Biographer Chronicles Perkins, 'New Deal' Pioneer Frances Perkins was the first woman named to a U.S. president's Cabinet. As FDR's secretary of labor, she led the fight to establish Social Security. Biographer Kirstin Downey discusses The Woman Behind the New Deal.

Biographer Chronicles Perkins, 'New Deal' Pioneer

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It was a time when one-third of all Americans were out of work, banks were shutting down, stock market investments collapsed and so did real estate. The year was 1933.

Enter Frances Perkins, the nation's first female Cabinet member, who was secretary of labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Former Secretary FRANCES PERKINS (United States Department of Labor): No one of us knows on which one of us these hardships may fall, but certainly they will fall on some of us. Let us therefore use the old, reliable means of cooperation and mutuality in which we all make a contribution of some sort so that a systematic and orderly provision may be made as a matter of course for those of us who, in the future, suffer one or more of these afflictions.

LYDEN: That's Frances Perkins talking about her brainchild, Social Security. Kirstin Downey wrote a new biography about Frances Perkins. It's called "The Woman Behind the New Deal." As Downey tells the story, Roosevelt called Perkins on a February night in 1933 to talk about becoming secretary of labor.

Ms. KIRSTIN DOWNEY (Author, "The Woman Behind the New Deal"): She didn't really want to do it because she had a husband who was ill, she had a teenage daughter. She knew she was going to be subject of a lot of discrimination, sexist comments and that sort of thing in Washington.

So she presented to him a list of what she said were her requirements. She wouldn't do the job unless he agreed to them. They were a 40-hour work week, a national ban on child labor, unemployment insurance, workers compensation, a minimum wage, Social Security and her - last on her list was national health insurance. She got them all except national health insurance.

LYDEN: Which, of course, we are still debating, decades and decades later.

Ms. DOWNEY: Yes. Yes.

LYDEN: But it's really quite astonishing to think that everything we know today as the modern workplace really goes back to Frances Perkins.

Ms. DOWNEY: That's exactly right.

LYDEN: Who is this woman with all these ideals? I mean, what kind of family did she come from, a bunch of progressives?

Ms. DOWNEY: No. She came from a conservative Republican family. A businessman in Worcester, Massachusetts was her father. She went to college, so she was educated, which was quite unusual at that time. Only three percent of women went to college.

LYDEN: So what was her relationship like with FDR?

Ms. DOWNEY: They were very close friends. I actually think she was his best friend. She met him just in the 1910s. So when she became secretary of labor, she'd already known him for 20 years, and she'd worked with him very closely as his industrial commissioner for four years previous to that.

So when he comes to Washington, of the people that he surrounds himself with and puts in his Cabinet, she's already one of his closest friends.

LYDEN: And why did he trust her so much?

Ms. DOWNEY: Because she was completely honest with him. She was not that interested in self-advancement. When he would offer her something, she'd frequently say, no, I don't think I want to do that, and he would have to encourage her to do it.

As he said, she wasn't greedy for power, and that made him trust her more.

LYDEN: What was happening for her as a woman? There were many obstacles in her path. She was married. She did have a small family.

Ms. DOWNEY: Yes. Well, first of all, you know, she's 40 years old before women have the right to vote.

LYDEN: So all this time she's campaigning, she can't even vote.

Ms. DOWNEY: All the times that she's button-holing legislators and trying to get them to pass bills that she's authored, she doesn't even have the right to vote herself.

Once she got to Washington, she had to deal with the fact that men really resented her being in meetings. They didn't like her there. They didn't like having a woman there. They weren't accustomed to having women there.

LYDEN: Yeah. You said at one point, she was characterized in the press, that she had quite an uneasy relationship as Ma Perkins, and they paint very dour pictures of her, and she's all of 33 or something.

Ms. DOWNEY: Well, she had consciously - this is part of this thing of consciously adopting a persona that would help her advance. She had early seen that men would be more comfortable with a woman that looked like a mother rather than somebody that looked like they might want a date.

So, from her early 30s, she began to adopt this matronly look, the little pearls, the little hat, the dark jackets. In a sense, she gave up the expression of her femininity, but it allowed her to be more effective.

LYDEN: Now, we have a female secretary of labor today, 76 years later. We're in another economic crisis. It really makes you wonder if Perkins could come here today and roll up her shirtsleeves and sit down at the table with the Barack Obama team, where she'd begin.

Ms. DOWNEY: The things that she built, many of them need to be shored up in some important ways. A lot of people have lost confidence that Social Security is going to be there when they retire.

The other thing that really needs to be done is the Unemployment Insurance Program has a lot of problems. There have been a lot of stories in the last few months about people waiting to get benefits, about people not qualifying, people who are independent contractors, people who are illegal immigrants.

These are all people who have worked but who are being excluded from the unemployment insurance system at a time that they need the money the most.

LYDEN: Kirsten Downey, for 20 years she covered business and economics for the Washington Post. Her new book is called "The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience." Thanks so much for coming in.

Ms. DOWNEY: Thank you.

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