As banks failed, foreclosures mounted and unemployment soared, a charismatic new president turned to an untested Cabinet member to pull the nation out of its despair and the worst economic depression in generations. It was 1933, not 2009. The president was Franklin Roosevelt, and the unlikely hero was a shy feminist with a social mission.
The remarkable and largely untold story of Frances Perkins, who headed FDR's Labor Department for 12 years, unfolds in "The Woman Behind the New Deal," Kirstin Downey's important biography of the first woman to serve as a Cabinet secretary.
By Kirstin Downey
In her long tenure, Perkins compiled a record of social policy and labor law accomplishments unparalleled by any unelected official: establishment of the 40-hour workweek and the minimum wage; a ban on child labor; enforcement of workplace safety; creation of unemployment insurance, workers' compensation and Social Security. She championed the National Labor Relations Act, giving employees the right to bargain collectively, and a public jobs program that put the country back to work.
Downey asserts that it is a great historical irony that Perkins, whose legacy impacts every American, is virtually unknown. Partly, her New Deal achievements were overshadowed by World War II and the strong men in FDR's inner circle.
But Perkins, born in Boston in 1880, also served at a time when ambitious women shunned the spotlight and were passive to blatant sexism. Perkins was sniped at by Cabinet colleagues for talking too much. She was ridiculed in the Washington press as "Ma Perkins" for her matronly dress.
Conservative lawmakers used Perkins as a punching bag for social and labor policies they deplored. In 1939 Congress tried to impeach her for refusing to deport an accused Communist, California labor leader Harry Bridges. The effort failed, but Perkins suffered a crushing blow to her psyche and reputation.
Researching the forgotten and private Perkins turned into a 10-year detective project for Downey, a longtime reporter at the Washington Post, as she tracked down lost documents, interviewed aged acquaintances and uncovered personal letters that Perkins and her estranged daughter, Susanna, hid for years from public view.
The biography that emerges is rich in detail and paints a complex portrait of a passionate pioneer and intensely self-conscious woman; a tireless public servant who cunningly manipulated bosses; a champion of social justice who ambitiously climbed the social ladder herself; and a conflicted working wife and mother who indulged her only child and feared her husband's mental illness would destroy her career.
The turning point in Perkins' career came in 1911. A tea party at a townhouse on New York's Washington Square was interrupted by an emergency: A nearby factory was on fire. Perkins rushed to the scene and in horror watched as garment workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. jumped to their death from windows in the 12-story building.
Most of the 146 victims were young female immigrants, and Perkins vowed that day to dedicate herself to ensuring the safety and security of working men and women.
The Great Depression gave Perkins the opportunity to press an even wider social justice agenda. "I suppose you are going to nag me about this forever," said Roosevelt, who as New York governor and later president put Perkins in charge of the state and then federal Labor Departments and gave her an unprecedented domestic policy-making mandate.
What followed, according to Downey, was one of the most enduring and codependent political partnerships in the 20th century. For his presidency to succeed, FDR needed a strong labor secretary to restore jobs and confidence. Perkins was that loyal lieutenant, as well as his unrelenting prod and social conscience.
Downey's exploration of Perkins' relationships -- with the Roosevelts; with her deeply troubled husband Paul Wilson and rebellious daughter; and with friends who likely were lesbians -- enriches the sometimes slow-moving narrative that follows Perkins through her lonely old age and death in 1965.
But at its core, "The Woman Behind the New Deal" is a tribute to an unsung social reformer whose zeal and persistence paid dividends for us all.
Mary Leonard can be reached at email@example.com .