The Roosevelt I Knew

by Frances Perkins; Penguin Books

Frances Perkins was in a unique position to observe Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She met the tall, slender New York state senator at a dance in 1910 and wasn’t all that impressed, deeming him arrogant and self-righteous. But after he was stricken with polio, she saw his temperament change to one of empathy with the common man. In her eyes, Roosevelt emerges as smart, decent, good-humored and a shrewd judge of people.

The woman who began her career as a social worker eventually became Roosevelt’s secretary of labor through all four presidential terms—the first woman ever named to a Cabinet position in the United States government. Her friendship and political partnership with Roosevelt led to landmark New Deal programs, including unemployment benefits and Social Security. Yet her name has been forgotten.

This re-issue of Perkins’ memoir, originally published in 1946, ought to help remedy that. It reveals how Perkins developed programs that helped the nation pull out of the Great Depression and survive World War II by encouraging labor and employers to work together for the common good. Many laws we take for granted—including prohibitions against child labor and establishment of minimum wage and overtime payments—came about because of her vision and persistence.

Some elements clearly evoke another era: There were calls for Perkins’ impeachment when she refused to deport Harry Bridges, a labor leader accused of being of a Communist. Other debates sound strikingly familiar: “[H]ealth insurance was then, as now, a difficult question,” Perkins writes. “Powerful elements of the medical profession were up in arms over the idea of any kind of government-endorsed system.”

The book’s pacing can be slow and the writing inelegant. But Perkins offers valuable portraits of not one but two leaders who faced some of the most trying times in American history. Adam Cohen’s new introduction provides context and reveals the personal challenges that Perkins faced, including her husband’s mental illness, which make her accomplishments all the more remarkable.


Originally published in the December 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here