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  • Writer's pictureN.J. Mastro

Frances Perkins, America's First Woman

History credits President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with passing the Social Security Act in 1935, but did you know this financial protection program was the brainchild of a woman? Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve as a member of a president’s cabinet, had a social insurance plan on her agenda decades before FDR appointed her Secretary of Labor in 1933.

In her new biographical novel, Stephanie Dray brings Frances Perkins' incredible rise in behind the scenes politics to life in Becoming Madame Secretary, released by Penguin Publishing Group on March 12.

If you enjoy reading about women from history who refused to take no for an answer, and if you like being privy to the inner workings of state and federal policy making (it's a lot more interesting than you think), Becoming Madame Secretary is for you. During her twelve-year tenure as Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins championed scores of social programs Americans now take for granted.

Compared to today’s dysfunctional landscape in which too many politicians appear to be self-seeking, I found Frances Perkins refreshing. And inspirational. Her contributions to our American way of life exemplify what true public service looks like.

In truth, I wondered how Dray was going to pull off plucking a dusty figure from the annals of history and present her as a character modern readers would find irresistible. I should have known better than to doubt Dray’s capabilities. Author of books like The Women of Chateau Lafayette, My Dear Hamilton (with Laura Kamoie), and America’s First Daughter (also with Laura Kamoie), Dray knows how to blend just the right mix of personal circumstance with historical details to reveal the story behind the story. As Kate Quinn said in a recent Instagram post, Becoming Madame Secretary is "unputdownable."

From the beginning, Dray doesn’t beat around the bush. In the prologue, she hooks readers by going straight to the essence of who Frances Perkins was and what this powerhouse of a woman means to accomplish in Washington, DC. When newly elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt asks her to join his cabinet, Perkins famously hands him an audacious list of what she would do if appointed:

  • put an end to child labor,      

  • limit work weeks to 40 hours,    

  • create a minimum wage, 

  • provide for universal health insurance,

  • establish unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation programs, and

  • form a social insurance plan in America that would protect the aged and disabled, as well as provide financial support to widowed women and their orphaned children.

Perkins sees each item as an essential part of the New Deal FDR had promised Americans if elected. Unless she is free to pursue these goals, she tells FDR, she doesn’t want the job. The United States was just emerging from the Great Depression, and people needed relief. And she knew firsthand how broken and corrupt the Department of Labor had become. Given the kind of waves she intended to make if hired, she would need every ounce of FDR’s support.

FDR promises to back Perkins’ agenda, even though he’s not too keen, he says, on this social insurance plan she keeps talking about, but he assures her he is open to finding out more about it. Certain that in time she’ll convince FDR of its importance, she accepts his offer. Our new Madame Secretary leaves the meeting with her signature tricorn hat in hand, eager to get to work.

But as she walks out the door, Perkins, who has known FDR for decades, is aware of his political tendencies. If she’s successful in bringing about the changes she’s proposing, he’ll happily accept the credit; if not, he’ll distance himself and leave her standing alone.

The road ahead for Frances Perkins when she leaves FDR’s office that wintry day in February 1933 is sure to be difficult. The life she lives in and out of the political spotlight is anything but charmed. Yet another form of pressure gnaws at her. Perkins will be the first female cabinet member. Ever. Her failure would be a reflection on all women. But she accepts the challenge, knowing she can do the job. It's her duty, and with Frances, everything is about duty.

"The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats." Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins’ story didn’t begin with FDR appointing her to his cabinet, however. After the prologue, Chapter One opens in New York in 1909, where 29-year-old Frances has taken up residence in Hell’s Kitchen. A graduate of Mount Holyoke, she is working on her master's degree in economics at the Wharton Business School. A summer fellowship has her collecting data on starving babies living in the tenements and settlement houses by measuring their stomachs.

Dray's choice of a first-person narrative voice immediately connects readers with Frances, who is a no-nonsense-roll-your-sleeves-up woman. A descendent of a line of patriots going all the way back to before the American Revolution, stock who “built this country with muddy hands and a spark of madness,” Frances is proud of her heritage.

Her deep love for God and county shines through, but she’s a little unhappy with her country at present for not taking better care of its citizens, and we feel her distress over seeing people living in such squalid conditions.

Left: Frances Perkins circa 1911

In Hell's Kitchen Frances encounters untold poverty, a movie she’s seen before after volunteering at Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago and working in the “rough” neighborhoods of Philadelphia, where she helped rescue girls from pimps and drug dealers and “fraudulent employment agencies in the city.” Frances will help people any way she is able. Eventually, she gets herself fired for personally giving a mother money to feed her baby — a big no-no, even though she is working for a charity organization. Go figure…

But being fired often produces unseen benefit. Florence Kelley, a well-known female economist and social activist who, a decade prior, founded the National Consumers League, hires Frances to help the League pass laws to limit factory work to 54 hours a week for women. (Yep, that’s not a typo.) At the time, workers were spending as much as 60 hours a week on the job. Perkins’ overarching question was, why not limit the length of the workweek for everyone?

Frances leans into her new role with gusto. But in 1911, when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory goes up in flames in front of Frances in Washington Square, her personal commitment to ensure the safety of American workers through governmental reform takes on a new fervor.

So begins the political career of Frances Perkins, told over the next three decades through Dray’s expert skills as a novelist. What drives Frances is anger over the way companies take advantage of workers, including children. She climbs the ladder of influence the old way, through hard work, more than her share of grit, and undying determination. Her work as a lobbyist takes her to New York’s state capital and eventually Washington, DC.

While treasuring Frances’s narrative voice — I felt like she and I were sitting side-by-side in two armchairs sharing a glass (or two) of wine — I also delighted in reading about the range of historical figures in the novel, counterparts and contemporaries of Frances that students of history will recognize. Among them is activist Mary Harriman Rumsey, daughter of the railroad titan E.H. Harriman, with whom Frances strikes up a close friendship. Their relationship is ever present until tragedy strikes. Another character is Al Smith, who would become a four-term governor of New York. Smith evolves as a strong ally of Perkins, along with other Tammany Hall men Perkins had to rely on to forward her agenda.

And, of course, we read much about the Roosevelts. Franklin and Eleanor were a forcible pair. Dray humanizes them by reaching beyond the image of the power couple. Their way of working together, their way of being a family and a friend to Frances, comes across in heartwarming ways, as do some very touching moments with FDR that reveal the toll his physical limitations took, as well as how they made him into who he was.

Perhaps the most colorful character in the story is Sinclair Lewis, affectionately known as “Red” by his friends, “a cloddish cub reporter with flaming hair and a chip on his shoulder a mile wide.” Perkins meets Lewis when she joins a coffeehouse writers’ group to improve her writing skills. Lewis falls in love with Perkins and proposes many times, but she always says no. Determined to devote her life to her career, Perkins plans to never marry.

But when Frances meets a young man by the name of Paul Wilson, stalwart though she is, not even she can escape the lure of romantic love. The couple marries. Frances, however, keeps her maiden name, a declaration of her independence.

If only life were as easy as choosing one’s name. When doctors diagnose Paul with a serious mental illness, one that requires extensive care and considerable money, Frances faces a string of difficult decisions, all while trying to transform America. I regretted it when Becoming Madame Secretary ended. I wanted more of this woman whom, to me, had grown larger than life.

FDR signing the Social Security Act - Note Frances Perkins standing directly behind him.

Photo Credit: UPI Archives

Society minimized Frances Perkins from the start of her political career because she was a woman, forcing her to work longer and harder than her male counterparts while raising a daughter and caring for a sick husband. Strung throughout the book is her fervent desire to be taken seriously. Her style was simple, no frills. She wore dark dresses, practical shoes, and austere hats. But she was dead serious in all she did. When necessary, she drank and smoked, her entry ticket to being part of “the club.” She gave as good as she got and went wherever the action was, including placing herself at the center of contentious strikes, proving herself a modern woman who could hold her own.

Audacious doesn't begin to describe Frances Perkins. She wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers. Raised in a conservative home in Massachusetts, she disappointed her family when she turned into a flaming liberal. She marched and rallied for women’s suffrage. And sometimes Frances got herself in trouble. One notable instance in the book is over her immigration policy regarding Jews seeking to flee Nazi Germany when she was Secretary of Labor. Perkins wanted to let in as many refugees as possible in as expedient a manner as was feasible but ran into opposition, so much so that detractors in Congress threatened to impeach her. Some things in Washington, it appears, never change…

Madame Secretary distinguished herself in other ways as well. She was the only individual to serve in FDR’s cabinet for his entire term, and she accomplished all she had set out to do on the day she handed FDR her list of initiatives, except one: universal health care. America is still working on that.

Upon her retirement, Perkins began teaching, writing, and delivering public lectures. She died on May 14, 1965, at the age of eighty-five.

Don’t miss Becoming Madame Secretary, biofiction about one of 20th century America’s most formidable women — perhaps the most formidable, a true "first woman." Her story reminds us of the difference one person can make. It’s also a reminder of how pursuing a career then was a lot like it is now for women. The barriers have changed, but obstacles still exist. Frances Perkins' story is a contemporary story in every way imaginable.

Her story also prompts me to think how one hundred years later, certain existential questions remain, questions that will always be with us: with only so many hours in a day, how will each of us choose to spend what precious time we are given? If we're at all like Frances, we'll not stand down in the face of opposition. We'll forge ahead as if no barrier is too large.

For more about Frances Perkins, visit the Frances Perkins Center, which does a beautiful job highlighting her accomplishments.

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Thanks for reading, I'm glad you're here.

Nancy Mastro

Thank you to NetGalley for an advance copy of Becoming Madame Secretary.


Daryl Byklum
Daryl Byklum

Wow. Just wow. I am impressed with the back-story of this dynamo that I only knew in passing as the first woman cabinet secretary. Her deeds speak volumes but only echo the plight of capable women competing against the odds in a man’s world.

N.J. Mastro
N.J. Mastro

Hey Daryl, thanks for reading! Frances Perkins was quite the gal. When writing the post, I tried to name someone currently alive whom I would compare her to, and I couldn't come up with anyone with her kind of tenacity or track record. The book has quite a few behind the scenes machinations I found fascinating. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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