TERRY GROSS, host:
Frances Perkins, who has served as Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of labor, was the first female Cabinet member. Her legacy, however, has been eclipsed by Eleanor Roosevelt's great popularity and harmed by the refusal of Perkins' daughter, who died in 2003, to give access to some of her papers. Former Washington Post business reporter Kirstin Downey has just written a biography of Perkins called "The Woman Behind the New Deal" and book critic Maureen Corrigan says it couldn't be more timely.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Let's travel back to Tuesday, March 7th, 1933. Newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt has just called his Cabinet together for the first time. The average age was 59; the predominant gender was male, except for Frances Perkins, Roosevelt's controversial pick for secretary of labor. Perkins was 52, rather plain, and deliberately dressed in a sedate fashion. She never wore makeup and favored tri-cornered hats and no-nonsense black and navy suits.
Early in her professional life, Perkins had begun taking notes on male colleagues. She filed them in a large red envelope labeled Notes on the Male Mind. One thing she discerned was that women in politics were accepted if they reminded men of their mothers; hence the matronly wardrobe. At that first Cabinet meeting, the usually assertive Perkins hung back, waiting for Roosevelt to finally call on her for a report. Here's what Perkins later said about that groundbreaking moment.
I tried to have as much of a mask as possible. I wanted to give the impression of being a quiet, orderly woman who didn't buzz-buzz all the time. I knew that a lady interposing an idea into men's conversation is very unwelcome. I just proceeded on the theory that this was a gentleman's conversation on the porch of a golf club, perhaps. You didn't butt in with bright ideas.
Perkins' strategy of reticence worked. Although the men sometimes acted like schoolboys and passed notes about her during Cabinet meetings, Perkins managed to achieve many of her bright ideas - like the minimum wage, work hour limitations, and the Social Security Act. Indeed, if Perkins had completely realized her vision, national healthcare would have long been an American reality. Kirstin Downey's lively, substantive and dare I say inspiring new biography of Perkins, called "The Woman Behind the New Deal," illuminates not only Perkins' career but also deepens the known contradictions of Roosevelt's character.
He was courageous enough to appoint Perkins over the furious outcry of labor leaders and others who especially in the desperate depths of the Great Depression didn't want a woman as secretary of labor. But Roosevelt spoke not a word in Perkins' defense when in 1939 she became the target of an impeachment proceeding. Perkins' offense? She'd refused to give orders to deport Harry Bridges, the Australian longshoreman who had led a successful general strike in San Francisco in 1934. Bridges was suspected of being a Communist. Personally, we're told, the upright Perkins detested Bridges, who was a womanizer. But she found the evidence against him vague.
Perkins paid for her principles. Though early anti-Communist witch hunters failed to impeach her, she was portrayed in the press as a dupe - a foolish, soft-minded woman. By that time, though, Perkins was if not armored against censure, certainly used to it. Her conservative family was dismayed. When attending college at Mount Holyoke, she came under the influence of suffragists and progressive reformers and eventually moved to Chicago, where at risk of life and limb she investigated phony employment agencies that lured immigrant girls into prostitution. Working in New York in 1911, Perkins happened to witness the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, in which 146 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian women, died.
As Downey shows, witnessing that tragedy transformed Perkins into a practical crusader who felt called to commit her life to making workplaces safer. Perkins herself knew what it meant to have to work for survival. She supported her husband and daughter, both of whom suffered from bipolar disorder. In her 80s she was still working, teaching at Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School, where she was befriended by, among others, young neocon scholars like Allan Bloom and Paul Wolfowitz, who appreciated her knowledge and deadpan humor.
What a great lady. And I do mean lady - not gal nor dame. Perkins, as Downey vividly describes her, was a lady of the old school who bristled when Senator Robert Wagner started calling her Frances in the 1930s, even though by then they'd had known each other for more than 20 years. In her biography of Perkins, Downey does readers and history a service by pleasurably reminding us how much we owe to this lady who rarely took off her hat in public but who knew how to take off her gloves when it mattered for American workers.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Women Behind the New Deal," by Kirstin Downey.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.