Book review: The Woman Behind the New Deal by Kristin Downey

Can you name the first female member of the U.S. Cabinet? Until I read, “The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins,” I could not.  I have mentioned Frances Perkins to many of my well-educated friends and almost none could tell me who she was. That is truly a shame and an indictment of our educational system. Not only was Frances Perkins a trailblazing woman, she was a crucial figure to many government programs that are the backbone of the social safety net today.

Frances Perkins was born in Boston in 1880. She had an unusual father for the time, because he taught her to read Greek at age 8 and supported her attendance through both high school and college at a time when only 3 percent of women went on to higher education. Ms. Perkins earned her undergraduate degree at Mount Holyoke, where she was influenced by Mary E. Woolley—a feminist who became the president of the college during Ms. Perkins’ time there—and Florence Kelley—executive secretary of the National Consumers League, who became a mentor and friend.

Following college, Ms. Perkins took several teaching jobs, eventually landing in Chicago where she became involved in social work, including at Jane Addam’s Hull House, a life-changing experience. In 1907, Ms. Perkins took a new job in Philadelphia investigating and assisting in the prosecution of persons who were tricking immigrant woman into sexual slavery. During this time, she realized she needed to deepen her understanding of economic and social issues, so she enrolled at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, which had only recently begun accepting women. She then received a Fellowship at Columbia, so she moved to New York to continue her studies and focus her work on the problems of the poor. While there, she became a leader in the suffrage movement. Following graduation with a master’s degree in political science in 1910, she took a job with the National Consumers League in New York, which advocated for workers’ rights and protections. Her areas of focus included poor conditions in cellar bakeries, long hours and poor wages for women, workplace fire hazards, and above all, the elimination of child labor. Her work involved a significant amount of advocacy for new laws to protect workers, which in turn brought her into contact with many influential politicians. Her political contacts included former president Theodore Roosevelt, who appointed her to lead a new reform organization, the Committee on Safety, which investigated workplace fire hazards.

After a short respite for marriage and motherhood, Ms. Perkins’ next project was to head a new effort to provide maternal and infant care to poor women. She became the secretary of a new organization, the Maternity Center Association, which operated a network of free ob-gyn and well-baby centers across New York City.

In 1918, Francis Perkins was crucial in helping Al Smith win the Governorship in New York, which resulted in her appointment to the state Industrial Commission. She was the first woman to hold such an administrative position. In that role she successfully navigated disputes between labor and industry and continued her work improving labor conditions. Smith chose Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be his successor for governor of New York. FDR won that office in 1928 when Smith unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. presidency. FDR promoted Ms. Perkins to head the state industrial board. Although Mr. Perkins had first met FDR in 1910 in New York, it was during the next four years of his governorship that they worked very closely together and formed strong bonds, personally and professionally.

Ms. Perkins also came to know Elanor Roosevelt quite well at this time and worked closely with her throughout their respective careers. However, the author suggests they were never true friends due in part to differences in their personalities, and that there was sometimes a bit of a rivalry between them.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression followed within a year of FDR assuming the New York Governorship.  Francis Perkins saw these events as an opportunity to take dramatic action on social issues. She began to push for reforms to benefit workers at the state level and secured FDR’s support.
When FDR was elected president in 1932, he appointed Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor, making her the first female member of the U.S. Cabinet. When FDR invited Ms. Perkins to meet with him to discuss the appointment, she presented him with a laundry list of legislative proposals that she wanted to work on including, a forty-hour work week, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal ban on child labor, Social Security, and health insurance. As author Kristin Downey states: “The scope of her list was breathtaking. She was proposing a fundamental and radical restructuring of American society.” FDR agreed to Perkins’ agenda and they went to work.

The remainder of the book describes Frances Perkins’ work in the FDR White House, her personal struggles, as well as her professional challenges as the only female member of the cabinet.  Ms. Perkins seems to have earned the respect of many of her male colleagues, but also their jealousy due to her close relationship with the president. She and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes were the only original members of Roosevelt’s cabinet to remain in office through all four of his terms, until FDR’s death in 1945.

Reading this book left me wondering why someone who was so influential in crafting and helping to secure the passage of so many significant pieces of legislation could be so forgotten by history. Some of it may have to do with Ms. Perkin’s own self-effacing personal style and FDR’s almost mythical presence, but it is hard to entirely dismiss issues of gender. Ms. Perkins was vital to the creation and implementation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.  While “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” may portray Francis Perkins in an overly sympathetic manner at times, it is certainly worth reading to learn more about one of the most influential women in U.S politics.


Cindy G. Buys is the Interim Dean and a Professor of Law at Southern Illinois University School of Law. She is also an active member of the ISBA, currently serving as Secretary of the Women and the Law Committee and as a member of the International and Immigration Law Section Council.

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December 2018Volume 24Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)