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Book Review: The Woman Behind The New Deal by Kirstin Downey

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana.

The name of Frances Perkins is pretty much forgotten today, but her New Deal legacy will live on forever. Kirstin Downey’s new book The Woman Behind The New Deal is an excellent look at the life of this extraordinary person. Although she wrote the majority of the legislation that comprised the New Deal, Mrs. Perkins is virtually unknown 75 years later. Her programs however, are still the stuff of front page headlines.

Frances would probably be happy in the knowledge that her name is now largely absent from the history books. During her lifetime, she did her best to conceal her role, and in her later years she destroyed much of her personal correspondence and papers. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary Of Labor, Frances was the very first woman to occupy a cabinet seat in the White House. For this reason alone, she had a huge target on her back.

But keeping herself out of the limelight to quietly broker deals had always been her way. While laboring as a mid-level social worker in New York City, Frances witnessed the devastating Triangle Fire in 1911. She watched as the ten story fire-trap was engulfed in flames, and as people on the top floors leapt to their deaths rather than be burned alive. 146 workers lost their lives that day, and the reasons behind the fire were shockingly avoidable. Laissez-fare was the cause, the building went up in flames because the owners did not care that the conditions were dangerous. Frances worked out deals between management and government to put into place the first fire codes in the nation. These were later adapted to be used across the country.

The systematic abuse of workers was rampant in the early 20th Century, and Frances Perkins devoted her life to ending it. The early fire codes were just the beginning. Frances realized that the only power strong enough to impact business was government. When she was offered a position on the staff of New York City mayor Al Smith, she took it. Her first order of business was to abolish child labor.  Later, governor Roosevelt put her in charge of the state industrial board, where she excelled as well.

When FDR went on to become President, Frances was at his side. Virtually every significant portion of the New Deal was written by her. She adapted an existing British program to create Social Security, developed the concept of unemployment insurance, as well as the 8 hour day, and paid overtime. The only significant piece of legislation that did not make it was a form of universal health coverage. The AMA was too strong in opposition, and the war was looming, so Roosevelt quietly shelved it.

I wonder if all the Tea Baggers would be squawking if Social Security were repealed, or the unemployment insurance they get when being downsized were eliminated. How about no more paid overtime? If it wasn’t for Frances Perkins and the New Deal, none of these things would exist today, and life would be a lot more difficult for a vast number of people.

Frances stayed on in government after Roosevelt’s passing, but resigned from the Cabinet when Harry Truman won election. The post-war years saw her teaching at Cornell University, writing her memoirs, and speaking at various functions. Along with Eleanor Roosevelt she began to be seen as something of an elder stateswoman by the younger generation. John Kennedy even consulted with her after becoming President in 1960.

Frances Perkins was 85 when she passed away in 1965. Her work in government as the “mother” of the New Deal is a towering achievement. After reading The Woman Behind The New Deal, I get the sense that all she hoped to do in life was to help others to live better. She was a devout Christian and never looked to glorify her own position. Paradoxically, this is exactly the reason she is so respected by some — and virtually unknown by most. She lived a remarkable life and permanently changed the role of government in the lives of all Americans.

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