“The Woman Behind the New Deal – The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience”


Just finished up this book – gift from my brother for my birthday last month – really enjoyed the read. If you like non-fiction, history, current and/or world events – this is a terrific behind-the-scenes look at the FDR years and the life of an absolutely remarkable woman. Here’s an interview with the author from a few years ago on NPR.

'The Woman Behind the New Deal' cover

Let’s travel back to Tuesday, March 7, 1933. Newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt had just called his Cabinet together for the first time. The average age was 59; the predominant gender was male, except for Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s controversial pick for secretary of labor.

Perkins was 52, rather plain, and deliberately dressed in a sedate fashion: She never wore makeup and favored tricornered hats and no-nonsense black and navy suits. Early in her professional life, Perkins had begun taking notes on male colleagues; she filed them in a large red envelope labeled, “Notes on the Male Mind.” One thing she had discerned was that women in politics were accepted if they reminded men of their mothers; hence the matronly wardrobe. At that first Cabinet meeting, the usually assertive Perkins hung back, waiting for Roosevelt to finally call on her for a report. Here’s what Perkins later said about that groundbreaking moment:

“I tried to have as much of a mask as possible. I wanted to give the impression of being a quiet, orderly woman who didn’t buzz-buzz all the time. … I knew that a lady interposing an idea into men’s conversation is very unwelcome. I just proceeded on the theory that this was a gentleman’s conversation on the porch of a golf club perhaps. You didn’t butt in with bright ideas.”

Perkins’ strategy of reticence worked. Although the men sometimes acted like schoolboys and passed notes about her during Cabinet meetings, Perkins managed to achieve many of her “bright ideas,” like the minimum wage, work-hour limitations and the Social Security Act. Indeed, if Perkins had completely realized her vision, national health care would have long been an American reality.

Kirstin Downey’s biography of FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins paints an inspiring and substantive portrait of the woman who ushered in the 40-hour work week.

Listen to an interview with the author here: Frances Perkins, ‘The Woman Behind the New Deal’ : NPR

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