She knew how to get a New Deal

Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

The Woman Behind

the New Deal

The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience

Kirstin Downey

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 462 pp., $35


Frances Perkins knew exactly what she wanted when President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered her the post of secretary of Labor in February 1933. The goals she outlined on that chilly winter night constituted the most sweepingly ambitious to-do list any public official had ever presented: direct federal aid for unemployment relief, a massive public works program, minimum wage and maximum work-hours legislation, compensation for workers injured on the job, workplace safety regulations, a ban on child labor and, finally -- and most radically -- a national pension system as well as one for health insurance. “Are you sure you want this done?” she asked FDR.

It was not an idle question, as journalist Kirstin Downey makes clear in the prologue to her shrewd, appreciative biography of Perkins. “She was proposing a fundamental and radical restructuring of American society,” Downey writes, adding: “To succeed, she would have to overcome opposition from courts, business, labor unions, conservatives.” Perkins needed to be sure FDR would back her; she was well aware that “he often chose political expediency over idealism.” She had his full support, Roosevelt assured her. Like Perkins, he believed that the time was ripe for dramatic federal initiatives. The Depression had shaken Americans’ traditional faith in laissez-faire economic policy; after 3 1/2 years of inaction by the Herbert Hoover administration, they were desperate for their government to do something, anything. Frances Perkins, FDR knew, was a woman who got things done.

Downey’s cogent resume of Perkins’ early life and career shows her developing the skills she would put to triumphant use as one of the principal architects of the New Deal. Born in Boston in 1880, the smart, articulate girl soon found herself questioning her family’s conservative values. At Mount Holyoke College, she was galvanized by a lecture by Florence Kelley of the National Consumers League, an organization dedicated to abolishing child labor and sweatshops. Social work, Perkins decided when she graduated in 1902, would be her life’s calling.


While volunteering at Hull House in Chicago, she made contacts in the labor movement and came to believe unions played an important role in the battle to improve working conditions. Yet she was also careful to cultivate wealthy, influential sympathizers, a task made easier by her membership in an upscale Episcopalian church. Her deep religious faith sustained her personal commitment to social change, but she did not rely on appeals to people’s better nature. Armed with graduate degrees from the Wharton School and Columbia, Perkins became a formidable social scientist who got her facts lined up before she proposed solutions.

Her desire to implement those solutions led her into politics. She infuriated fellow reformers by working with the Tammany Hall machine and accepting a major compromise to pass a 1912 law in New York limiting women’s workweeks to 54 hours. She began dressing and behaving in a matronly way designed to remind male politicians of their mothers. At a time when women did not have the right to vote, she was formulating a strategy that would lead Gov. Al Smith to appoint her in 1919 to the New York State Industrial Commission, the best-paid, most influential post held by any woman in government, even nationally, at the time.


FDR’s conscience

When Smith lost his presidential bid in 1928, Perkins transferred her allegiance to New York’s new governor, FDR, even though she was personally fond of Smith and had her doubts about Roosevelt. Throughout their association, she viewed him as a man who was easily manipulated, an opinion her biographer might have viewed with more skepticism. But Downey is correct to note that Perkins’ ability to assess her allies’ strength and weaknesses was “a core personality trait, bolstering her effectiveness.”

She needed every ounce of that effectiveness as the first female Cabinet member in American history. Attempting to deflect attention from her gender, Perkins adopted a starchy manner that alienated the Washington press corps, which consistently underplayed her achievements and stressed her failures. Labor leaders were wary of a woman who once declared, “I’d much rather get a law, than organize a union.” Yet her firm support of workers’ right to organize, written into law as Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, reignited the labor movement and cemented her reputation among conservative congressmen as a flaming radical pushing the most extreme programs on the New Deal agenda.

Perkins didn’t care about being popular or receiving public acclaim; she was focused on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create the fairer, more humane society she had fought for her entire career. She consulted Supreme Court justices to make sure the laws she was crafting would pass constitutional muster. She solicited the input of business tycoons as well as union officials so that her proposals were based on a broad knowledge of industrial conditions. She quietly assessed her fellow Cabinet members, forging alliances with the like-minded ones and staving off attempts by the hostile ones to torpedo her projects by keeping in constant touch with FDR and nailing down his often elusive support. “He wanted his conscience kept for him by somebody,” she said later, and Perkins kept it with a vengeance. She pressed him continually to make good on his pledge to give the American people better lives.

A series of laws establishing the rights of labor and decent working conditions, all bearing Perkins’ fingerprints, climaxed with the Social Security Act of 1935. Packaging together unemployment insurance, old-age pensions and aid to the disabled and dependent children, it promised, in Roosevelt’s words, “security against the hazards and vicissitudes of life.” Passage in 1938 of the Fair Labor Standards Act establishing minimum wages and maximum hours meant that Perkins could check off almost every single item on the list she had read to FDR five years earlier. (Only national health insurance had foundered, due to the American Medical Assn.’s implacable opposition.) She had rewritten the U.S. government’s contract with its citizens.


Her influence waned as preparations for war turned FDR’s attention from social welfare programs, and the Immigration Service (in those days a section of the Labor Department) caused her no end of grief as she fought State Department recalcitrance to relax regulations for desperate German refugees and resisted pressure to deport aliens whose only crimes were controversial political activities. (Congress very nearly impeached Perkins over her refusal to deport radical Australian-born union leader Harry Bridges.) Yet pride in what they had achieved in the heyday of the New Deal kept Perkins loyal to FDR, and she remained at Labor until his death in 1945.


Perkins’ point of view

Downey skates over Perkins’ tenure at the Civil Service Commission, where she reluctantly facilitated President Harry S. Truman’s postwar purge of communists and former communists. Relying heavily on the reminiscences Perkins contributed to Columbia’s oral history archive and understandably eager to give this pioneering progressive her due, the author tends to accept Perkins’ view of events rather than critically assess them. That’s a small fault in the first biography to fully convey the magnitude of her achievements.

Downey’s detailed account of Perkins’ life pays equal heed to the moral force of her convictions and the canny political maneuvering required to give those convictions the force of law in a time of national crisis. We can only hope that her spiritual successors are assembling in Washington today.