national politics.

Fanny Perkins was born on April 10, 1880, and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, the oldest daughter in a conservative New England family. She attended Mount Holyoke College, where she was impressed by her course in American economic history. The students visited factories, observed working conditions, and saw first hand how long hours, low pay, child labor, and unsafe conditions undermined the lives of workers. After graduating in 1902, Perkins, a progressive and woman suffragist, did not want to return to her parents’ Massachusetts home or join debutante society. By 1909, after a brief stint in Chicago working at Hull-House, where she learned about Jane Addams’s progressive interventionist theory of social work, she was living Greenwich Village, socializing with the artistic avant garde, earning kudos among her suffragist peers for her oratorical skills, and building the network of friends and associates to whom she would later turn whenever she needed behind-the-scenes help. An ardent supporter of votes for women and the illegal “family limitation movement,” Perkins knew full well where her politics led: “feminism means revolution and I am a revolutionist.” Determined to create social change, she was pleased to land a job with the National Consumer’s League in New York City, whose mission, in the words of league founder Florence Kelley, was to “investigate, record, agitate.” Perkins’s particular brief was bakers’ working conditions, women’s long hours and low wages, child labor, and workplace fire hazards. These kinds of issues remained front and center throughout her career.

On March 25, 1911, Perkins was having tea with friends in an elegant Greenwich Village townhouse just off Washington Square Park when the Triangle fire broke out. The tragedy—in which 146 factory workers at the Triangle Waist Company, most of them young women, died—taught Perkins three lessons that shaped her approach to social welfare for the rest of her life. First, she saw that little would change if reformers bet that the powerful would voluntarily improve poor people’s working and living conditions. Perkins became a champion of government regulation of the conditions in shops, factories, mines, and farms, and pressed for legislation throughout the 1920s.

Second, she learned that no matter how horrible the event, a carefully orchestrated response to it could advance progressive causes. After the Triangle fire, Perkins took the political lead in organizing for stricter workplace fire laws. She enlisted key New Yorkers to speak out against the danger of sweatshops. Throughout her life, she would draw on friends, associates, and friends of friends to call public attention to pressing problems that would otherwise have been invisible. Once the problems were apparent, she created alliances to pass remediating legislation.

Finally, Perkins helped to create “a totally new kind of government entity—the New York State Factory Investigating Committee—a legislative panel empowered to investigate questionable working conditions around the state and to recommend legislative remedies.” It would be impossible to list even half the commissions on which Perkins served and equally difficult to list those she called into being. Throughout her life she made sure that talented people participated in governmental investigations. She also made sure that politicians knew she was paying attention, frequently presenting awards to states and cities that implemented committee recommendations.

A regular in Albany, Perkins became well-known in New York political circles. When Roosevelt was elected governor in 1928, Perkins was the obvious candidate to head the state’s Department of Labor. She worked closely with Governor Roosevelt, traveling to dozens of cities and towns to mediate volatile industrial disputes. During this period, she remade herself. She stopped using the name Fanny, which could lead to bad jokes; she dropped two years from her age; and she consciously assumed such a somber, dowdy persona that she became known as “Ma Perkins.” Although she’d been married since 1913, she never changed her name, not even after the birth of her daughter.

Downey does a wonderful job of handling previously unknown facts about Perkins’s private life. Few of her contemporaries were aware of her husband’s mental illnesses, and fewer still of the breakdowns suffered by her daughter Suzanna. Perkins always hid the fact that she was essentially a single mother. Playing a significant role in state and national politics, she knew how important it was to keep her private life under wraps. Republicans and conservative Democrats would have been happy to use her nontraditional family arrangement to cast aspersions on her character and undermine her policy recommendations.

Downey’s virtuoso use of primary materials shows readers how the New Deal actually came about. The most significant legislation of the era, such as the 1935 Social Security Act and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, was passed because of her support, guidance, and strategic maneuvering. For example, FDR wanted a draft of the Social Security Act by Christmas 1934. As the deadline approached, the 23-member committee of cabinet members, pension experts, and others began squabbling. The press caught wind of the bickering and reported that legislative support for the act was dying. A night or two before Christmas, Perkins called the committee members to a meeting in her home. “She led them into the dining room, placed a large bottle of Scotch on the table, and told them no one would leave until the work was done.” As a result, the president presented a bill to Congress in January 1935.

Then, key senators and representatives wavered in their support. The American Medical Association, which no one could ever accuse of being a frontrunner in the race to serve the sick and needy, mobilized such intense opposition against government intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship that the committee, joined by FDR, agreed to remove every provision for healthcare from the bill. Southerners threatened to withhold support unless racist exclusions were applied to agricultural and domestic workers. Meanwhile the National Association of Manufacturers called the bill “the ultimate socialist control of life and industry.” Still, Perkins pressed forward, finally achieving congressional approval of the Social Security Act on August 14, 1935: 2010 is the 75th anniversary of this momentous legislation.

It’s impossible not to draw the parallels between Perkins’s experience with healthcare and the debacle we face today. Indeed, President Obama, addressing a joint session of Congress last August noted, “A bill for comprehensive health reform was first introduced by John Dingell Sr. in 1943.” That Dingell’s bill was not introduced in 1935 is testimony to how much things haven’t changed. Today, corporations continue to block policies that would improve the lives of ordinary citizens. Without a federal mandate for healthcare provision, enterprises that offer their workers health insurance incur higher costs, and their returns suffer. Entire communities collapse as capital leaves, seeking opportunities for higher profit. Deindustrialization, high unemployment, and soaring inequality are the result.

New Deal historians would be rich if they had a dollar for every person who claimed responsibility for creating Social Security. Oddly, few credit Perkins. But in the words of Maurine Milliner, assistant to New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, one of the first members of the Social Security Board, “The one person, in my opinion, above all others who was responsible for there being a Social Security program in the early 1930s was Frances Perkins.” According to then Solicitor of Labor Charles E. Wyzanski, Perkins “virtually forced the president to have a Social Security program.”

Perkins learned from Wagner that policies concerning wages, hours, and working conditions had to be enacted at the national rather than the state level; otherwise there was nothing to prevent a “race to the bottom” in which businesses would pack up and head to the least restrictive areas. His insight came into play repeatedly, as new legislation regarding unions, unemployment compensation, and other social programs came up for congressional consideration. To this day we suffer from the effects of conservative victories in this battle. Each state has its own unemployment compensation program, welfare eligibility rules, and system for funding public education.

The resulting patchwork means that Americans face for more economic insecurity than do citizens of other rich industrial nations. US citizens have no guaranteed minimum income, no assurance that they will get the healthcare they need, and little public housing. The income supports the government provides to help families in poverty would be a joke if the problem were not so serious. Perkins’s goal was not socialism, and she did not trust or like Communists. Rather, her goal was national legislation to ensure that no one in the US would live with the shame associated with poverty, hunger, and prolonged joblessness.

Downey stresses the close personal bond between Perkins and FDR. Noting that their friendship was completely outside the usual pattern of male-female relationships, she points out that many of Perkins’s colleagues resented her easy, spontaneous access to the president. Although Perkins “thought she had successfully adopted male patterns of communicating … she still couldn’t suit the men,” Downey says. Sometimes Perkins’s fellow cabinet members passed each other notes while she was speaking; their resentments were not terribly well-concealed. At one point, when Perkins ducked in to talk to FDR, she realized she’d stepped on Interior Secretary Harold Ickes’s toes. As she left the president’s office, Ickes was waiting for her outside the door, fuming. When Perkins and Ickes next met, Perkins went out of her way to be friendly to him. Of her conciliatory gesture, Ickes later noted, “There is something to the old adage, ‘a woman, a dog, a walnut tree, the more you beat them, the better they’ll be.’” By 1939 Perkins has so irritated male colleagues and become the object of so much vitriol in the press that Congress took the highly unusual step of initiating impeachment proceedings against her. Charges centered on her support for Harry Bridges, the leader of the successful San Francisco general strike. The investigation eventually folded, but the message was clear: “woman, watch your back.”

Generally, though, Perkins was so adept at flying under the radar that few of her most important accomplishments were ever noticed. She gave the order to desegregate the Department of Labor’s cafeterias, making them the first integrated eating-places in the nation’s capital. Unlike many in the administration, she took the Nazi threat seriously. Early on, she used the authority of her department to help thousands of Jews escape from Germany. She single-handedly persuaded FDR to bring the US into the International Labor Organization (ILO) and then, in 1940, when ILO leaders faced certain death at Nazi hands, Perkins helped them escape from Geneva, Switzerland. She never took public credit for any of this.

Downey’s feminist biography revises the perceived pecking order of the personalities of the New Deal. Previous discussions of Perkins’s life do little more than note that she was the first woman to hold a cabinet position, and most historians have focused on the men. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in his three-volume, 2,000-page, 2003 biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, mentions Frances Perkins 123 times. William Leuchetenburg, another acclaimed New Deal historian, mentions her just sixteen times in his 1997 classic, The FDR Years (1997) and 25 times in his recent FDR and the New Deal (2009). In The Defining Moment (2007), Jonathan Alter mentions Perkins 42 times. But the New Deal sexist-history prize goes to Anthony Badger. His 224-page book, FDR, the First Hundred Days (2008), mentions Perkins all of nine times. Had earlier historians of the New Deal not been so biased in their work, Perkins would likely have had a much easier post-Washington career. Instead, after her cabinet service, she was very nearly penniless.

Thank you, Kirstin Downey, for writing this biography and correcting major errors in the historical record. The book is a must read for everyone interested in progressive social change in the US. We now know that Perkins played an important role in every aspect of the New Deal. Downey demonstrates that without Perkins’s skilled leadership, few of the programs we take for granted today would have made it through an often unwilling and hostile Congress. In short, the little bit of economic security provided by New Deal reforms—what few programs there are to protect citizens from economic calamity and provide some check on the ability of the powerful to exploit the rest of us—owe their existence to the tireless efforts of Madame Secretary, Frances Perkins.

Downey’s work was hindered by the fact that the Perkins papers are not gathered together in any one spot. Important holdings are scattered throughout various archives and in private hands, and few of the existing collections have proper finding guides. The newly created Frances Perkins Center, located on the grounds of the Brick House, the 55-acre Perkins-family home in Damariscotta, Maine, is bringing these collections and related artifacts together. The center will preserve and advance the pioneering social-justice legacy of the feminist “she-ro,” Frances Perkins.


Susan Feiner is professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Economics at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. She is a frequent contributor to Women’s Enews and On The Issues.

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