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The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience
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The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  1,310 ratings  ·  289 reviews
Frances Perkins is no longer a household name, yet she was one of the most influential women of the twentieth century. Based on eight years of research, extensive archival materials, new documents, and exclusive access to Perkins’s family members and friends, this biography is the first complete portrait of a devoted public servant with a passionate personal life, a mother ...more
Hardcover, 458 pages
Published March 3rd 2009 by Nan A. Talese (first published January 1st 2009)
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Average rating 4.15  · 
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 ·  1,310 ratings  ·  289 reviews

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Bill  Kerwin
Apr 09, 2009 rated it really liked it
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.
What a team Frances Perkins (1880-1965) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) made. Perkins had the ideas and the ambition to accomplish her goals. FDR had the political clout and knowledge to get the job done.

Frances Perkins was the first female cabinet member in American history. She was the Secretary of Labor. She fought into law Section 7 of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933. What was the list she told FDR she wanted to accomplish or else she would not take the job? It was as foll
Jun 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
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
Mikey B.
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
Feb 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
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Mar 16, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 16, 2009 rated it liked it
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.
Aug 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 05, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: ebook, biography
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
Susan O
As you might expect, the book is full of political history. From her early days, Frances Perkins was concerned with working people and the poor, settlement houses, factory workers, etc. After the Triangle Factory fire, she became involved in trying to bring about regulations that would ensure worker safety. As Secretary of Labor, she was largely responsible for crafting much of the New Deal legislation. All of these areas were controversial and she was often attacked in the media and by colleagu ...more
Sep 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Rob Prince
Sep 11, 2009 rated it liked it
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
May 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
I read an article online over a year ago that had a little blurb in it about Frances Perkins, and I remember being so impressed with her that I thought, "If I ever have a daughter, I will name her Frances."

Now that I've finished this book and know even more about her, I am still super impressed. She felt a moral conviction to help those who are vulnerable to the negative effects of capitalism, and the courage and tenacity to follow up that conviction with action. We have Social Security, minimum
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 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
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.
Jan 15, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
An outstanding woman, tireless in her quest to improve working conditions despite facing widespread criticism and dealing with health issues in her family. Descriptive narrative and dialogue about the New Deal initiatives, especially the evolution of Social Security. Learned that a national health insurance program was thwarted even during the 1930's!
Dec 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Incredibly easy to read and informative biography of one of the least-appreciated but most influential woman in our nation, and the world. I’ve long-admired the broad strokes I knew of her, but this riveting biography paints such a fuller and more complex portrait. So grateful for the author’s research and writing skills. This should be required reading for all policy wonks and legislators.
Denise Cormaney
Jun 08, 2009 rated it really liked it
I read this one a few years ago for my neighborhood book club, and I read it again this month for the senior book discussion group I lead at the library. I gave it 5 stars the first time, and I’m keeping the rating the same. This is a fascinating look at a woman who gave us many of the labor standards we take for granted today, as well as many of the hallmark policies from the FDR Administration. It is a true shame that most Americans do not know Frances Perkins as a great leader in our history. ...more
Jan 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 12, 2015 rated it liked it
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 20, 2009 rated it it was ok
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
Apr 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
It's hard to overstate how in awe I am of Frances Perkins, and how sorry that no one seems to know the tremendously influential role she played in creating modern America, from workplace safety regulations (fire escapes, sprinklers, standardized fire safety laws) to the reforms of the New Deal - the 8 hour work day, overtime, minimum wage, an end to child labor, Social Security, unemployment insurance, just to hit the highlights. (Her only failure, in her estimation, was in not establishing fede ...more
Susan Jaffe Pober
Mar 11, 2009 rated it really liked it
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 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Very much enjoyed this biography of a woman who is the architect of FDR's social legislation (Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Child Labor Laws, Worker Safety regulations membership in the ILO and much more). She should be internationally as well known as Rosa Luxemburg. She was also a devout high church Episcopalian and is commemorated in the Episcopal Church as a saint. The book offers an intimate look into the presidency of FDR. She lamented that there was still one thing on her agend ...more
Feb 23, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Aug 21, 2009 rated it it was ok
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
Nov 04, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I learned so much from reading this. I really knew nothing about Frances Perkins--what a fascinating character. The history of the FDR years is so interesting. Got a bit bogged down in the millions of acronyms and various political characters, but a great read overall.
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