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The Woman Behind the New Deal


Help me welcome Kirstin Downey, author of The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience. Kirstin will be online this hour.

Imagine this: Former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao witnesses a terrifying spectacle of young women leaping to their deaths from the windows of a burning building where they worked—their only means of escape. Would this event have transformed Chao into someone who saw the nation’s Labor Department as serving workers, not corporations?

In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, in which 146 young women died, proved to be a transformative experience for one woman standing below in the crowd: Frances Perkins. As a social worker, the future labor secretary already was deeply involved in aiding the less fortunate. But after she witnessed the thin bodies of young immigrant women plunging to their deaths because of the greed of their employer who locked the escape doors of the sweatshop, Perkins re-dedicated her vision of justice toward America’s working people.

We can all take bets on whether Chao would have translated such a catastrophe into support for workers—or for laws to better cover for murderous managers. But because of a great new book on Perkins by author Kirstin Downey, we have keen insight into the driving forces behind Perkins, the nation’s first female Cabinet secretary.

The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience includes Perkins’ best-known achievements, such as the Social Security Act enacted in 1935—which gave us Social Security, unemployment insurance and the system that became Aid to Dependent Children, which was originally designed to help mothers raising their children alone.

Then in 1938 there was the Fair Labor Standards Act that set a 40-hour workweek to prevent workers from getting broken down by exhaustion, a minimum wage that ensured they would receive a certain level of compensation, a ban on child labor and the creation of overtime pay for workers asked to work long hours.

Perkins wasn’t from the labor movement, but she was a strong supporter of the idea that workers need to organize into unions so they can negotiate better wages and working conditions.

She also was a pivotal figure in creating the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration—but what is less known is that Perkins saved thousands of people from the Nazis.

Back then, the Immigration Department was part of the Labor Department, and she brought tens of thousands of immigrants to the United States to get them away from the Nazis before most Americans knew the dangers they faced over there. Why did she know so many people were in danger? It’s because Hitler started killing and imprisoning labor leaders right from the start, in 1933. Labor leaders here knew what was coming, and they told Frances.

But Downey’s exploration of Perkins goes beyond the back and forth of policymaking to give us a deep sense of what it was like to be the first woman Cabinet member at a time when the male-dominated upper echelons of government were hostile to women in power. As Downey, a Washington Post reporter, writes:

Some male Labor Department staffers threatened to resign rather than report to a woman.

Perkins was ready for the challenge. She already had faced much hostility throughout her career. In the 1920s, she braved a vicious mob of Ku Klux Klansmen at a Missouri campaign rally for Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith.

Perkins also was politically savvy. Rather than take her male peers head on, she worked behind the scenes, building support for programs deemed unthinkable only months earlier. She also knew how to shape those programs for public acceptance. When Social Security was being designed, she rejected systems of other countries in which government funding was the main support of senior citizens. Instead, as Downey points out:

She looked to the insurance model, in which people pay in when they are employed, so that they can get money back when they are not.

Abe Shulsky, a former Defense Department official, knew Perkins. Shulsky was in the audience here for a recent book talk by Downey at the AFL-CIO and said that Perkins

felt a duty to take care of people, a real commitment to helping people as a vocation. She had a great mixture of idealism and realism in politics. She knew how to make deals to get this vote and that vote, but she never lost her moral compass.

Her moral compass explains a lot about Frances Perkins. As Downey asked at the book talk: “Why did she do all that she did?”

It wasn’t for riches. She ended up living in a small dormitory room. She didn’t get a lot of glory or fame by the time she died. And she suffered very badly for what she’d done. She was ridiculed and stigmatized, and even suffered an impeachment attempt.

The real answer, according to Downey, was in something Perkins wrote to Justice Felix Frankfurter, just as she was leaving office:

I came to work for God, FDR and the millions of forgotten, plain common working men.

Was Frances Perkins the unsung hero behind the New Deal? Downey makes a good case for it. But you decide.

(We have signed copies of The Woman Behind the New Deal at the AFL-CIO Union Shop Online.)  Order while they last.

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Tula Connell

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