Review: New biography of groundbreaking Labor Secretary is timely

(Reposted from Workday Minnesota) ST. PAUL - A new biography, “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” brings Frances Perkins out of the footnotes and into the historically accurate limelight of unparalleled progressive policy advances. If you learned about Perkins in school, chances are all you learned was that in 1933 she became the first woman member of a U.S. president’s Cabinet as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor. If you have studied labor history, you have learned that on Perkins’ watch, organized labor came into full legal rights but not without internal strife and potent backlash from anti-labor interests.

Author Kirstin Downey documents how Perkins delivered rights to America’s workers, but also how she led the most expansive social reforms in American history. Her vision and political skills have left us with workplace safety laws, Social Security, less child labor, unemployment insurance, a record of successful public works and an array of other signature New Deal reforms.

Perkins, the book makes clear, was a woman of ambition who figured out early as a suffrage proponent and activist in the settlement house movement that advocacy without legal clout could not generate sufficient social progress.

In many ways, Perkins was a conventional woman of the early 20th century, who built her social networks so she could gain acceptance among well-placed people and fully fill the role of wife and mother, too. Then her emphasis changed. As the book points out, Perkins committed passionately to becoming a power broker after witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in 1911. “It is without a doubt,” Downey writes, “that the Triangle fire was a turning point. It reoriented her life. Journalist Will Irwin, a close friend, summed it up: ‘What Frances Perkins saw that day started her on her career.’”

The book’s subtitle speaks to how insufficiently written history has treated Perkins and how important Downey thinks Perkins was to the epic accomplishments in the Roosevelt years. “The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience” spells out both who she was and how she swayed the president to act boldly for working Americans.

If you are fighting for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act that would restore rights Perkins fought for so long ago or if you are in the struggle for affordable health care and a living wage, “The Woman Behind the New Deal” can inspire you. If you are hoping the labor movement can reunite and grow, this book will show you how it happened before.

Find more about the book and historic photos on the author’s Web site,