Amazingly, most Americans have forgotten her name, and even some historians have overlooked her importance, but a woman named Frances Perkins was one of the most important social reformers in U.S. history.
One of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s closest friends, and the first female secretary of labor, Perkins capitalized on the president’s political savvy and popularity to enact most of the Depression-era programs that are today considered essential parts of the country’s social safety network. Her legacy is vast: the 40-hour workweek, the minimum wage, the nationwide unemployment insurance program, the growth of the American labor movement, the federal abolition of child labor and the creation of Social Security.
Frances Perkins enacted her program systematically and comprehensively, as part of a lifelong plan she began envisioning as a young woman, when she had the single shocking and transformative experience of witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in Manhattan in 1911. A passionate woman with a wide network of famous friends, Perkins did much of her most important work while juggling complex responsibilities as a wife and mother.
Kirstin Downey, an award-winning journalist for the Washington Post for 20 years, will discuss her new biography of Frances Perkins, “The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and his Moral Conscience,” a work completed after almost a decade of research that sought to plumb the secrets of Frances Perkins’s success. She visited dozens of public and private archives, throughout the United States, in England and in Switzerland, to dig up long-overlooked documents that revealed Perkins’s importance. She interviewed dozens people, many of them very old, who had known Frances Perkins. She found documents that had been lost, misplaced or stored in people’s attics or closets, even once in a barn, at the Frances Perkins homestead in Newcastle, Maine.
Downey will present the life of Frances Perkins, a woman who should not have been forgotten, but who is truly unforgettable.
Copyright Kirstin Downey. All rights reserved.