Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Woman Behind the New Deal, a book review

I just finished reading The Woman Behind the New Deal, a biography of Frances Perkins written by Kirstin Downey. Perkins was the first woman ever appointed to a presidential cabinet position, when Franklin Roosevelt tapped her to head the Labor Department in 1933. Perkins was attacked nonstop through her entire tenure, assailed for Communist sympathies, for being too pro-business, for being too pro-labor, for doing too much and for not doing enough. Her press coverage was horrible -- she never learned how to cultivate reporters the way other high profile women of her time, like Eleanor Roosevelt, managed to. Nonetheless, she was one of the few persons appointed by FDR at the start of his first term who was still there when he died in 1945.

Perkins is also, according to Downey, one of those people who has faded into obscurity instead of receiving the credit she is due for her contributions to many New Deal programs, such as the Social Security system. I'm not sure I agree with Downey, at least not in the sense she means it. The reality is most Americans have very short memories, especially when it comes to public officials who actually do their jobs without a whole lot of fanfare. Unless someone manages to be either so venal or so incompetent that they make headlines repeatedly, or they manage to say something so colossally stupid it goes viral, Cabinet officers fade from public consciousness pretty fast. I don't think the average person could name more than two or three of President Obama's cabinet now, and he just appointed them.

Perkins did lead an interesting life, and she was pivotal in many of the decisions that led to programs, like national minimum wage and hour laws, that had a profound effect on workers. She also led a very contradictory, secretive life -- she managed to keep her private life private in a way that would be impossible today. She was married to an economist, Paul Wilson, but few people knew it. Her name wasn't actually Frances -- it was Fannie; she started using Frances after graduating from college and moving to Chicago. She was two years older than her stated age -- she shaved the two years off when she first began working with FDR when he became governor of New York so she would appear to be younger than he was.

She was also manipulative, gifted both at landing on her feet and on cultivating connections, both political and personal, that could help her. She had a number of wealthy female friends, for example, who basically picked up the tab for her living expenses. Perkins herself was always strapped for cash -- in addition to having to pay her husband's medical expenses, she raised her only daughter as though she was the social and economic equal of the wealthy New York upper crust, spoiling her outrageously in the process, and then suffered the heartbreak of seeing the daughter develop the same mental illness (probably bipolar disorder) that incapacitated Perkins' husband for most of his adult life. Even worse, the Freudian therapist treating Susanna convinced her Perkins' poor mothering skills were to blame for Susanna's problems, leading to an estrangement between the two that lasted until Perkins' death.

Her invalid husband and her unstable, spoiled daughter were in fact the reasons Perkins kept working long after she could have legitimately retired. When Harry Truman took office in April 1945, Perkins resigned from her position in the Cabinet. Instead of returning to private life, she negotiated, calling in various political favors, for an appointment to another government agency. She needed the money. She then served on the Civil Service Commission until Dwight Eisenhower took office in 1953. By then she was 73 years old, and should have been able to go back to her New York apartment and relax. Instead she found herself hustling for contracts for short term lectureships, serving as adjunct faculty at various colleges around the country. At 77 she got lucky and got a permanent contract at Cornell, but it was still not as full-time faculty, so money was still tight -- and her daughter was still broke, still draining Perkins' wallet.

The bizarre part is the way Perkins managed to keep her private family drama so thoroughly under wraps that her friends and colleagues never realized there were any problems. A few long-time acquaintances knew about her husband's numerous sanitarium stays because they had known him before his illness made him too unstable to work, but as time passed fewer and fewer people remembered. Wilson had been seen as a rising star in New York politics, had served as an assistant to the mayor of New York, and was expected to do great things -- and then he had a breakdown. One of the things that dogged Perkins throughout her life was, in fact, the tendency of some people to blame her for that breakdown because she had allowed her own ambitions to come before being a good wife. As Downey makes clear, the opposite was true -- if Paul Wilson had been able to pursue his career, Perkins would have cheerfully accepted the role of political spouse, serving on charity boards and generally fitting right into the stereotypical Junior League role she had in fact been living since her marriage.

I'm not really sure what to think about either Perkins or the book in general. I have a hunch the author was having the same difficulties when it came to Perkins. On the one hand, Perkins was in the right place at the right time, she obviously believed deeply in almost everything Roosevelt did, and she did leave a paper trail documenting those beliefs. On the other, she was apparently so gifted at getting the men in power to believe that whatever they were doing was their own idea that it's hard to know just how much credit to give her. Was she actually, as Downey claims in the subtitle, Franklin's moral conscience or was she simply in the right place at the right time?

I also found it really hard to believe that, as Downey claims, FDR and Perkins were good friends. Downey documents way too many examples of FDR either tossing Perkins under the bus when it was politically expedient for him to do so or of him discounting and ignoring her objections when key pieces of legislation were being eviscerated. I'm not sure what was going on with the author when it came to her descriptions of FDR vis a vis Perkins. Most historians say that the one area where FDR was consistently supportive was the Labor Department and Frances Perkins; the consensus is that he rarely disagreed with her. Downey, however, gives example after example of FDR either ignoring her advice or deliberately leaving her high and dry to take the heat from congressional committees and the press. I know Downey made extensive use of Perkins' papers and letters that survive in various archives; maybe she should have expanded her source material and done a little more research at how some of the events appeared from other angles. If she had done so, maybe Perkins wouldn't come across as quite so much of a martyr.

One interesting side note, a bit of historical trivia, something that over at Shakesville they'd probably refer to as a teaspoon, that kind of highlights good things can happen in small steps. When Perkins arrived in DC in 1933 she discovered they had a major cockroach problem in the Labor Department offices. She investigated, and learned it was due in part to the African American staff carrying bagged lunches. The department cafeteria was whites only, so were most of the restaurants in the area right around the government buildings, so black workers had to carry their lunches and eat at their desks. She ordered that the cafeteria be integrated, and it was, apparently without much of a fuss. The Labor Department cafeteria then got used over and over in other discussions of integration in government offices and programs as an illustration that segregation was irrational.

So, bottom line: do I recommend this book? Yes, if you like history, have any interest in FDR and the New Deal, and can tolerate mild hagiography. It was a decent read and brought out aspects of both FDR and Eleanor I'd never seen before. As for Perkins herself, I think I'm going to do more reading before I make up my mind about her.

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