Becoming Madam Secretary

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Release Date: 
March 12, 2024
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“Frances Perkins was an important role model and social welfare advocate who deserves to be better known.”

Fictionalized biographies straddle a wiggly line. At their best, they engage the author’s imagination along with solid research to flesh out the story of a real person, without straying too far from the known truth.

With her newest historical novel, Becoming Madam Secretary, the veteran New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Dray was lucky, in an odd way: There was plenty of information to pore though about the public life of her title subject, Frances Perkins, the U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the first woman ever to head a federal Cabinet department. However, Perkins left behind few personal papers.

That gave Dray both ballast and freedom. The result is an engrossing book rich in behind-the-scenes historical details but with a protagonist who seems a bit too good—too smart, too brave, too loyal, too modest—to be true.

For instance, after Roosevelt finishes his rousing “happy warrior” speech nominating Al Smith for president at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, somehow Perkins is the only person in all of Madison Square Garden to realize that FDR, unable to move but publicly downplaying the severity of his polio, is stranded at the podium in full view of the crowd, “holding on for dear life, his knuckles white as he desperately glanced about for help.” Almost single-handedly, the Perkins of this novel blocks the crowd’s view until his son can covertly bring over a wheelchair, thus saving FDR’s political career.

Still, real or fictionalized, Perkins was a hard-working, smart, and visionary heroine with a complicated story.

She started defying conventions as a young woman in New England in the late Victorian era, earning college degrees in chemistry and physics, then a master’s in economics and sociology. Appalled by what she saw in slum tenements and sweatshops, she threw herself into the movements to improve working conditions and gain women the right to vote.

Gradually, she went from working for consumer groups, to government committees, to positions as a top advisor for both Smith and Roosevelt when they were governors of New York. After FDR was elected president in 1932, he appointed Perkins to his Cabinet.

Unhappily, during that time, Perkins’s dream marriage disintegrated, as her husband’s long-suppressed mental illness worsened.

It can be hard for readers today to appreciate how groundbreaking both the New Deal and Perkins’ appointment were: The first was seen as not the proper role for the American government, while the second was reviled as not the proper role for a woman. In breaking with those traditions, Perkins was the moving force behind Social Security, helped launch the Civilian Conservation Corps, and pushed hard (if unsuccessfully) against the State Department’s refusal to rescue European Jews fleeing Hitler.

Among the best parts of this book are the examples of the everyday sexism Perkins confronted. At her initial press conference as Labor secretary, reporters ask about her clothing tastes and her plans for a social life. One voter writes to her: “I can’t understand, though, why [FDR] appointed a woman to hold the office of secretary of labor when it is so decidedly a job for a red-blooded HE-MAN.”

As Eleanor Roosevelt warns, “they’ll dismiss you if you speak too much like the sort of woman they’re used to, and they’ll resent you if you speak to them in a just-the-facts fashion like a man.”

Dray, the author, has also done a masterful job in creating Perkins’s voice, with just the right touch of contemporary lingo. When Perkins jokes with FDR during an early campaign, “He grinned like a naughty schoolboy.” When Smith appoints her to the state Industrial Commission, “I wanted to preen with pride.”

Frances Perkins was an important role model and social welfare advocate who deserves to be better known. Becoming Madam Secretary should help achieve that worthy goal precisely because it is a novel, and thus more readable than a straight biography would be.