A Review of Kirstin Downey’s The Woman Behind the New Deal
Kirstin Downey started her career as a business reporter for the Washington Post. While writing her columns, she became increasingly familiar with the work of Frances Perkins. Eventually she began a decade long project studying the scarce documents pertaining to Perkin’s life. In 2009, she published her only book, attributing it to Frances Perkins.
BY HAMZA ATCHA
Frances Perkins became the first woman to ever hold a position as a cabinet member to the President of the United States. As depicted in The Woman Behind the New Deal, by Kirstin Downey, Perkins prevailed over innumerable odds, persistently ignoring gender discrimination, and overcoming family troubles, in order to become accomplished. Upon distinguishing herself as a cabinet member, she shattered the previous social barrier opening up new opportunities for women who severely lacked freedoms in the workplace compared to their male counterparts. In addition to breaking social barriers, Perkins became a cabinet member in order to provide for her family. In taking office, she vowed to “work for God, FDR and the millions of forgotten, plain, common working men.”1 Basing most of her work on improving the conditions of the working class, Perkins urged President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to create social programs, thus beginning the early stages of the New Deal. Frances Perkins overcame numerous family struggles, a shortage of money, and previous gender discrimination in order to become the first woman cabinet official to the President of the United States of America during the Great Depression, and years after, directly influencing the creation of the New Deal.
Downey begins by introducing Fannie Coralie Perkins—a relative of James Otis— who knew by the age of ten that she would hold no profession in the beauty industry. Perkins also knew that she was different compared to her family and she was unafraid to make risky decisions—for example, she “proclaimed herself a Democrat” when the remainder of the city she resided in, Worcester, was Republican.2 As a teenager, Perkins had an insatiable desire to help the poor and moved to New York against the wishes of her parents, eventually meeting Florence Kelly, the leader of the National Consumers League, and Devine, the leader of the Charity Organization Society. When trying to join the Charity Organization Society, Perkins was rejected because she was “too young, inexperienced for work and lacked judgment and life experience to effectively assist those in need.”3 Distraught at the decision, Perkins moved to Chicago where she “changed her name, faith and political persuasion.”4 Fannie Coralie Perkins became Frances Perkins and soon became increasingly involved in the Settlement House Movement, specifically the Hull House, which was headed by Jane Addams. Perkins then moved back to New York and began to write short romance novels; however, after large criticism she decided to give up on writing. Low on self esteem, Perkins remembered her original goals to improve the situations and the working conditions of the economically suppressed women. Her calls to improve working conditions grew significantly following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, where numerous working women were burned alive as they were imprisoned inside a textile factory to prevent escape. In order to further her goals and draft a fifty hour work week compromise, Perkins urged the public to remember those lost in the fire, and formed an alliance with Tammany Hall, a political machine in New York. In addition, Perkins undertook the traditional “motherhood” figure—dressing more formal and elegant.5 Not long after Perkins began a partnership with former President Theodore Roosevelt. Perkins finally achieved success as fire regulations were enacted and the New York State Factory Investigation Commission was created. However, Perkins’s life was not completely dominated by politics, as she met Paul Wilson in New York City; they eventually decided to marry. During her marriage, Perkins’s was informed of Wilson’s disloyalty; however, in order to prevent destroying both Wilson’s and her own political career, Perkins seemingly forgave him.
Downey then shifts to the turbulent years of Perkins’s life. Suffering from the death of two of her neonatal children, Perkins eventually became a mother following the birth of her only child, Sussana Perkins Wilson. After giving birth, Perkins headed the Maternity Center Society in order to decrease the maternal death rate. However, Perkins’s life took a turn for the worse as her husband, Wilson, was diagnosed with a mental disorder following the decline and death of close friend and work affiliate, Mitchell. Wilson would eventually become somewhat of a burden to a Perkins following her promotion to Head of the Industrial Commission by New York Governor Al Smith, a fellow political associate. Perkins would bring about much change and, during a tour of Europe, she was able to quell an uprising by the working class people of Italy. However, Perkins lost her post when Al Smith was defeated for re-election of governor. Following his defeat, Smith decided to nominate Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a possible candidate to become the governor of New York. As a result, both Perkins and Smith set out to promote their nominee. In doing so, Perkins noticed increased hostility from the public towards Smith, specifically targeting his Catholic heritage. Despite much controversy, Roosevelt was elected as New York governor. Shortly after he was elected, signs of decreased prosperity, under the Hoover administration, began to appear prompting Perkins to find out the “underlying cause.”6 Determined to find the basis of the decrease in economy, Perkins uncovered President Hoover’s use of falsely fabricated statistics, discrediting his name and presidency. Roosevelt was later elected as President of the United States, replacing the disgraced Herbert Hoover. Upon naming his cabinet members, Roosevelt selected Frances Perkins as his Secretary of Labor as she was described as being “the best MAN for the job.”7 However, Roosevelt’s decision was largely ridiculed, as people refused to work for a woman. Without the full backing of her Department of Labor, Perkins began to dismiss many employees. Also, at the first Cabinet meeting, Perkins’s timid nature possessed her as she remained quiet until spoken to. However, her shyness did not overshadow her numerous accomplishments, which include the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). At the same time, Perkins was severely burdened economically as she was forced to pay for Wilson’s medical bill. Fortunately, Mary Harriman, the daughter of a railroad tycoon, agreed to pay Perkins’s expenses and allowed Perkins to reside in her house.
New Public Works programs were soon to be created by both Perkins and Roosevelt, of which included the National Recovery Administration (NRA), headed by Harold Ickes. The NRA was soon deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court as it granted the President too much power. In addition, the rise of Hitler, Marxist influences, and formation of labor unions, began protests in America. One, the San Francisco shore men strike, particularly freighted Perkins because the use of force was introduced to suppress the uprising. In response, Perkins appointed General Glassford in an attempt to create order; he was partially successful by establishing the Glassford Wage, which temporarily “established a wage baseline respected in the agricultural community.”8 However, in order to permanently quell uprisings, Perkins and Roosevelt eventually proposed the Economic Security Act which was later called the Social Security Act— because “of references to social security”— which guaranteed relief for the poor and pensions for the elderly.9 At the time Perkins was undergoing tremendous pressure as her daughter, Sussana, was diagnosed with the same mental illness as her husband; Perkins blamed herself for the condition of both her husband and her daughter. In addition, Perkins constantly received criticism from the press largely fueled by other Cabinet members. One of these falsely accused Perkins of being a communist as she had aided a possible suspect, Bridges. In light of these accusations, as well as the United States’ increased involvement in World War Two, Perkins was set to be impeached by Congress. However, the trial would eventually fail and certain measures were enacted, of which involved Perkins’s removal as head of immigration. Perkins’s would then go on to accompany President Roosevelt in his campaign and eventual election for a third term in office.
Perkins also witnessed the events of World War Two. In this time period, Perkins believed that “Poverty anywhere constitutes to poverty everywhere.”10 Certain precautions were later enacted to prevent poverty which “encapsulated Frances’s New Deal ideals.”11 However, the stress had taken its toll on a weakening Perkins, who handed in her resignation prior to Roosevelt’s fourth term in office. Before she was officially acquitted, Roosevelt died. Taking over for the late President Roosevelt, Harry Truman formally accepted Perkins’s resignation. After leaving Washington, Perkins wrote a book in memory of Roosevelt known as The Roosevelt I Knew. Perkins refused to comment on the Roosevelt administration in fear of humanizing her close friend, who was regarded highly to the public, due to his contributions during the Great Depression. Later, Perkins undertook the responsibilities of a university instructor in hopes of providing for her husband, daughter, and new born grandson Tomlin. However, Perkins’s husband, Wilson, soon passed away. Following the death of her husband, Perkins contemplated retiring, but became increasingly involved in campus life. Unfortunately, Perkins’s health eventually began to deteriorate and in May 1965 at the age of 88, she lapsed into a coma, effectively ending her long illustrious career.
In recounting the life of Frances Perkins, author Kirstin Downey reflects upon the various accomplishments of the woman who was pivotal in shaping the Roosevelt administration, as well as an instrumental figure in advocating suffrage and improving labor conditions. Downey, who published her book in 2009, praises the accomplishments and life of Perkins– who was pivotal in the creation of various New Deal programs – in a very sympathetic light, perhaps due to her relevancy during the current economic crisis. In addition, Downey’s book, according to New York Times editor Sam Roberts, offers “fresh insight” on the life and legacy of the “no nonsense pragmatist that is Frances Perkins. Moreover, Roberts praises Downey as she “skillfully” recounts the various hardships faced by Perkins in struggle to become the first woman cabinet member.12 Priscilla Taylor, of the Washington Times, also agrees, acclaiming Downey’s recount of Perkins’s rise to fame as a “sympathetic” yet “remarkably good read.” Taylor praises Downey’s account of Perkins, as it “humanizes Ms. Perkins and the administration she worked for.”13 However, Downey’s overall sympathetic perspective defends and justifies Perkins’s actions undermining the role and authority of other figures, such as FDR. For example, Downey writes that “Frances knew FDR had no real action plan once he took office,” so she “developed her own views on needed actions.”14 Monumentalizing the stature of Perkins, Downey somewhat downgrades the prominence of other leading figures. In doing this, Downey furthers the importance of Perkins’s role in dealing with the Great Depression and in defining the Roosevelt administration. As a result, Downey’s overly sympathetic view on Perkins furthers the purpose of her book—to praise the accomplishments of Perkins. Downey’s ample use of quotes, by Perkins, accompanied with sufficient commentary proves to be effective in exemplifying the motivation and ideas of Perkins. Although she constantly justifies Perkins’s actions, Downey is particularly effective in rediscovering the significance of Perkins’s actions which ultimately provided relief and economic security for the public.
According to Kirstin Downey, the 1930s was a defining decade for America and as well as for the career of Frances Perkins—as most of her efforts as Secretary of Labor were directed in resolving the effects of the economic downfall. After asserting that “the Depression was almost over,” President Herbert Hoover was caught falsifying statistics in an attempt to please the overly demoralized public.15 However, Perkins noticed Hoover’s use of false statistics and immediately notified the newspaper agencies which proved to be crucial in FDR’s ascension to Presidency while the Hoover administration was closely scrutinized. Downey first asserts that America was lacking a leader, or a strong central figure, in the early stages of the Great Depression, under the Presidency of Herbert Hoover. Hoover’s administration was unable to bring about much change resulting in the gradual deterioration of both the economy and the moral of the people. In order to rescue his Presidency, Hoover tried to improve the spirits of the people which lead to his demise. Downey also asserts that the 1930s marked a change in America politically, culturally, and economically. Downey claims that through the creation of multiple New Deal programs, Americans were receiving direct compensation on behalf of the government—this practice was previously unheard of as Americans, before the Great Depression, were self-sufficient, relying solely on their own potential. However, as time progressed, the Depression grew worse forcing a larger number of people into taking government handouts. Downey also compares the shift in culture, as an increasing number of Americans were forced to rely primarily on aid from the government in order to survive. Downey believes that Perkins’s life, and the legacy of the New Deal, will be pivotal in years to come, providing a template for temporary economic relief. In addition, Downey outlines the importance of a central figure that is able to manipulate various economic conditions in order to reverse the degrading effects of an economic downfall.
Downey’s assumptions provide a firm foundation in understanding the significance of the Great Depression and how it impacted America in the following years. As asserted by Downey, an increase in the reliance on government changed previously held values; however, it also signaled the beginning of government involvement in determining the economic condition of the United States of America. As implemented by FDR, the New Deal would provide relief to those who were unemployed through the creation of new jobs, FDR favored “paid work rather than handouts,” and awarding Americans for their contributions in amending the econonmy.16 The Great Depression also signaled the gradual decline of agriculture, as many farmers, through overproducing, lost valuable profit which ended in large debts. Ultimately, the Great Depression provided America with change—whether it was the change of Presidencies from Herbert Hoover to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or whether it involved government intervention in the economy—which would be pivotal in understanding and preventing the causes of the Great Depression. The change also altered American politics, as there was an increased focus on the creation of New Deal Programs, many of which influenced by the ideas of Frances Perkins, to support the unemployed and revitalize the damaged economy. The Great Depression did cause innumerable hardships faced by many people across America; however, it also modified the American government to prevent the conditions that lead to the decline of the economy—specifically over speculation of land and in stock. The 1930s marked the beginning of a new era in American politics and economy as increased government involvement ensured the end of the conditions which led to the Great Depression.
Kirstin Downey’s The Woman Behind the New Deal recounts the life and legacy of Frances Perkins—the first woman in the presidential cabinet. Perkins, who broke many social barriers in attaining a position in office, was instrumental in the overall success of FDR’s administration. Through her hard work and perseverance, Perkins was able to overcome a shortage of money and family troubles in order to protect her ideals, which included improving poor working conditions and the social stature of women, especially in the workplace. Despite constant criticism from the newspapers and other cabinet members Perkins turned out to be the “best man for the job” earning the respect of FDR and many others.7 Downey’s praising account of Perkins also reveals underlying causes of the Great Depression which ultimately led to Perkins’s success in creating New Deal programs to help the majority of unemployed Americans. Furthermore, Downey comments on the importance of a strong central figure, such as Frances Perkins, during the Great Depression, as she was successful in influencing the creation of public works programs, relieving much pressure from the majority of the public which was unemployed. Downey’s portrayal of Perkins’s life recollects the legacy of arguably one of the most important figures in the Roosevelt administration as well one of the most prolific figures during the Great Depression.
1: Downey, Kirstin. The Woman Behind the New Deal, New York, Anchor Books, 2009, 398.
Born in Bolton, England, Hamza Atcha moved to Irvine in 2006 and is currently a junior. His hobbies include both playing and watching soccer as well as listening to music. Attending Irvine High School, he hopes to graduate and attend a four year college.
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