Monday, May 11, 2009

'The Woman Behind the New Deal' by Kirstin Downey

This looks like a very interesting and timely book:

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."


  1. Where is Frances Perkins when we need her?

  2. Obama has a pretty strong cabinet. Impressed to hear the health care reforms he plans on undertaking with Sebelius at point. She made herself famous for taking on the health insurance companies in Kansas.

    I don't expect the sweeping changes that occurred under FDR, but it seems that the Obama admin will be a proactive one.

  3. I agree that Obama is off to a really strong start, but I think we could use more Frances Perkinses pushing the agenda along.

    I'm still furious with my own Senator who came to the state and said single-payer insurance is not an option. Montanans protested loudly, but now Baucus has convened a meeting in Washington on health care without a single-payer option in the discussion.

    I don't know whom he thinks he represents. No, wait. I do. He was also one of the 12 democrats who voted down the mortgage relief bill, which wasn't perfect but could have helped a lot of people stay in their homes. Why would the banks want to repossess those houses anyway?

  4. I may get in trouble over this, but off the top of my head and without looking things up, I have in my head the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire of 1911. That's not unusual because I went to NYU and had classes in the building where the fire occurred.The fire killed about 150 people, almost all of whom were women. Anyhow--what has this to do with Frances Perkins? Well, she was on a Women's Trade Union Committee. Belle Moskowitz was chairman. Belle went hairy over the fire and demanded something be done and eventually went to see Al Smith, then an Assemblyman. He got things done. Belle became his secretary and companion. She brought along Frances Perkins, who then served in his or at least in FDR's Cabinet while he was governor.So she went from Triangle--->Moscowitz---->Smith----->FDR--->Social Security. Loose association, but the Fire set off an interesting chain of associations affecting all Americans---thanks to Belle Moscowitz getting really upset.

  5. Interesting, Robert! You know, I picked up a biography of Moscowitz, not really knowing who she was, but I"m interested in labor history from that period.

    Didn't we all sort of part company talking about reading the then new book on the fire? I know I bought the book when it came out -- yet another I haven't read. Maybe something we can discuss at some point.

    I just bought the BBC series The Edwardians which covers that same period, but from a totally different perspective. I'm beginning to think that era leading up to and into WWI was formative for our history. But maybe the fire, in the way you have linked it, could be real key into it. Hmmmm. Interesting thought.