by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
It’s rare for me to read a work of nonfiction that is a page turner, but I’m reading such a book right now. It’s the new biography of nation’s first female cabinet member and Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins. The author is the former Washington Post business reporter Kirsten Downey, and she has produced a riveting biographical sketch of Perkins, who changed her name from Fannie to Frances because she thought the latter was more dignified. I didn’t want the book to end; I pored over each chapter as though I was reading a work of great suspense, eager for the next chapter.
The book title is “Woman Behind the New Deal – The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience,” and it’s written with clarity and filled with valuable nuggets of information, has a feminist perspective, and includes a unique perspective that is not found in the usual accounts of this New Deal era.
The National Consumers League figures large in the life of Frances Perkins. Florence Kelley, the League’s first leader, spoke at Perkins’ college, Mt. Holyoke, in 1902, and Perkins was captivated by this powerful orator. Kelley spoke about her new organization, the National Consumers League, and its efforts to eradicate child labor and eliminate sweatshops. Kelley was fiery, energetic, and filled with idealism. Perkins, after graduating from college, ran the League’s New York chapter, focusing on four areas: poor conditions in cellar bakeries, long hours and poor wages for children, child labor, and workplace fire hazards.
Shopgirls suffered some of the worst conditions working for Bloomingdales, Altman’s and Macy’s: they worked very long hours (14-16 hours) for very low pay. While lobbying for the League, Perkins developed a friendship with Former President Teddy Roosevelt, who endorsed the NCL’s efforts to restrict child labor in a letter he allowed Perkins’ to circulate widely.
Again, while lobbying for the League in Albany, Perkins became acquainted with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When he was elected president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Perkins to be his Secretary of Labor. Perkins went on to serve all of FDR’s four terms – the last was cut short by his untimely death – but FDR so relied on and trusted Perkins he rejected her offers to resign as Labor Secretary. All the while, her fellow cabinet members – all male – mocked her style of speaking and were jealous of her close relationship to FDR.
Perkins is responsible for so much more than any of us probably realize. That is why Downey’s book title is so apt. As labor secretary, Perkins worked to pass unemployment insurance, Social Security, and the law setting wage and hour restrictions known as the Fair Labor Standards Act.
In an interesting historical twist, Downey suggests that Perkins was probably also responsible, indirectly, for the election of Harry Truman as president, once he ran on his own after serving out FDR’s aborted final term. Perkins persuaded Eleanor Roosevelt to endorse Truman, something she had been reluctant to do because she was unhappy that the new president had let Perkins go as Labor Secretary in his new cabinet. Eleanor thought it was important to have a woman in the cabinet.
But Perkins prevailed on Eleanor, who was a highly respected democrat in 1948 whose voice carried a lot of weight, to make a strong appeal to democrats to support Truman for President. As history reminds us, this was a very close race between Truman and Thomas Dewey, so much so that newspapers called the election for Dewey. Eleanor’s voice probably turned the tide of history and resulted in Truman’s ultimate victory.
Downey brings out aspects of Perkins’ life (her husband was bi-polar, couldn’t work for much of his life, spending many years in an institution, and her daughter suffered from mental illness as well) and career that have been missing in other biographies of the first female labor secretary. Perkins soldiered on, never allowing prejudices to hold her back.
Today we have another female labor secretary, Hilda Solis, who works at DOL in the federal building named for Frances Perkins and is supportive of the needs and concerns of working men and women. This book is a timely and invaluable contribution to our understanding of the New Deal and programs intended to provide that social safety net that made America a model for the rest of the world.