The signing of the National Labor Relations Act.

Frances Perkins—What a life! What a woman!

My book-club members and I were stunned that so few of us knew about this first woman to hold a cabinet post in the United States—Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dynamic Secretary of Labor. We were bowled over by her life, her strength, her social compassion, her managerial and political brilliance, her public-policy accomplishments—even her ability to play politics in order to do what desperately needed doing in the Depression. We’d barely heard of her—an ignorance that Kirstin Downey’s 2009 book The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience has now rectified.

What is impressive about this book is less the writing —which is good, just not great—than Downey’s deep and broad research and her insight into Frances Perkins.  This biography is a valuable, fascinating story of this little-known woman, a suffragist, a social worker who personally witnessed the Triangle Fire in New York, and the determined, persuasive woman whose ideas and strenuous advocacy brought us the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, Social Security, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Downey’s book lays out an astounding parallel between the recent economic crash and the collapse that became the Depression.

Here are a few excerpts in her chapter on the 1920s, the seemingly careless days exemplified by the 1927 Life cover by John Held:

 

A culture of immediate gratification sprang up as Americans with newly electrified homes stocked up on toasters, irons, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners. . . . Homes rose markedly in value, especially in the hot markets of Florida and New York City. Borrowers believed their purchases were no risk ventures certain to escalate, and they went out on a limb to buy. People took out what were called ‘bullet’ loans, which were interest-only loans that buyers were told they should refinance in three or five years.  Lenders told home buyers not to worry, homes were rising so fast in value that it would always be easy to refinance into another loan.

 

Then the free fall began. Real estate values dropped, employment fell and the stock market went into a spin. The Great Gatsby era disintegrated into the misery of The Grapes of Wrath.

What would Perkins do now, asked one of us, in terms of the shrinking labor force, the diminished power of unions, etc.? We don’t know, but we obviously need a contemporary Frances Perkins in Washington, someone who could whisper in Obama’s ear as Perkins did in FDR’s.

We all acknowledged Perkins’s shortcomings  (as well as her strengths) as a mother and wife. She had to support her husband, who was in and out of mental institutions. And she chose to pamper and indulge her daughter (out of guilt as a working woman? we wondered), who didn’t appreciate her mother at all. That part of the story is sad. In paying the price she paid for being a working woman and political animal, she was way ahead of her time.

She changed her name (from Fannie Coralie Perkins), her religion, and (to appear younger) her date of birth. She chose to dress in a dowdy, fairly motherly fashion, because she discovered that this was less threatening to men. She was one complicated lady who kept most of her private life private.

The biography speculates about her sexuality, as did the book-club members. Some of us assumed she was gay; all of us acknowledged that she had a knack for getting rich women to take care of her, protect her, give her a home and a setting from which she could operate as a Washington hostess.

Perkins’s final days at Cornell, as a professor of industrial and labor relations, were, again, both sad (she had no money and was estranged from her daughter) and satisfying (yet another tribute to her strength, vitality, and charm). She lived in a dorm and charmed the young men she lived among and lectured to—some of whom, like Paul Wolfowitz, turned out to become movers and shakers themselves. They loved and admired her. She must have had a great deal of spunk and wit.

Ever since we read this biography of a powerful woman who is  virtually unknown to today’s public and unheralded in the history books, we have been telling everyone we know about this book and this woman.

We owe her so much.

Above: a clip from You May Call Her Madam Secretary, a documentary from Vineyard Videos.