Frances Perkins was born in Boston, Massachusetts on April 10, 1880. She served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was not only the first woman appointed to a U.S. Cabinet position, but had the longest tenure of anyone serving in that job.
This book tells the story of Frances from the time she was a shy child to her later success and lifelong advocacy against injustice. The author notes that Frances’s grandmother always encouraged her by saying: “When someone opens a door to you, go forward.”
After graduating from Mount Holyoke College (in chemistry and physics!) Frances moved first to Chicago, then Philadelphia, and in 1909 settled in New York City, which was the center of “a new way to fight injustice, called social work.” Along the way, she acquired advanced degrees in economics and sociology. In New York, she began delivering milk and food to starving children, getting landlords to exercise patience in rent collections, and asking for donations. The author reports: “In dangerous neighborhoods, she defended herself with the tip of her umbrella.”
Frances saw she needed power to effect change, and began to get involved in politics.
The author tells us in the Afterword that Frances kept a red envelope entitled “Notes on the Male Mind” which she would fill with notes about how men thought and how she could best make them listen. One way she endeavored to overcome the prejudice of the men she worked with by trying to remind them of their mothers in her appearance and demeanor. She later said, according to biographer Kirsten Downey, “They know and respect their mothers – ninety-nine percent of them do.” If that’s what it took, that’s the persona she would adopt. In this way, she went on to push successfully for workplace safety reforms and measures to reduce unemployment.
As Secretary of Labor, she helped draft important New Deal legislation, including the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Social Security Act of 1935.
The book includes a number of quotes by Frances, shown in larger and colorful fonts, including, “I felt the satisfaction of someone who told the truth.”
The author writes:
“Hurdling one obstacle after another, boldly speaking up, she transformed the government into a force that helped protect people. On a gigantic scale, she had reached her childhood goal of helping others.”
The Afterword provides more background on Frances Perkins and a list of sources.
Alexandra Bye created colorful animation-like illustrations reflecting the times in which Frances lived. She includes apt newspaper headlines and period clothing to set Frances’s life in context.
Evaluation: The author does a good job at depicting some of the barriers Frances Perkins had to overcome to achieve success, and of conveying her outsized work ethic and sense of moral conviction. Her story is so inspirational.
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2020