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The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage


The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage Cover


Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

“Kirstin Downey’s lively, substantive and—dare I say—inspiring new biography of Perkins . . . not only illuminates Perkins’ career but also deepens the known contradictions of Roosevelt’s character.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR Fresh Air


One of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s closest friends and the first female secretary of labor, Perkins capitalized on the president’s political savvy and popularity to enact most of the Depression-era programs that are today considered essential parts of the country’s social safety network.

Frances Perkins is no longer a household name, yet she was one of the most influential women of the twentieth century. Based on eight years of research, extensive archival materials, new documents, and exclusive access to Perkins’s family members and friends, this biography is the first complete portrait of a devoted public servant with a passionate personal life, a mother who changed the landscape of American business and society.

Frances Perkins was named Secretary of Labor by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. As the first female cabinet secretary, she spearheaded the fight to improve the lives of America’s working people while juggling her own complex family responsibilities. Perkins’s ideas became the cornerstones of the most important social welfare and legislation in the nation’s history, including unemployment compensation, child labor laws, and the forty-hour work week.

Arriving in Washington at the height of the Great Depression, Perkins pushed for massive public works projects that created millions of jobs for unemployed workers. She breathed life back into the nation’s labor movement, boosting living standards across the country. As head of the Immigration Service, she fought to bring European refugees to safety in the United States. Her greatest triumph was creating Social Security.

Written with a wit that echoes Frances Perkins’s own, award-winning journalist Kirstin Downey gives us a riveting exploration of how and why Perkins slipped into historical oblivion, and restores Perkins to her proper place in history.

About the Author

Kirstin Downey is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post, where she was a staff writer from 1988 to 2008, winning press association awards for her business and economic reporting. She shared in the 2008 Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Post staff for its coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. In 2000, she was awarded a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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djeckstein, January 5, 2011 (view all comments by djeckstein)
This was one of our book club reads, and most everyone in the group was amazed by the story of the first Secretary of Labor, a woman chosen by FDR to lead us to social stabilization during the years of the Great Depression. When Frances came to meet with the President to discuss accepting the job, she came with a list of things she wanted to see made law if she accepted the position: a forty-hour work week, a minimum wage, worker's compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal ban on child labor, federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, public employment service, and health insurance. Frances Perkins held this position from 1933 until 1945. Under the Truman administration, she served on the United States Civil Service Commission until 1952.
This book is a fascinating biography of an underestimated woman whose understanding of how to make political change, how to work with your opponents, and how to help the needy contains important lessons for today.
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Bentley, May 25, 2010 (view all comments by Bentley)
It is about time someone wrote a book length work on the too often overlooked, Frances Perkins. She was such an amazing woman. Her passion for workers rights was more than admirable, not to mention the fact that she was the first woman cabinet member. This very readable book follows Perkins life from childhood to her work in NYC to her being Secretary of Labor until her last days at Cornell.
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Product Details

Downey, Kirstin
Anchor Books
Kirstin Downey
Historical - U.S.
new deal;biography;history;politics;frances perkins;women;social security;great depression
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
7.96 x 5.2 x 0.98 in 1 lb

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Related Subjects

Biography » Historical
Biography » Political
Biography » Women
Featured Titles » Staff Picks
History and Social Science » US History » 1800 to 1945
History and Social Science » US History » 1920 to 1960
History and Social Science » US History » 20th Century » General

The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage New Trade Paper
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Product details 496 pages Anchor Books - English 9781400078561 Reviews:
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