Frances Perkins - The Woman Behind FDR's New Deal

Frances Perkins

Did you know the first woman cabinet member of the United States was the chief architect of FDR's New Deal? If you didn't, I have a book to recommend. A new biography, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience by Kirstin Downey was recently published.

Imagine, not only are you a woman, subject to enormous misogyny, discrimination and sexism, but you are the very first women in a Presidential cabinet, with all sorts of idiots commenting on your hair, outfits and appearance (sound familiar?).

Then, on top of dealing with all of that noise, you manage to enact some of the most sweeping changes in the history of the United States. Wow!

Here is a partial list of Perkin's accomplishments:

  • Social Security
  • Unemployment Insurance
  • Minimum Wage & Overtime
  • 40 hour work week
  • stopped child labor

An architect of infrastructure work projects of the 1930's, Perkins also had a hand in the HOLC, the program accredited with stopping the foreclosure crisis of the 1930's. Perkins also had a hand in the National Housing Act, which introduced mortgage insurance through the FHA.

Astounding isn't it. Before Secretary Perkins, there was no social safety net. Imagine, you are disabled, there is no anything to help survive. Thanks to Perkins, America finally obtained policy that didn't pretend if someone falls somehow the world was simply prey and predator and all who fall should be fated to sink.

Consider the politics involved back then for a woman, there was no equal rights, property laws, economic equality for women still were in deference to a male, no workplace discrimination laws....

Yet she managed this level of accomplishment. Note in today's world we cannot get pretty much anything passed which isn't written by corporate special interests.

Recall when FDR stepped into office, 33% of the entire working population could not get a job and 20% of all homes had been foreclosed on.

One needs to put themselves in her shoes, or outfit if you will, and look at the world through her eyes. While she is trying to obtain the most sweeping labor changes, the best legislation in history to address economic inequalities in the United States.....the media is writing about.....her hat. Wouldn't that just drive you nuts if you gave a major corporate presentation to have someone be upset over your colors or your hairdo, completely dismissing what your entire presentation was recommending?

Think about it.

The first public works project was the CCC. This is the program that gave us all of those great park trails, public pools, roads and highways. The CCC employed 3.5 million Americans over 9 years and gave us some incredible public works to boot!

The U.S. Employment Service had placed 26 million Americans in jobs by WWII.

The WPA provided 8 million jobs and provided thousands of bridges and schools, community projects in the U.S. The WPA also provided skills training to millions.

The NRA is attributed to increasing industrial production 22% before the conservative laden supreme court struck it down.

The book is in narrative style, winding through the personal and the professional. Beware there are some hints of the author's politics particularly in the undocumented worker mantra, so while Perkins was clearly on the side of the U.S. worker, this quote shows she recognized the laws of labor economics:

It is generally recognized that the United States can no longer absorb annually hundreds of thousands of immigrants without serious economic and social dislocations. Certain the present restrictions cannot be relaxed while millions of workers are unemployed and maintained at public expense

Frances did fight hard for German-Jew refugees and plain lost the battle.

What is most interesting about the book is the focus of Secretary Perkins as a working woman. The narrative, progressive time line style, gives a strong sense to Perkin's personal experiences as well as the incredible political instincts, the strategy skills which enabled Ms. Perkins to swim among the sharks of D.C.

Perkins also was the breadwinner for the family. Maybe this reality, her own experience in trying to earn a living, in addition to witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which generated her steadfast loyalty to American's labor force and middle class.

The Labor Hall of Fame has a lengthy article on Perkins from 1989.

One must wonder most of all, why is it few have heard of Frances Perkins today? She has to be the most effective Secretary of Labor in U.S. history at minimum.

Bravo to author Kirstin Downey for bringing to the modern light such an astounding political figure.