• The Woman Behind the New Deal

  • The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience
  • By: Kirstin Downey
  • Narrated by: Susan Ericksen
  • Length: 19 hrs and 29 mins
  • 4.7 out of 5 stars (175 ratings)

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The Woman Behind the New Deal

By: Kirstin Downey
Narrated by: Susan Ericksen
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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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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.

6 people found this helpful

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Fantastic book, informative, inspiring

I had never heard of Frances Perkins and chose this biography because of the good reviews. I am so glad I did. She was a driving force behind New Deal laws that improved the lives of average people in this country: Child labor laws, minimum wage, 8 hour work day, unemployment insurance and social security. She also proposed publicly funded national health care but faced too much opposition from medical associations. One wonders where we would be today if she had succeeded with the latter.

She accomplished this while facing the sexist attitudes of her time and caring for a mentally ill husband.

This is a great book and inspiring reading. And a reminder of how important it is that we do not let Republicans undermine her accomplishments.

4 people found this 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!

3 people found this 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.

2 people found this helpful

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Important history

great historical insight into a period of recent history setting stage for our world today

1 person found this helpful

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REMARKABLE WOMAN...

The 1930's were on the same order of elevated social consciousness as the Revolutionary War era. The book mentioned Frances' ancestor James Otis but not his sister Mercy Otis Warren author of several books on the Revolutionary War. Miss Perkins had truly illustrious antecedents.
I had been searching for the origin of a part of the social security act that forced families to be separate before the children could receive financial assistance. The author Kirstin Downey's excellent scholarship the revealed the culprit as Fred Vinson a congressman from Kentucky. Vinson was subsequently rewarded for his villainy with a seat on the supreme court.
This is an excellent book. Miss Perkins equaled the achievements of her ancestors. No small task.

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Important history with clear relevance to today

Really interesting story of an amazing life. Just having been the first woman cabinet secretary should have made Frances Perkins a well-known historical figure--but there's so much more! Lots of food for thought in this biography.

1 person found this helpful

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Mispronunciations Mar Good Biography

It is one of those inconceivable quirks of history that Frances Perkins is not a household name. A tireless champion of workers rights and the first female member, Perkins was instrumental in helping make a reality FDR’s New Deal. Hopefully, this fine biography will help rectify her omission. Unfortunately, the narrator and producers of the audiobook do not help. Mispronunciations and weird vocal choices abound. For instance, Al Smith sounded like an Old New Yorker not like he came from County Mayo, Ireland. All anyone had to do was check YouTube hear his voice. Louie or Louis Howe was a key male advisor of FDR. He was not Louise Howe, who the narrator implies had a female rivalry with Smith’s key aide, Mrs. Moskowitz. HUAC stands for the House Un-American Activities Committee not the House Un-American Affairs Committee.

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Important read for any Public Affairs scholar

It was a fascinating look at some of the most tumultuous times in American history through the life work of a brilliant leader and arguably the most influential social worker the U.S. has ever seen.

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Meet a forgotten Titan!!

Historical narrative presented in a completely engaging manner, about a woman who pioneered a path for all women and Americans.