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Publisher's Summary

Frances Perkins is no longer a household name, yet she was one of the most influential women of the 20th century. Based on extensive archival materials, new documents, and exclusive access to Perkins' 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' 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 40-hour workweek. Her greatest triumph was creating Social Security.

Written with a wit that echoes Frances Perkins' 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.

©2009 Kirstin Downey (P)2016 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"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." (Publishers Weekly)

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  • Jean
  • Santa Cruz, CA, United States
  • 08-16-17

An Absorbing Biography

What a team Frances Perkins (1880-1965) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) made. Perkins had the ideas and the ambition to accomplish her goals. FDR had the political clout and knowledge to get the job done.

Frances Perkins was the first female cabinet member in American history. She was the Secretary of Labor. She fought into law Section 7 of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933. What was the list she told FDR she wanted to accomplish or else she would not take the job? It was as follows: End child labor, a 40-hour work week, minimum wages, unemployment insurance, Social Security, workplace fire safety, improved working conditions and universal or national health care. She accomplished all but the health coverage. FDR also involved her in areas other than labor such as immigration. Perkins was the author of the New Deal.

The book is well written and meticulously researched. I found the book fascinating. It is primarily an academic portrayal of a great legislator and reformer. The author follows Perkins from childhood to death and also touches on some of her ancestors. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and could hardly put it down. The information on the Roosevelts I knew, but most of the information about Perkins was new to me. Some people may not enjoy the academic tenor of the book.

Kristin Downey is a journalist. She shared the 2000 Pulitzer Prize with her group at the Washington Post. I enjoyed reading her 2014 biography, “Isabella The Warrior Queen”.

The book is almost twenty hours long. Susan Ericksen does an excellent job narrating the book. Ericksen is an actress and multi-award-winning audiobook narrator. Over the years, I have enjoyed listening to her read a wide range of books.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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a great read

Any additional comments?

This was an illuminating biography of a real boundary breaker. Francis Perkins, whose politics leaned a bit further left than I personally stand, was nevertheless a thoroughly impressive female leader in a setting where outright hostility and malevolence based on gender alone was not only accepted but seemingly encouraged. Ms. Perkins' sublime way of sidestepping blustering male counterparts and outwitting (and outworking) male adversaries whilst earning stolid loyalty and respect from open-minded men of the day remain admirable and shocking to a woman born in the late 20th century. This is a great read!

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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A few parts get bogged down in details

Would you listen to The Woman Behind the New Deal again? Why?

It was a little too long, or maybe just gave too much time to a lot of scene-setting and personal anecdotes. But for the most part it was a great behind-the-scenes explanation of the politics and policies of the New Deal. I already admired Perkins, but it wasn't til i listened to this that I realized just how extraordinarily influential she was.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

I was floored by some of the excerpts from Perkins' letters where she discusses the difficulties of being the only woman in the room. It's heartbreaking the ways she had to navigate rules of etiquette that left her out of important discussions, or the ways that she had to compromise her true feelings in order to be heard.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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