Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins--Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage” as Want to Read:
The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins--Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins--Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage

4.08  ·  Rating Details  ·  816 Ratings  ·  202 Reviews
“Kirstin Downey’s lively, substantive and—dare I say—inspiring new biography of Perkins . . . not only illuminates Perkins’ career but also deepens the known contradictions of Roosevelt’s character.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR Fresh Air

One of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s closest friends and the first female secretary of labor, Perkins capitalized on the president’s political sa
Paperback, 496 pages
Published February 23rd 2010 by Anchor (first published January 1st 2009)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Woman Behind the New Deal, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Woman Behind the New Deal

This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,359)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  Rating Details
Bill  Kerwin
Oct 31, 2015 Bill Kerwin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, biography

An absorbing biography of the woman who improved factory fire-safety standards after the Triangle Fire, and who, as FDR's Secretary of Labor, put social security, the minimum wage and unemployment insurance on the agenda and pushed them through to a successful conclusion. (She did fail at getting universal health care, but not for lack of trying.)

An extremely important figure of 20th century history, insufficiently remembered today.
Feb 17, 2014 Dinah rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
When FDR asked Frances Perkins to be his Secretary of Labor she came to him with a list of what she wanted to accomplish and let him know that without his support she wouldn't take the job. The list? A 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, worker's compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal child labor law, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service and health insurance. She accomplished ALL of it except health insurance and we're st ...more
Mar 16, 2009 Carol rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Frances Perkins, born 1880 into an upper-class but no longer well-off Boston family, and she used her connections and her gentility well. An eye-witness to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, she took an early interest in the welfare of the working class and in the settlement-house movement, supporting nascent labor-union activities in New York, finding her strongest support from Tammany Hall. She knew Franklin Roosevelt fleetingly as a young man, but forged a working alliance during his gover ...more
Mikey B.
Jul 11, 2014 Mikey B. rated it it was amazing
From page 126 (my book)
- The Baltimore Sun in 1933 – when Frances Perkins was appointed Secretary of Labor
“A woman smarter than a man is something to get on guard about. But a woman smarter than a man and also not afraid of a man, well, good night.”

Evidently Frances Perkins had obstacles to face when she was appointed Secretary of Labor in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet after he was elected in 1932. She was the first woman to be in the Cabinet (women were only given the vote in 1920). She held thi
Sep 02, 2015 Brenda rated it it was amazing
I have just concluded my reading of this remarkable biography of Frances Perkins, first woman to hold high office in our federal government. As Secretary of Labor throughout FDR's presidency, she created and executed much of the legislature of the New Deal. I strongly recommend this highly readable and inspiring book to all woman readers. To help us remember how far we have come and who worked tirelessly to set an example of women's intelligence and skill in a male dominated world. Please read t ...more
Sep 03, 2011 Mary rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An apparently "dry" subject--Frances Perkins was a remarkable woman and a major social innovator, with political sense, as a close confidante and adviser to FDR. She was responsible for much of the social aspects of the New Deal--Social Security, child labor laws, minimum wage. She had hoped to include health insurance with her package, but realized that to achieve Social Security she had to postpone that issue (80 years!). Downey does a splendid job of fleshing out her subject, although Frances ...more
Jan 26, 2011 Sue rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Kirstin Downey was on a mission to restore Frances Perkins to her rightful place in history, as the author and moral conscience of much of the domestic legislation of the 1930s. Social security, unemployment insurance, workplace safety, minimum wage -- all of these safety nets were her handiwork, as she served as Secretary of Labor under the sympathetic and supportive benevolence of Franklin Roosevelt.

Perkins was the first woman to occupy a seat in a presidential cabinet, and that alone gives he
Aug 03, 2009 Ellen rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I feel as if this book was written with a definite slant toward proving that Frances Perkins invented the New Deal and that not only was she FDR's Moral Conscience but also the source of all or most of his most important programs. While much is made of her sudden decline in popularity with the rest of the Cabinet, no real explanation of that decline is put forth. Neither is the withdrawal of FDR's support completely explained. It is clear that Ms. Perkins was a woman of formidable strengths and ...more
Susan Jaffe Pober
Apr 16, 2009 Susan Jaffe Pober rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an important book, not only for the history of the Depression years & the Roosevelt (FDR) administration, but as a portrait of a pioneer in women's rights and labor rights. Frances Perkins is probably an unknown name to many people - from baby boomer age on. but she is responsible for so many labor, and safety in the workplace laws as well as for the development of Social Security. She was a powerful woman in the U.S. government at a time when women were not welcome in the workplace ...more
Aug 17, 2009 Kathleen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found myself strangely obsessed with this book once I started it... maybe it's the struggle in our current time to pass the one New Deal element that France Perkins left undone: universal health care.

This was a great reminder that the policies we take for granted now (oh, like let's say the eight-hour workday, or the requirement that workplaces have fire escapes, or the rules that mean ten-year olds can go to school instead of to work in the factory) were considered impossible and unreasonable
Sep 28, 2015 Olivia rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Completely fascinating. America has no idea what it owes to Frances Perkins, and it boggles my mind that someone who gave SO MUCH to modern society (fire codes, no child labor, social security, labor unions, unemployment insurance, fair work days, SO MUCH MORE) is completely unknown to most of us. Perkins has always been one of my personal heroes, but this book solidifies her place at the very top. What an incredible, brave, wise, clever, devoted American we had in Frances Perkins. Highly recomm ...more
Feb 17, 2012 Beth rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this book. It gave a better understanding of life in america during the time just after WWI throught WWII. Especially for women. Frances Perkins wanted a better life for everyone and did a lot to improve working conditions for all. I recommend this book to all no matter their politcal persuasion. Reading In The Garden of Beasts by Eric Larson along with this one will help to give a better picture of what was going on in the world at the time.
Aug 26, 2014 Amanda rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'd say read it and then pass it along... or maybe keep it to re-read it.

I didn't learn much of anything in my American History class. I learned more about history in third grade than I did in all of my high school and college years. At least until I picked up this book. I had never heard of the "New Deal" before. I certainly had no idea who Frances Perkins was, and it seems kind of sad to me now... that such an amazingly influential person has faded from fame and recognition. I like how this bo
Mary Dean
Jul 15, 2014 Mary Dean rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. Frances Perkins is an unsung heroine of women's rights and human rights. Many who hear the title will instantly think of Eleanor Roosevelt, not Frances Perkins. Yes there is much left unsaid about what "drove" Perkins, but there are many things I learned or intuited from this book about this brilliant woman and the overwhelming obstacles she faced. She is little known today but hopefully this book will resurface her remarkable contributions. Perkins was the first woman in a pr ...more
May 01, 2012 Drew rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, ebook
If you don't know who Frances Perkins is, you must read this book by Kirstin Downey. The first female Cabinet member, she was the Secretary of Labor under FDR, from 1933 through 1945. Her ideas and her perseverance created many of the programs that encompassed the New Deal. These included a forty-hour workweek, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, and a revitalized public ...more
Jul 21, 2012 Joy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A remarkable biography about the real architect of FDR’s New Deal: Frances Perkins, FDR’s Labor Secretary from 1933-1945, and the first woman ever to serve in a cabinet position in the U.S. She fought to establish the social programs we all take for granted as products of the New Deal, and which helped make America great.
Although now virtually forgotten, Frances Perkins helped change the shape of this nation, bringing social change that helped millions during the Great Depression. She a role
Aug 01, 2009 Bap rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, law
I can discount some of the zeal of the author to place Perkins at the heart of the new deal, but she still presents a compelling case that this was one remarkable woman who strived fro progressive reform, factory codes, social security, unemployment insurance and wage and hour laws. She was a social worker and an idealist who witnessed young girls plunging to their deaths in the Triangle fire of 1911. She learned he art of politics, compromise, and the advantages of making alliances for the bett ...more
Adele Fasick
Mar 19, 2013 Adele Fasick rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Frances Perkins is a woman I've heard about all my life, but have never known much about. She was a more important figure in the New Deal than I had realized, because she's the one who drew up plans for Social Security and unemployment insurance. She grew up in Maine in an old family with lots of principles and not much money. She went into social work and worked at Hull House for a while and with New York social workers. Despite her strong desire to do good, she was fond of living among upper c ...more
Rob Prince
Poorly written, but even poorly written and schmaltzy at times, the life of Frances Perkins is worth the read. Perkins was the first woman member of a presidential cabinet who served as Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor during the New Deal. In her life she crosses paths with many icons (a few of them actually interesting) of early 20th Century American political and cultural life. She made her career by understanding men in power and sucking up to them. At this she was an expert. She also, had, it ...more
Oct 01, 2011 Sarah rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was fascinated by this biography of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and the first female cabinet secretary in the U.S. It was, however, pretty heavy on detail and perhaps not a great read for anyone who's not a policy wonk or researching the period for her own novel. Still, there are some great anecdotes here, particularly about how shabbily Perkins was treated by other members of the Roosevelt administration. She was an amazing woman who achieved so much politically while supporting ...more
Feb 18, 2010 Meagan rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I quit reading this after getting well over halfway through. Maybe I'll finish it eventually, but I just stopped enjoying it. I really liked the first half or so of the book which was about Francis Perkins' childhood and young adulthood. It was an interesting and personal story of how she became interested in social work, and how she worked to gain creditability at a time when that was not common for women. However, once she was in place as the Secretary of Labor under FDR the story became extre ...more
Mar 05, 2010 Meri rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Francis Perkins was probably the most amazing woman I never heard of. A lot of the legislation I credit FDR for actually came from her. She was the first woman elected to a cabinet position, and she did incredibly well in her job. She had brains and drive, but I would like to have seen a little more about how she got to be where she was, and the obstacles she faced to get there. Downey mentions a few things--how some people publicly decried her for being a woman--but not much on problems Frances ...more
About a third of the way through this book, I was startled to read that Frances and her new husband had decided to stop smoking and drinking, for the sake of the health of their gestating baby. To my mind, this was not common behavior and suggested that there were issues, possibly overuse issues. So I went to the index and, sure enough, Frances' husband was not only alcoholic but also manic depressive, ill to the degree that she could not have friends or colleagues visit her home. The new daught ...more
Jul 30, 2015 Stephen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"The Secret of Frances' success was that she had done what she did selflessly, without hope of personal gain or public recognition, for those who would come afterward...

It is a great historic irony that Frances is now virtually unknown. Factory and office occupancy codes, fire escapes and other fire-prevention mechanisms are her legacy. About 44 million people collect Social Security checks each month; millions receive unemployment and worker's compensation or the minimum wage; others get to go
May 29, 2014 Laura rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

I would give this 3.5 stars if I could. The reading was a little slow at times, but all the information in the book makes me very glad to have read it. Frances Perkins is a very important historical figure and I had never heard of her. It's funny how a lot of people think that Eleanor was really in charge during FDR's presidency and this book almost makes it seem like Frances was the most important person of that period. While the book is definitely slanted in her favor, it is amazing to think t
Jul 16, 2009 Carol rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
An illuminating look into one of the most important people in 20th century American history. If you like your eight-hour workday and your Social Security, thank Frances Perkins. But her personal life was not idyllic, she was hated by many in and outside of the Roosevelt Administration, and she had to work until the day she died. Downey did a great job researching and presenting this all-too unknown woman, but I wish for stronger writing, as well, to compliment this complex subject.
Dec 18, 2014 Martha rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a fascinating study of a woman with intelligence, tenacity, and strength of vision who followed her calling in spite of some tremendous road blocks that would have intimidated a woman of lesser fortitude. Frances Perkins was a woman who every young woman in this country should have the opportunity to learn about. Of course, few do, and maybe that is because in order to move the labor reforms that she did, including Social Security, minimum wage laws, the 40 hour work week--to say nothi ...more
Madyson Carter
Sep 27, 2014 Madyson Carter rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biology
The Woman Behind the New Deal is an eye opener on how influential a woman could be in the 1930's and how much of an impact on United States culture and law a woman had.
When most people think of the New Deal they think FDR came up with it when it was actually his Secretary of Labor, a woman by the name of Frances Perkins, who came up with it.
The book starts out by telling of Frances's life before she became Secretary of Labor. It goes into how on some things she struggled with and succeeded
Jul 19, 2014 Diana rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I had read how the state of ME took down her mural - one of the comments was it is reminiscent of “communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses”. I had to find out more about this woman that inspired crazy comments like that to be listened to.

I have to say I am so glad curiosity brought me to learn more about this remarkable woman - that I am sad to say don't remember discussing in history class. So much of our modern work lives are because of her efforts. Workman's
Dec 30, 2013 Marissa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
We don't hear enough about this woman's contributions to the New Deal, and the social safety net we have today. Great read.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 78 79 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • Eleanor Roosevelt: Vol 2, The Defining Years, 1933-38
  • There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America
  • A Woman's Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot
  • A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation
  • Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II
  • American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama
  • Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion
  • American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans
  • House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power
  • Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners
  • Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored
  • Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York
  • Betsy Ross and the Making of America
  • Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created ModernAmerica
  • Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker
  • Jane Addams: Spirit in Action
  • Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America
  • The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918

Share This Book