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She Was One of Us

She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker

Brigid O’Farrell
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press,
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    She Was One of Us
    Book Description:

    Although born to a life of privilege and married to the President of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt was a staunch and lifelong advocate for workers and, for more than twenty-five years, a proud member of the AFL-CIO's Newspaper Guild. She Was One of Us tells for the first time the story of her deep and lasting ties to the American labor movement. Brigid O'Farrell follows Roosevelt-one of the most admired and, in her time, controversial women in the world-from the tenements of New York City to the White House, from local union halls to the convention floor of the AFL-CIO, from coal mines to political rallies to the United Nations.

    Roosevelt worked with activists around the world to develop a shared vision of labor rights as human rights, which are central to democracy. In her view, everyone had the right to a decent job, fair working conditions, a living wage, and a voice at work. She Was One of Us provides a fresh and compelling account of her activities on behalf of workers, her guiding principles, her circle of friends-including Rose Schneiderman of the Women's Trade Union League and the garment unions and Walter Reuther, "the most dangerous man in Detroit"-and her adversaries, such as the influential journalist Westbrook Pegler, who attacked her as a dilettante and her labor allies as "thugs and extortioners." As O'Farrell makes clear, Roosevelt was not afraid to take on opponents of workers' rights or to criticize labor leaders if they abused their power; she never wavered in her support for the rank and file.

    Today, union membership has declined to levels not seen since the Great Depression, and the silencing of American workers has contributed to rising inequality. In She Was One of Us, Eleanor Roosevelt's voice can once again be heard by those still working for social justice and human rights.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6246-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Abbreviations Used in Text
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Prologue: She Was One of Us
    (pp. 1-3)

    Though she was born to a life of privilege and married to the president of the United States, the first lady was a working journalist and a union member. In late December 1936 Eleanor Roosevelt celebrated the first anniversary of her syndicated “My Day” column by joining the American Newspaper Guild. Carefully named to avoid alienating potential members with the word “union,” the Guild had organized reporters, held its first convention, and signed its first contract just three years earlier, at the beginning of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. ER, as she signed her letters to FDR, made clear...

  5. 1 Why Women Should Join Unions
    (pp. 4-29)

    Seamstresses and glove makers, laundry workers and printers mingled with fashionable society matrons, labor organizers, and politicians as they boarded a large rented boat and slowly lumbered up the Hudson River. On Saturday, 8 June 1929, the sun was shining and a warm breeze that rippled the water in the harbor would also stir the stifling hot air in the sweatshops and the laundries, the tenements and crowded streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, all left behind for the day. As the jumble of buildings receded from view, the hillsides came into focus, lush with the deep green of the...

  6. 2 Here Comes Mrs. Roosevelt
    (pp. 30-54)

    Thousands of citizens lined the streets, flags flying overhead, as official cars wended their way along the river toward the Willow Grove Mine number 10, near the small community of Neffs, Ohio. The mine was twelve miles west of Wheeling, West Virginia, tucked in a valley by a small stream. On this day, 21 May 1935, company officials and union officers awaited their visitor at the entrance to the mineshaft. Smiling and eager, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arrived at noon and accepted a large bouquet of roses and spring flowers presented by the United Mine Workers of America. The men...

  7. 3 Practicing What You Preach
    (pp. 55-79)

    On 25 September 1940, after enjoying dinner in her apartment in New York City, Eleanor Roosevelt went uptown to attend her first meeting of the American Newspaper Guild, CIO. Arriving at the Hotel Capitol on Eighth Avenue and Fifty-first Street, she showed her Guild card at the door and received a slip entitling her to vote. She quietly took a seat in the fourth row next to Lewis Gannett, book critic for the New York Tribune. With almost 350 members in the room, many eyes turned toward her, but no one on the speakers’ platform acknowledged her presence. As the...

  8. 4 In Her Own Way
    (pp. 80-104)

    By 1940 A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, could say that he knew Mrs. Roosevelt very well, as “they had met and talked about various questions.” The September 1940 issue of The Black Worker, the official union paper, announced that the first lady would address the biennial convention in New York. Eleanor Roosevelt’s presence symbolized her growing commitment to labor and civil rights issues despite the increasing pressure to curtail these rights as war approached. Just two months before the election, her appearance before the largest black union in the United States was shocking to...

  9. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  10. 5 An Essential Element of Freedom
    (pp. 105-130)

    The fall of 1948 found Eleanor Roosevelt in Paris attending the United Nations General Assembly at the ornate Palais de Chaillot on the banks of the Seine. As a U.S. delegate, she served as chair of its Human Rights Commission. The U.S. delegation took up residence in the majestic Hôtel de Crillon, on the Place de la Concorde. Amidst formal meetings and negotiations, ER invited fellow delegates to her suite for tea where they could discuss issues in a more collegial atmosphere. As always, despite her overwhelming schedule, between meeting diplomats and dignitaries, the press and the politicians, in palaces...

  11. 6 Pointing the Way
    (pp. 131-155)

    On 4 December 1955 Eleanor Roosevelt, now seventy-one years old, left her apartment on East Sixty-second Street in Manhattan and began her public day as a guest on the radio program hosted by Margaret Truman and Mike Wallace. Her topic was the meaning of Human Rights Day, to be observed on the eighth anniversary of the UN’s adoption of the Universal Declaration. After the broadcast ended, she hurried over to the grand old Pierre Hotel across from Central Park, where two hundred of Adlai Stevenson’s supporters were gathered for a private luncheon. She and the governor gave brief talks, and...

  12. 7 We Have Something to Offer
    (pp. 156-180)

    The Reuthers made the thirteen-hour drive from Paint Creek, Michigan, to Hyde Park in a single day. On 15 August 1958 Walter and May were taking daughter Linda to school in Putney, Vermont, with a two-day stop to visit Eleanor Roosevelt. The ever-present bodyguard drove, his gun bulging from his waistband. May Reuther sat next to him in the front seat because her back problems made traveling painful. Eleven-year-old Elisabeth, called Lisa, and Linda, five years older, scrambled for the window seats in the back of the Oldsmobile 98. Walter Reuther, dubbed the “most dangerous man in Detroit,” sat in...

  13. 8 A Revolutionary Period
    (pp. 181-204)

    Eleanor Roosevelt convened the third meeting of President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women at the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park on 16 June 1962, almost exactly thirty-three years after the Women’s Trade Union League had celebrated its anniversary on the Hudson. In an event reminiscent of that earlier one, members and staff gathered for a picnic on the sprawling lawn of ER’s home at nearby Val-Kill. Esther Peterson circulated among the guests. The labor educator and lobbyist for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union was now an assistant secretary of labor and executive director of the commission. Kitty Ellickson,...

  14. Epilogue: Close to Home
    (pp. 205-208)

    Eleanor Roosevelt’s death was mourned by workers across the country. Photographs of her at labor events, surrounded by rank-and-file members, and speeches praising her words and actions filled union newspapers. Her labor spirit was captured in the tributes they paid her. The AFL-CIO declared: “Nowhere will her loss be more keenly felt than in the ranks of labor. No one can ever tabulate the lives that were brightened, the slums cleared, the sweatshops eradicated, the suffering mitigated through her unflagging battle against misery and oppression.” The electrical workers spoke of “her ability to ignite enthusiasms for life and living”; the...

  15. Source Abbreviations
    (pp. 209-210)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 211-246)
  17. Note on Sources and Bibliography
    (pp. 247-258)
  18. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 259-262)
  19. Index
    (pp. 263-274)