This is the first book I’ve read by Stephanie Dray, and she has quickly moved to the top of my list of favorite historical fiction writers. Dray begins by explaining that while extensive research was done in preparing to write Becoming Madam Secretary, it is a fictionalized account of the admittedly private woman.  I like to think Francis’ sassier moments were based in reality, and this review is written from that perspective. 

At a time when few women attended college, Francis was a graduate of Mount Holyoke College (physics with minors in chemistry & biology), followed by Wharton Business School (sociology & economics) with a fellowship at New York’s School of Philanthropy where she studied childhood malnutrition in Hell’s Kitchen before eventually earning her Master’s Degree from Columbia University in sociology & economics. During her time at Hartley House in Hell’s Kitchen, she was asked why on earth a woman would want to study economics of all things?

Why economics? I echoed gamely. “Because many people in America believe poverty is a moral problem having to do with spirits, sloth, or some other sin we can blame on individuals. But I believe poverty in America is an economic problem that can be solved… and I intend to solve it.”

Becoming Madam Secretary

It was during her time in Hell’s Kitchen that she first encountered The McManus, famed boss of Tammany Hall.  (If you’ve never heard of the political machine known as Tammany Hall, I encourage you to do some research – it’s truly fascinating).

In addition to learning about the fascinating life led by Francis Perkins, social reformer and all-around powerhouse, Becoming Madam Secretary does an incredible job of humanizing not only her, but those around her. You may recognize a lot of the names, but instead of them being these two-dimensional characters from history, Dray brings them to life. I especially loved the scenes where Francis put FDR in his place when he needed it.

Dray’s portrayal of FDR’s early interactions with Francis are not very flattering, with his future Secretary of Labor describing him as a popinjay and a buffoon. I’m particularly fond of the line, “I was beginning to think that when it came to politics, Frank was some kind of idiot savant.”  He was a bit of a pretty boy and your all-too-typical politician who was not in it to help the common man – at least not until he was brought back to earth when he contracted polio. 

Francis ends up marrying, and after multiple heartbreaking miscarriages, gives birth to a daughter.  Her family life was rife with difficulty between her husband Paul’s mental health issues and her own taxing schedule. 

This book is particularly relevant not only during International Women’s Month, but also in a time when the Social Security system and other social programs (which Perkins was a driving force behind) are under fire. In a time when it feels like progress made by feminists has been reversed, let us remind ourselves:

Reform is very hard, and sometimes there are setbacks.
After all, some women in the United States had been allowed to vote until 1807. We were now winning back rights we’d lost.”

Becoming Madam Secretary

This brief review only begins to scratch the surface of the incredible life of Francis Perkins. I highly recommend reading more about her – both by picking up a copy of Becoming Madam Secretary and by researching her amazing contributions to the structure of the social programs we take for granted in the US.

ARC (Advance Reader Copy) I was gifted a galley of this book by the publisher. All opinions are my own. This is not a paid review.

Lora ⚜️
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