Sunday, September 20, 2015

Frances Perkins: The Woman Behind the New Deal (An Interesting Book Discovery)

The Woman Behind the New Deal: 
The Life of Frances Perkins,
FDR's Secretary of Labor and 
His Moral Conscience
Hardcover, 480 pages
Nan A. Talese
March 3, 2009
(first published January 1, 2009)
American History, Biography, Feminism, 
Nonfiction, Politics

Last Sunday, I again tuned in to the PBS program, "Well Read", and was rewarded with another book treat!

This time, hosts Mary Ann Gwinn and Terry Tazioli discussed a book that was actually released several years ago, one I would probably never have heard of, either, had it not been for this program. It's a biography of Frances Perkins, the woman behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. She was the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 (longer than any other Secretary of Labor), and was also the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet.

I'll admit that I'm sadly remiss when it comes to reading biographies or books centering on history or politics. That's because I've always been more interested in fantasy than in reality. However, I realize that, as a reader of nonfiction as well as fiction books, I must strive to strike a balance. After all, that's the reason I started this blog in the first place. Besides, I do love to read books about intellectual topics, and this is certainly one such book.

Growing up, I never heard about Perkins. She was never mentioned in my high school history classes; my history text certainly contained no reference to her. This doesn't really surprise me; throughout history, women's contributions to intellectual fields have been downplayed, or ignored altogether. At the time I was in high school, however, there had already been a resurgence of the feminist movement, so I would have thought that things had changed. Not so. It appears that school texts lag way behind social changes, which is unfortunate as well as deplorable. Children are not being given the full historical truth in their classes or textbooks.

I must add, however, that it was partially because of Perkins's own reticence and lack of interest in the limelight that she's not well-known today. She never sought out journalists for interviews, never tried to get her name out there. Still, she had a bit of fame in the 1940s, in spite of her attitude toward being in the public eye. Her name began to fade into obscurity in the 1950s, however.

So I grew up with the mistaken impression that FDR was the sole creator of the New Deal, with perhaps a bit of help from his wife, Eleanor. Thus, I have long admired FDR as one of our country's greatest presidents. At a time of social upheaval, of devastating losses in the economic sector, he pulled the United States up by its bootstraps, so to speak. I thought he had been the one to end the Great Depression with his sweeping New Deal projects. Furthermore, I compared him with the previous president, Herbert Hoover, who had done absolutely nothing to solve the economic downturn the country was going through. If Hoover was a total dud, Roosevelt was the complete opposite -- a social and political dynamo. 

Now it turns out that he didn't bring about the miracle of reversing the effects of the Depression all by himself. A woman was behind it all! (And so the saying goes, "Behind every great man.....")

The reforms proposed by Perkins went far beyond just bringing about economic recovery. I had always thought that such things as the minimum wage, a federal child labor law, the 40-hour work week, unemployment  compensation, Social Security, and workers' compensation were all created by either Roosevelt or the Democratic Party of the time. They are in fact all the brainchildren of Frances Perkins. For instance, she drafted the Social Security Act of 1935.

I am certainly glad I happened to tune in to PBS when I did last Sunday! I will do so again today, to see what other fascinating books are discussed on this program that caters to book lovers!

Meanwhile, I have placed Downey's book on one of my several Amazon wish lists -- the one dedicated to biographies and memoirs -- and have also added it to my Goodreads shelves.

This is an important book, not only for history buffs, but also for feminists of all stripes -- radical, pro-life, moderate, and any other type there might be.

While researching this article -- which is not a review, although I know it probably sounds like one -- I came across another Downey book about Frances Perkins, which I also want to read. It deals specifically with Perkins and Social Security.

A Promise to All Generations: Stories and Essays About Social Security 
and Frances Perkins
Edited by
Kirstin Downey & Christopher Breiseth
Hardcover, 220 pages
Frances Perkins Center
January 1, 2011
American History, Feminism, Politics

I am extremely grateful to Kirstin Downey for correcting my previous, erroneous perceptions of the New Deal, and for acquainting me with a woman of such importance in the history of the United States.

 Online Links For Frances Perkins



Brian Joseph said...

I had only heard about Frances Perkins when I read the FDR biography Traitor to His Class.

My understanding is that indeed, she was one of the major architects of the New Deal. This biography of her looks really good and I would also like to read it. FDR, his wife Eleanor, as well as several members of his administration truly saved America and created conditions for enormous American successes in the coming decades.

The Social Security book looks good too.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

You know, I really need to watch that PBS program, "Well Read" every Sunday! They discuss such INTERESTING books!! But darn it, I missed it this past Sunday.....

Anyway, I really want to read this biography! As I stated in the post, I had absolutely NO idea that the concepts behind the New Deal did not come solely from FDR.

All the things I mentioned above -- the minimum wage, Social Security, etc., are things we take for granted today. I find it so incredible that they haven't always existed! What shocked me the most, when I found out about this book, was that Perkins had to propose a federal child labor law. I thought child labor had gone out with the 19th century.....

Really, Brian, I do need to read more history!! My knowledge of certain things is woefully inadequate.....

I discovered the Social Security book when I went to Goodreads to look up the biography. I'd like to read it, as well, but most of all, I really, really want to read this biography of Perkins.

I also want to read the FDR biography you mention above, "Traitor to His Class". I do still admire FDR. Heck, he DID something about the economy at that time. Hoover just happens to have the same name as the vacuum cleaner company. Period. Lol.

Thanks for droppng by and commenting!! : )