SeniorLearn Meeting with Author, Kirstin Downey, National Book Festival 2009

September 2009


L to R: Pat Highet, Kirstin Downey, Author, & Joan Pearson

Lucky for us, Kirstin Downey was in the first group to speak in the History and Biography tent at the National Book Festival on the mall in Washington DC last Saturday before the rains came down. PatH got there early to save seats for us, front and center. It's a good thing, because the tent was filled by the time she began her presentation. Since we had a little time beforehand, we introduced ourselves to Kirstin and she couldn't have been more gracious and happy to see us. She told us she really enjoyed taking part in the discussion of her biography, "The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins," led by Ella and Harold on in August. She appreciated our interest in her favorite subject, commenting that our people knew what things were like during Frances Perkins' time in Washington and what she accomplished.

During her talk, Kirstin described her own early days in Washington as a reporter for the Washington Post. The first time she heard of Frances Perkins was on a tour bus to become better acquainted with the DC area and rode by the Frances Perkins Department of Labor building. She noticed the name because there aren't many buildings in Washington named after women. Later in the tour the guide asked what American woman had the worst childbirth experience? Frances Perkins. She spent 12 years in labor." Just a joke, but Kirstin made a mental note to learn more about this woman who had served as Secretary of Labor for 12 years.

She related how Frances Perkins found Washington to be a frightening place and tried to resign a number of times, but she was FDR's closest friend and he always managed to keep her at his side. When she came to the Dept. of Labor, she had ten items on her list that she hoped to accomplish. Her top priority was Social Security. The only item on her list that she was unable to accomplish was National Health Insurance. (This drew a reaction from the assembled crowd.) FDR abandoned it to get Social Security. Kirstin told the crowd how Frances Perkins had always fought for a better balance of power between the worker and the employer. Today she'd be talking about jobs, bringing jobs back to America and helping employers build workplaces here rather than abroad.

It was quite a spirited talk from this mother of five. We enjoyed every minute of it!

Joan Pearson and Pat Highet

View our archived discussion of The Life of Frances Perkins.