The Heroine of the New Deal

Frances Perkins, FDR’s Labor secretary, was the first woman ever appointed to a Cabinet job and the chief architect of his New Deal. But an important new biography reveals that her remarkable accomplishments came with a high price.

03.03.09 2:13 AM ET

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As Frances Perkins got ready to her leave her post as secretary of Labor in 1945, she looked back to the moment she entered the Cabinet 13 years before. “I had, as you know, a program in mind,” she remarked mildly to her friend Felix Frankfurter. The understatement was typical. What she aimed for when she took over Labor in 1932 was: unemployment insurance, protection against indigence in old age, work relief for the jobless, the abolition of child labor, the 40-hour week and the minimum wage. In the next few years, those would translate into: Social Security, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. “Everything except health insurance, dear Felix,” she concluded. Oh well.

Perkins was the first woman ever to be appointed to a Cabinet job, and although more followed, there would be no woman so central to policy-making for more than 40 years, until Madeline Albright became Bill Clinton’s secretary of State. Born in 1880, Perkins was a part of a generation of educated women trained by feminist causes, urban reform, and the progressive movement to make consequential public service their life’s work. No ladies’ charities for them: They wanted to push through laws, tough policies and regulations, and take a hand in the most serious affairs of their times. Perkins fulfilled these dreams, and more, but her accomplishments came with a high personal price, Kirstin Downey’s important biography, The Woman Behind the New Deal (Nan A. Talese), shows.

Like many women in public life, she aimed for an unremarkable life and remarkable achievements. Hers was a generation that spoke softly and wore little hats.

Perkins grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, in a middle-class family descended from old New England stock. There was enough money to send her to Mount Holyoke College, where she got one of the finest educations available to women. In 1902, Florence Kelley, a towering presence in progressive reform, gave a lecture on campus. Kelley, who had been with Jane Addams at Hull House, was organizing the Consumer’s League, dedicated to abolishing child labor and sweatshops. Kelley kindled in the young Perkins a passion to help the poor and after graduation, she embarked on a series of jobs that gave her a solid background in the issues: a new “scientific” charity in New York, a stay at Hull House in Chicago, an investigation of how “white slavery” in Philadelphia ensnared poor working girls. In 1909, she moved back to New York to head the Consumer’s League there, where she had enough influence to broker deals for workplace regulation between Tammany Hall Democrats, middle-class reformers, and New York legislators. Working her way up the social-services ladder to government commissions on labor, she added to her stable of female mentors powerful men like Al Smith and, eventually, Franklin Roosevelt.

In 1913 she married Paul Wilson, a glamorous, wealthy comer in New York Democratic Party circles. In the feminist spirit of the times, they vowed theirs would be a modern partnership: Frances kept her own name and her job. The high hopes fizzled, but the two rallied around the baby, Susannah, born in 1915. At the same time, though, Paul was showing signs of mental instability which soon became full-blown manic depression. He could not work, and he was too ill for Frances to leave—or that’s how she saw it. Cut off by his family for his liberal politics, the husband she had nearly divorced became her dependent.

In 1928 Roosevelt, elected governor of New York, brought her to Albany to head the state industrial commission, where they developed a close working relationship and where, once the Depression hit, Frances began to institute her reform agenda. When he won the presidency, she was a natural for Labor secretary. President Roosevelt, temperamentally open to smart women and spurred by his wife, Eleanor, broke with ironclad all-male precedents to bring a number of them to Washington. In Congress, women’s numbers were pathetic, but in the executive branch, female economists, planners, and politicos got down to work. Perkins was by far the most heralded—800 people attended her sendoff dinner in New York and showered her with loving tributes. But as the most powerful woman in Washington, she was also the most isolated and exposed.

She never complained—these women seldom did—but it could not have been pleasant. Downey uncovered in her research sneering notes that colleagues scribbled to each other during Cabinet meetings about how annoying her voice was. One of their highest compliments was that she didn’t talk too much; but of course if she talked too little, she risked turning into a nonentity. Down the street, Hattie Caraway, a bluff, hearty Arkansas Democrat who was serving out her dead husband’s term, puzzled in her diary over the same problem—how could she know if she was talking too much or too little? It was a question that habitually occurred to the only woman in a roomful of men, and few found the answer.

Normally talkative and articulate, Perkins put on a churchlady-like demeanor “I wanted to give the impression of being a quiet, orderly woman,” she explained without a trace of irony. The reality was, they were men, she was a woman, and so she doubled down. “I just proceeded on the theory that this was a gentleman’s conversation on the porch of a golf club. You didn’t butt in with bright ideas.”

Nonetheless, she clearly had a few “bright ideas.”How she got them through without butting in is a mystery which Downey doesn’t pursue. Her balancing act is all the more remarkable because while she was mollifying suspicious men, she was also turning the corrupt, dysfunctional Labor Department into a robust New Deal agency and whipping out work-relief programs and major pieces of legislation. Not to mention a deteriorating situation at home. Susannah fell prey to her father’s disorder while she was at college, and while she never needed to be institutionalized, she fell into an erratic, troubled life. Paul was in and out of institutions. Neither husband nor daughter gave her a jot of love and concern; in fact, Susannah grew increasingly hostile.

Without family support, Perkins made a workable life for herself, Downey finds, through close relationships with women. In Washington, Perkins lived for two years with Mary Harriman Rumsey, a wealthy Democratic Party donor who shared Frances’ New York reform background. While living in Harriman’s lovely Georgetown house was a practical arrangement for the cash-strapped Frances, Downey wisely observes that the relationship was certainly intimate and quite possibly sexual. The two functioned as a couple in Washington social life, entertaining and being entertained. When Mary died in a tragic riding accident, friends addressed Frances as the bereaved; and in time she moved in with another wealthy woman with a similar profile.

Downey doesn’t really add anything new or surprising to the public record, or delve into the subtleties of the Roosevelt administration. In her version of the New Deal, Frances did everything, she did it right, and what was wrong was not her fault. Neither the AFL—the American Federation of Labor—nor the rival CIO, the Committee for Industrial Organization, supported Perkins, for example, and Downey dismisses the men’s views as sexist or self-serving. Downey is a Washington journalist, and it shows in her predilection for personalities rather than analysis, colorful anecdotes and snappy attributed dialogue rather than antecedents and broad developments. Her turning points tend to occur at someone’s afternoon tea or dinner party, or in a stroppy encounter between two rivals who achieve a compromise in the course of jovial banter.

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But it doesn’t really matter, because she has done political history a service simply by pulling together what is known, and adding what’s been hidden. Always in need of earning a living, Frances became an itinerant academic when she left Washington, ending up at Cornell in 1954 where she taught labor relations and the history of the New Deal for the rest of her life (and where one of her greatest undergraduate friends and admirers was former Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz). Modest to the point of compulsion, she made no attempt to gather an archive of her papers, so much was scattered when she died in 1965, and Susannah made a hash of what she could, blocking access, almost certainly destroying personal papers, and obscuring important facts to would-be biographers, such as her father’s illness.

So Frances faded into the background as a New Deal bureaucrat. But perhaps she would not have minded. Like many women in public life, she aimed for an unremarkable life and remarkable achievements. Hers was a generation who spoke softly and wore little hats. They kept their voices low, avoided displays of strong emotion, worked like the devil, and when insulted (which was often) stiffened, prayed, and ploughed on. They did not remotely achieve equality with men, but they won grudging respect and, for their assiduity, they sometimes won power. We need to know more about how they pulled it off, and Downey helps make a new start.

The whole program except for health insurance? Not bad for your first gig in Washington.

The contrast with her colleagues on the Cabinet, could not be clearer: brilliant men tended by wives and mistresses, many of them backed by wealth and influential families, products of the great assembly line of swanky prep schools, the finest universities, and apprenticeships in the military, foreign service, or office-holding. Most of all, they took care of each other, in the atavistic way even men who are inveterate enemies acceded to each other the right to be in the ring. Perkins, who was hardly from the wrong side of the tracks, had to fight and scrap to even get into the fray. It wasn’t her politics or her family background or her ideas that made her so weird and irritating to her colleagues, of course; it was her sex.

Christine Stansell is Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. Her book on the history of feminism will be published by Random House next year.