Saturday, April 17, 2010

book review - Frances Perkins: the woman behind the New Deal





For April, my book club met to discussed The Woman Behind the New Deal by Kirstin Downey. Like many of our other picks, we waited until the paperback copy hit the stores (Feb 2010). And it was worth the wait!


When I first received my book in the mail and saw the small print, I was a little intimidated. But the book was very engaging and I didn't have any trouble at all reading it. I'm a history buff in the first place, and I was intrigued with all the famous people that passed through Frances' life. The book is packed with information, has a complete index and pages of footnotes. I consider it a great reference book to add to my collection of "keepers," and I especially recommend it to anyone interested in 20th Century U.S. history, and /or Woman's Studies.

First of all, Frances Perkins was a fascinating woman. Little has been written about her, especially her personal life. All of us in the book club agreed that Perkins' political life started shortly after she witnessed the NYC Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, where 146 garment workers were burned alive or jumped to their death.

Many people believe Eleanor Roosevelt was the moving force behind FDR's New Deal, but in actuality, it was Frances Perkins. She accompanied FDR from New York State to the White House in 1933, becoming the first female Cabinet Secretary. Frances presided over the Labor Department when the National Labor Relations Board was established, and the Social Security Act (previously called the Economic Security Act) was signed into law. She believed in safety in the workplace and equality for all working people. Of all the programs bundled into the New Deal, everything survived except national health insurance, only to be realized 75 years later.

Kirstin Downey sums up Francis' life quite nicely at the end of the book, "It is a great historic irony that Frances is now virtually unknown. Factory and office occupancy codes, fire escapes and other fire-prevention mechanisms are her legacy. About 44 million people collection Social Security checks each month; millions receive unemployment and worker's compensation or the minimum wage; others get to go home after an eight-hour day because of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Very few know the name of the woman responsible for their benefits."

Many of my book clubbers felt that this informative book should have earned Downey a Pulitzer Prize. I did a little research on the internet and found some things about the author. In 2000, she was awarded a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University, where she studied American economic history at Harvard Business School. The fellowship gave her the opportunity to focus full-time and research this great book. She did share the Pulitzer with the Washington Post in 2008 for their coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. I also found there is a Frances Perkins Center, which was established in 2009. It's located in Newcastle, Maine, on the 55-acre Perkins family homestead.

1 comment:

Splendid Little Stars said...

That book sounds fascinating! I will share your post with my book club.

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