Kirstin Downey’s The Woman Behind the New Deal

Kirstin Downey’s The Woman Behind the New Deal

The Woman Behind the New Deal:
The Life of Frances Perkins,
FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience

by Kirstin Downey
Random House, 2009, 480 pp. $35

AS THE NATION DEBATES once again proposals to guarantee health insurance for everyone, a new biography of Frances Perkins reminds us of just how long the argument has been going on. In 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt offered Perkins the job of secretary of labor, she proposed an agenda that was to become the backbone of the New Deal: unemployment insurance, hours and wages legislation, abolition of child labor, social security, and national health insurance. Famously, all but the latter were to be won and even more.

Now, even as the American labor movement leads the uphill battle for some form of public health insurance, it is fighting for its own life. The Magna Carta of labor—the Wagner Act of 1935 that Perkins did not particularly support—has run its course, and the unions want a successor law to clear the field for them. Compared to the political forces of 1935, those of 2010 appear less propitious. So here is the paradox: Perkins, not the strongest union supporter among the big players of the New Deal, presided over the enactment of a legal and political framework now fondly recalled by labor movement supporters.

Downey’s book, sometimes without her full awareness, shows Perkins’s role in the evolution of what would become the New Deal coalition and later the liberal-left coalition. Its origins, which were in the famous troika—immigrants, labor, and reformers—that helped elect Al Smith governor of New York, are best captured in Robert Caro’s one hundred or so pages on Smith that are embedded in his biography of Robert Moses. But one can also find it in this passage from the Social Security Administration sketch of her:

At Smith’s funeral in 1944 two of his former Tammany Hall political cronies were overheard to speculate on why Smith had become a social crusader. One of them summed the matter up this way: ”I’ll tell you. Al Smith read a book. That book was a person, and her name was Frances Perkins. She told him all these things and he believed her.”

What Perkins implanted with Smith and eventually in the policies of the Democratic Party was the foundation upon which white, working-class social enfranchisement would be partially erected. These policies, most of which are included in what Europeans call the “social wage,” protect working people from the vicissitudes of the market. In downturns, unemployment insurance, social security, family support payments, and maximum hours legislation all maintain a floor under aggregate consumer demand. Anything that protects worker...