Tuesday, February 24, 2009


IWS Documented News Service
Institute for Workplace Studies----------------- Professor Samuel B. Bacharach
School of Industrial & Labor Relations
-------- Director, Institute for Workplace Studies
Cornell University
16 East 34th Street, 4th floor
---------------------- Stuart Basefsky
New York, NY 10016
-------------------------------Director, IWS News Bureau

Random House

The Woman Behind the New Deal
The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience
Written by Kirstin Downey
or via Amazon

Format: Hardcover, 480 pages On Sale: March 3, 2009 Price: $35.00 ISBN: 978-0-385-51365-4 (0-385-51365-8)


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.

Editorial Reviews

"No individual--not even Eleanor Roosevelt--exerted more influence over the formulation of FDR's New Deal or did more to implement the programs than Frances Perkins (1880-1965). As former Washington Post staff writer Downey makes plain in this deeply researched biography, the first female Cabinet member was the primary shaper of such new concepts as unemployment insurance, the 40-hour work week and--last but not least--Social Security. At a time when the United States stands at the brink of another economic meltdown calling for sweeping federal interventions, Downey provides not only a superb rendering of history but also a large dose of inspiration drawn from Perkins's clearheaded, decisive work with FDR to solve urgent problems diligently and to succeed in the face of what seemed insurmountable odds. Confronting family issues-a frequently institutionalized husband with severe psychiatric problems; a deeply secret lesbian relationship with Mary Harriman Rumsey (sister of Averell Harriman); a daughter from whom she was often estranged-Perkins nevertheless exhibited tireless grace under pressure again and again, always rising to the occasion in the name of every and any progressive cause."
-Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Kirstin Downey has given us a rich, nuanced portrait of one of the most significant figures of the Age of Roosevelt. Frances Perkins has fallen out of the popular imagination; this fine book should do much to rectify that, and bring the first female member of a president's Cabinet to vivid life once more."
-Jon Meacham, author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

"The New Deal was a big deal for America -- and, as Kirstin Downey shows in this illuminating and sparkling book, Frances Perkins, my predecessor as Labor Secretary, was the moving force behind much of it. Her legacy included Social Security, unemployment insurance, and other initiatives that have improved the lives of generations of Americans. With wit and insight, Downey recounts this singular woman and invites us to celebrate her life."
­Robert B. Reich, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Former U.S. Secretary of Labor

"Kirstin Downey gives Frances Perkins the biography she deserves, the story of a fierce advocate who put people first, a public servant who was actually worthy of the name, and a bracing reminder of what inspired government can do. Perkins ignored the glass ceiling and change America. This book is a joy!"
­Nick Taylor, author of American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work

"For all of her apparent modesty and fierce sense of privacy, Frances Perkins wanted to be known by posterity for her contributions to FDR and his New Deal, particularly Social Security. An investigative reporter, Kirstin Downey has uncovered Frances Perkins's extraordinary strengths in shaping and securing the central domestic accomplishments of the New Dealers. Despite continuing impediments, Perkins, a social worker, successfully broke into a man's world and was a major player for all 12 years of FDR's administration. Downey deftly links the Progressive movement of the early 1900's with the reforms Perkins helped FDR achieve, particularly in his first two terms. In Downey's skilled hands, Frances Perkins at last emerges as a pivotal figure in the most transformative twelve years of 20th century American history."
­Christopher N. Breiseth, President and CEO of The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute

"Prize-winning journalist Downey deconstructs the life of a passionate labor advocate who became the nation's first female Cabinet member. Frances Perkins (1880-1965) had clearly delineated goals: reasonable working hours and wages, fire safety, improved working conditions and the end of child labor. Displaying the fortitude and prescience that carried her through three decades of public service, she outlined these during her first meeting with FDR. After being named his Secretary of Labor, she went on to accomplish reform of unprecedented scope. The 40-hour workweek, unemployment insurance and Social Security are but a few of her legacies; her storied relationship with FDR is another. Making excellent use of personal papers and of archival materials that include a 5,000-page oral history, Downey allows Perkins to narrate much of the text, giving new life to this often overlooked historical figure. FDR saw something special in Perkins, and his confidence and support helped her endure years of sexism from fellow Cabinet members and unwarranted criticism from the press. She developed keen insight into the process of successful lawmaking and established a deliberately staid work persona as a 'plain, sturdy, dependable woman' that allowed her to exert authority and demand respect on her own terms. Married to a man institutionalized with mental illness, she kept her unhappy personal life out of the papers and away from Washington, stifling her emotions and dedicating herself fully to the country's problems. At times it seemed that FDR involved her in every major policy decision. Perkins essentially authored the New Deal; she handled immigration during the onset of World War II, bending rules to harbor German Jews; she worked to establish fair hearings against suspected communists. Her entire career was devoted to the principals she espoused in 1913: 'It is human life and happiness which we are trying to save . . . this is the most important thing.' As a progressive president again takes office in a time of economic crisis, Perkins offers a vital role model."
-Kirkus Reviews

Kirstin Downey

This information is provided to subscribers, friends, faculty, students and alumni of the School of Industrial & Labor Relations (ILR). It is a service of the Institute for Workplace Studies (IWS) in New York City. Stuart Basefsky is responsible for the selection of the contents which is intended to keep researchers, companies, workers, and governments aware of the latest information related to ILR disciplines as it becomes available for the purposes of research, understanding and debate. The content does not reflect the opinions or positions of Cornell University, the School of Industrial & Labor Relations, or that of Mr. Basefsky and should not be construed as such. The service is unique in that it provides the original source documentation, via links, behind the news and research of the day. Use of the information provided is unrestricted. However, it is requested that users acknowledge that the information was found via the IWS Documented News Service.

Stuart Basefsky                   
Director, IWS News Bureau                
Institute for Workplace Studies 
Cornell/ILR School                        
16 E. 34th Street, 4th Floor             
New York, NY 10016                        
Telephone: (607) 255-2703                
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