The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Posts Tagged ‘Kirstin Downey’

Kirstin Downey wows Boston audience

In Biography, Events on March 12, 2010 at 2:17 pm

[Written by Frances Perkins Center board member Sarah Peskin.]

Perkins Center board member Kirstin Downey addressed a standing room only crowd at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston on Wednesday March 10, 2010 for a public lecture on The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience.  In his introductory comments, MHS president Dennis Fiore gave a nice plug for the Center and invited our Maine contingent to identify ourselves — thus giving Barb Burt and me a chance to work the crowd later, to give out brochures, answer questions, and invite audience members to sign the guestbook and peruse our website.  We set FPC bookmarks at the book signing table and they were snapped up by eager buyers who quickly exhausted the full supply of newly-released paperbacks delivered for the occasion.

Downey asked participants if they had known about Frances Perkins before coming to the lecture, and praised them for being relatively well-informed when most of the hands were raised in the affirmative.  She went on to cite Perkins’s many landmark achievements, noting that FP “wasn’t looking for fame” and was more interested in getting things done than in taking credit.  Reminding us that 52 million Americans now receive Social Security benefits and another 10 million unemployment compensation thanks to FP’s direct personal efforts, Downey posed the question:  How did she do so much?

Other topics highlighted in the talk included Perkins’s key role in establishing the WPA which in turn created so much of the physical infrastructure (bridges, dams, tunnels, highways) that allowed the US economy to boom in the 1950s and 60s, and the Civilian Conservation Corps that made lasting improvements to state and national parks while putting young people to work in the 1930s.

Downey also spoke about her use of a collection of letters from the “brilliant young lawyer Charles Wyzanski, the department’s new solicitor of labor” describing his alarm as early as 1933 when he travelled to Germany and saw persecution of trade unionists, Jews, and intellectuals in many fields. These eyewitness reports prompted Perkins to devote considerable energies, along with other FDR advisors, to quietly easing immigration restrictions so that thousands needing refuge could enter the US.  This little known but fascinating history was pieced together by Downey by following clues triggered by the Massachusetts Historical Society Wyzanski letters, several of which were displayed in a case in the lecture room for the event.

Barb and I greeted old and new friends and made several contacts worth pursuing.  I was so proud to be associated with this thoughtful and well-presented event.  Thanks go to Jayne Gordon of the MHS for planning and coordinating the evening.  It was a great success. Kirstin spoke the next day at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard and is scheduled to address the Organization of American Historians on April 9, 2010 in DC.  Go to her website for other stops on what looks like a very tiring book tour.

Kirstin Downey says, “Statistics mask real economic pain”

In Political world on February 6, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Were you cheered by the reported drop in the jobless rate yesterday? In, Frances Perkins Center board member Kirstin Downey reflected on the drop of 0.3 percent. While you should read the entire article, let me share a few highlights:

But the fact is that private-sector employment actually looks worse than durinig the Great Depression. If you compare the numbers with 1933, more than a third of U.S. workers are jobless today. And government officials don’t seem willing to face the situation.

In 1933, 25% of the working population meant 12.8 million people were out of work in a workforce of about 51 million. That included senior citizens, because only about 10% of older people had pensions in those years before Social Security.

Now, the federal government says we have an estimated 14.8 million unemployed, out of a work force of about 154 million. But that number is artificially lower than in the Great Depression because 33 million senior citizens are on Social Security — and not seeking jobs as they were then. An additional 7.4 million adults receive disability payments under Social Security, and some would also have been seeking work in 1933.

But that’s not all. We have a far larger standing military than in 1933 — about 1 percent of the work force, or 1.4 million men and women.

Another 1.6 million people are in jails and prisons, a near-record amount, and again a larger percentage of able-bodied U.S. residents than in 1933. They are excluded from the statistics today.

In other words, 43.4 million people are paid for government employment in the military, or supported through government programs. If added to the jobless numbers, it equals about 58 million people.

She goes on to discuss the fact that economic conditions are worsening for a large number of people. “On Thursday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 480,000 additional people filed for unemployment insurance last week. That’s 10.4 million people now on unemployment, up from 7.2 million in December 2008.”

Comparing today to the 1930s, she points out that:

The big difference now is that despair is masked. Social Security and the expansions of unemployment insurance mean that people are able to keep the wolf from the door. The bread lines of the 1930s are food banks.

We can all thank Frances Perkins and her New Deal colleagues for the programs that are keeping so many of us from outright destitution. But she cautions that “the American people are so angry at their leaders. They know that many of the government statistics are often just statistical sleight-of-hand.” Her article shows just how dire the crisis is–it’s truly as bad as it feels to us.

[Kirstin Downey, a former economics reporter at The Washington Post, is the author of “The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Compensation and the Minimum Wage,” out this month as an Anchor trade paperback.]

Panel Discussion from Jan. 14: “The Birth of Social Security and the Transformation of America”

In Biography, Events, Legislation on February 3, 2010 at 9:30 am
Panel 1: The Birth of Social Security and the Transformation of America

Please click on the image to play the video. Look for the arrow in the lower left corner to start the video.

The 1st panel from our January 14th event in New York City, “The Birth of Social Security and the Transformation of America”

Moderator: Dr. Christopher Breiseth, former president of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and current member of the Advisory Committee of the Frances Perkins Center

Panelists: Kirstin Downey, author of The Woman Behind the New Deal and board member at the Frances Perkins Center; Adam Cohen of the New York Times and author of Nothing to Fear; and Larry DeWitt, public historian at the Social Security Administration and principal editor of Social Security: A Documentary History.

Frances Perkins Center featured on public television

In The Center on July 27, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Written by Sichu Mali, summer intern

On July 3, 2009, the Frances Perkins Center was featured in “Maine Watch with Jennifer Rooks” on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN). The program included an interview with the executive director, Barbara Burt, who mentioned that Cynthia Otis, Frances Perkins’s grandmother, had been a major influence on Frances. She also shared the vision of the center with the show host Jennifer Rooks, which includes creating a digital archive of Frances’s documents and a conference center in her name.

Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, Frances’s grandson and a board member of the center, who was also featured in this program, talked about the fire safety practice he and his grandmother had at The Brick House.

At the MPBN studio, Rooks was joined by Kirstin Downey, author of The Woman Behind the New Deal and Dr. Christopher Breiseth, the immediate past president and CEO of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. Downey discussed Frances’s role in the New Deal and the Fire Safety Code. Dr. Breiseth, who knew Frances personally as a student at Cornell University, spoke about her personality. He mentioned that when he had asked Ms Perkins about her most important accomplishment, she had replied, “Social Security.”

To watch the program, click on the photo below.

Click to watch the video

Click to watch the video

Perkins and Roosevelt built first line of defense against economic ruin

In Biography, New Deal Legislation on April 18, 2009 at 7:31 am

Kirstin Downey, author of The Woman Behind the New Deal, recently wrote an editorial in the AFL-CIO Now blog, “Frances Perkins Rides to the Rescue–Again.” Here’s an excerpt:

Americans’ fears about the economy worsened when the Department of Labor reported that unemployment had skyrocketed to 8.5 percent in March, the highest rate in 25 years.

These are not just statistics. The numbers represent real people. At 10 a.m. on a recent morning, more than 150 men stood alongside a main highway into Washington, D.C., in the Virginia city of Annandale, clustered in small groups, huddled against the wind, peering into the windows of passing cars, hoping for work. Motorists sped by quickly, looking away to avoid attracting attention and raising false hopes. Unemployed laborers are a frightening sight to those who are still working.

It is in alarming times like these that some of the key programs of the New Deal demonstrate their continuing significance and highlight how much Americans continue to rely on solutions fashioned then in response to lessons learned, in times that seem eerily similar to our own.

In this case, the economic shock absorber system is unemployment insurance. It is the FEMA of economic hurricanes, and it is keeping more than 6 million households afloat during these bad times.

The unemployment insurance system was propelled into existence by Frances Perkins, the canny but little-known social worker who was President Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor. She had studied the U.S. economy for 20 years before she took up her Cabinet post, and she was Roosevelt’s industrial commissioner from 1928 to 1932 while he was governor of New York. Together, they watched the Great Depression arrive and cast its shadow across the American landscape.

Frances Perkins is most famous today for her role as primary architect of Social Security. But in 1933 and 1934, the program she championed most fiercely was unemployment insurance. Now it has become a first line of defense against capitalism’s ruthless pattern of boom-and-bust cycles.

To read the entire blog post, go to

Frances Perkins discussed on “Fresh Air”

In Biography on April 18, 2009 at 7:22 am
Click to listen to the program excerpt.

Click to listen to the program excerpt.

Maine Sunday Telegram showcases the Frances Perkins Center

In Biography, Programs, The Buildings, The Center on April 12, 2009 at 7:11 am


Political reporter Dieter Bradbury and photographer Jack Milton visited The Brick House last week. This article, New Deal leader celebrated in Maine, and accompanying slideshow are the result. The combination makes a wonderful introduction to the Center and its mission.

C-Span’s Book TV features “The Woman Behind the New Deal” this weekend

In Biography on April 7, 2009 at 8:22 am

From the C-Span Book TV web site:

Saturday at 8:00 AM, Saturday at 11:00 PM, and Sunday at 7:00 PM
The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience
Author: Kirstin Downey

This is a tape of Kirstin Downey’s presentation at the Library of Congress several weeks ago. As they say on network television, this is “must-see TV”!

Visit to Mt. Holyoke College, Frances Perkins’s alma mater

In Biography, Events on April 4, 2009 at 5:11 am

I traveled to South Hadley, Massachusetts, earlier this week to participate in a lecture about Frances Perkins at her alma mater, Mt. Holyoke College. The lecture was sponsored by the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts as part of the Body Politic(s) series.

Frances Perkins was the president of her senior class, graduating in 1902. She later served as a trustee, and visited the campus many times, including attending her 60th reunion.

At a lovely dinner the college held before the lecture, Marjorie Kaufman, who was Mt. Holyoke during the latter occasion, recalled seeing Frances stalk back and forth in front of her seated 80-something classmates, exhorting them to stand up, stand up!

Mt. Holyoke College has a program for non-traditional students called the Frances Perkins Program, under the capable leadership of Kay Altoff and Carolyn Dietel. (The Frances Perkins Program also co-sponsored the lecture.)  A number of Frances Perkins Scholars, as they are known, attended the dinner. I think Frances would have enjoyed meeting them — a spirited group with a passion for learning. One of the Frances Perkins Scholars said to me that, while reading The Woman Behind the New Deal, she kept thinking how perfect an embodiment of the Mt. Holyoke ideal Frances Perkins was — dedicated to making the world a better place without tooting her own horn, collaborating, bringing people together for a common cause, searching out the best in others and inspiring them to higher accomplishments.

The lecture was introduced by Professor Lois Brown, director of the Weissman Center, and it mainly consisted of a compelling presentation by Kirstin Downey, author of The Woman Behind the New Deal. I joined Kirstin at the front during the question and answer session.

You can hear the lecture here (click on the links below):

First part of MHC lectureSecond part of MHC lectureMany thanks to Mt. Holyoke College and the students, faculty, and adminstrators who made our visit both so comfortable and so stimulating.

Frances Perkins’s biographer on Democracy Now

In Biography on April 2, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Amy Goodman and her production staff did a fabulous job in an interview of Kirstin Downey, author of The Woman Behind the New Deal, on March 31. Be sure to watch; there are some great photos and clips of Frances Perkins interspersed throughout the interview.

Kirstin on Democracy Now

Kirstin on Democracy Now