Any of this sound familiar?

"An era of rampant speculation had come to an end…wages were falling; tens of thousands were homeless. Real estate prices had plummeted, and millions of homeowners faced foreclosure."

Like the current economy inherited by President Obama, these were the conditions inherited in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the woman he named as his secretary of labor, Frances Perkins.

Perkins made gender history as America's first female Cabinet member. And she also played a historic role in FDR's response to the Depression. She labored to develop much of the safety net—Social Security, unemployment insurance and wage guidelines—we now take for granted. But for all that, Perkins has been a footnote in most accounts of the period. Until now.

Kirstin Downey's The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience (Nan A. Talese, 458 pages, $35) is a comprehensive biography that rights the historical oversight. And the quote above from Downey's book is a timely reminder that the current recession also offers an opportunity for huge systemic changes.

Downey draws well the many challenges facing a woman and activist such as Perkins even before she broke ground in FDR's Cabinet. Born in 1880, Perkins didn't get the right to vote in New York elections until she was 37 and faced labor challenges—opposition to a 54-hour work week, for example—that seem unimaginable today.

At the same time, in a world where men felt no need to conceal their biases toward women, she faced equally unimaginable prejudice from critics and colleagues. And her personal life was no refuge—her husband was mentally ill (Downey concludes that whether Perkins conducted platonic or lesbian relationships with close female friends is ultimately uncertain), and their daughter was of little comfort.

The book does have hiccups: An occasional cliché ("houses of ill repute") and lapses into needless trivia (does the reader really need to know how Perkins couldn't find a hotel room for FDR's inauguration?) are mild annoyances.

What's most jarring, however, is Downey's reference to Perkins throughout as Frances—a choice that makes the reader wonder if there's enough critical distance between author and subject.

But for anybody interested in the history of the New Deal and of American women, this well-researched biography's strengths outweigh those flaws.


Kristin Downey will read at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., 228-4651. 7 pm Monday, May 18. Free.