The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Praise for new biography of Frances Perkins

In Biography on February 25, 2009 at 11:01 am

Cover shot of The Woman Behind the New Deal

Cover shot of The Woman Behind the New Deal

The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience by Kirstin Downey will be available on March 3rd. Kirstin is a board member of the Frances Perkins Center and lent us a copy of the book in galleys. It’s an incredibly thorough and perceptive portrait of an amazing woman. Frances Perkins didn’t just have to contend with the misogyny of the times, she had to deal with a marriage besieged by mental illness as well. Intelligent, complicated, forceful — Frances Perkins never courted the press and thus her legacy has been neglected. How ironic that former Washington Post reporter Kirstin Downey is the person who brings her to life, at a time when the New Deal is on everyone’s mind.

Published by Gay Talese at Random House, the book has already garnered some very positive reviews. Here is a sampling from the book’s web site:

“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 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 changed 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

You can pre-order the book now directly from Random House, Amazon, or your favorite local book store. To find out where you can hear Kirstin Downey talk about her book, visit her web site,


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