KKFI and Heartland Labor Forum‘s own Judy Ancel is in the studio tonight for a special on Women’s Equality Week in which she’ll chat with author Kirstin Downey about her book entitled The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, and Unemployment Insurance.
About the guest:
Kirstin Downey is the oldest daughter of a ship captain and spent much of her childhood moving from place to place, including Hawaii and the Panama Canal Zone, developing a fascination with global trade and international economics. She studied journalism at Pennsylvania State University and then wrote for newspapers in Florida and Colorado before joining the staff of the San Jose Mercury, covering business in Silicon Valley.
She became a staff writer for the Washington Post in 1988, where she chronicled the ways in which rampant speculation by banks and savings and loan associations in the 1980s had led to the collapse of the real estate industry, requiring a hefty taxpayer bailout. In 1990, she was named a finalist for the Livingston award for outstanding young journalist in America for her coverage of a widespread fraud in which investors abused government loan programs to buy apartments in low-rent urban neighborhoods, permitting drug dealers to infiltrate what had once been stable communities.
In the mid-1990s, Downey began writing articles and columns on the American workplace, tracking employment statistics and emerging trends. She initiated a series of articles on the increasing incidence of sexual harassment incidents nationwide, including at Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing in Illinois and at the Eveleth Mines in Minnesota. Her series of articles exposing the intense harassment of women in the Mesabi Iron Range was turned into a book and later a movie, called “North Country.” Her Washington Post column, On the Job, in which workers wrote about the problems they faced at work, ran in dozens of newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times, for a total weekly readership exceeding 3 million people.
One plaintive letter drew her particular attention. A man wrote that he was being locked in his office at the end of each day while the manager counted the money in the till. He asked if Downey thought it was unsafe: “Even a rat has an escape hole,” he wrote. In crafting a response, Downey researched the history of industrial fires, and learned about a devastating blaze in New York City in 1911, the infamous Triangle fire, which was witnessed by a young social worker, Frances Perkins. Downey began wondering about this little-known woman, who later rose to a position of great influence as secretary of labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As FDR’s friend and ally, Perkins would help the president fight the economic ravages caused by the Great Depression and make great strides toward improving workplace conditions. Downey began to wonder just how Perkins, a middle-class woman who lacked wealth or status, had accomplished so much in her lifetime. A book on Perkins began to take shape in her mind.
In 2000, Downey was awarded a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University, where she studied American economic history at Harvard Business School and participated in the Harvard Trade Union Program, where young labor activists are trained to become leaders in the movement. The fellowship also gave Downey the opportunity to focus full-time on research for her book about Frances Perkins.
Downey returned to her job at the Post. In 2005, she uncovered a worrisome pattern of lending by major banks and investment houses—so-called toxic or exotic mortgages being granted to homeowners who seemed unlikely to be able to repay the loans. She wrote 32 articles on the problem in 2005 and 2006. Her reporting raised a clarion call to federal regulators about rising instability in the financial industry—a warning that sadly was not heeded by Bush Administration political appointees. Rampant speculation had once again led to a taxpayer bailout, as it had 20 years earlier in the savings and loan debacle, and a looming worldwide economic crisis—a crisis many have likened to the Great Depression.
In 2008, Downey shared in the Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Washington Post staff for coverage of the campus slayings at Virginia Tech; she profiled two heroic professors–Liviu Librescu and Kevin Granata–who died protecting the lives of their students. She left the Washington Post last year to focus on finishing her biography of Frances Perkins, “The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience,” published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.
She is married to Neil Warner Averitt, and together they have five children.