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

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

by Brigid O'Farrell

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Though some scholars doubt Eleanor Roosevelt's (ER's) actual impact on her husband's policies, O'Farrell (affiliated scholar, Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, George Washington Univ.) shows that she was America's first social worker in the White House. The author first deals with ER's White House years and then with her ever-enlarging role as First Lady of the World. The focus is less on ER's personal life than the social work that became her life. Though the story is generally known, O'Farrell presents a much more detailed picture. Only in ER's own mind was she an ugly duckling, but in feeling like an outsider she developed a profound compassion toward others, a trait that appealed to FDR and the public in general. O'Farrell reinforces Hazel Rowley's recent Franklin and Eleanor in asserting that ER was no reluctant First Lady. The author is at her best in describing ER's relations with labor leaders such as Rose Schneiderman and David Dubinsky, whom she favored for their broader social vision. VERDICT O'Farrell breaks through the confusing acronyms of New Deal agencies and changing labor unions to reveal a compassionate story about workers and ER. Highly recommended for all readers interested in unions, workers, human rights, and Eleanor Roosevelt.—William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport
From the Publisher

"A fine account of Eleanor Roosevelt's evolving philosophy and activism on behalf of organized labor. Utilizing her writings and speeches as well as pertinent labor union archives and journals, interviews with influential labor leaders, and relevant secondary sources, O'Farrell is the first to describe Roosevelt's lifelong commitment to the US labor movement. . . . She portrays Roosevelt convincingly as an advocate who fearlessly challenged not only anti-labor pundits like Westbrook Pegler, but also corrupt labor leaders whose power grabs tainted efforts to aid US workers. An excellent resource for those interested in better understanding Eleanor Roosevelt, New Deal and post-WWII politics, and US labor history during the 20th century. Summing up: Highly recommended."—Choice (July 2011)

"With regard to originality, Brigid O'Farrell’s She Was One of Us stands head and shoulders above [other recent biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt]. . . . O’Farrell organizes her book around two central themes: how Eleanor Roosevelt got so smart about working-class life, and how she used what she learned. . . . In this book, Eleanor’s relationship to Franklin is only a small part of her story, and that analytic shift opens new vistas on her career."— Priscilla Murolo, Women’s Review of Books (September/October 2011)

"First, O'Farrell clearly links Roosevelt's concern for labor issues with her international work, particularly with the 1949 enactment of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Second, she demonstrates how Roosevelt used her 'My Day' columns and articles to support labor, particularly in opposing the Taft-Hartley Act and right-to-work laws. Third, the author deftly evokes the friendships between Roosevelt and labor leaders such as David Dubinsky and, most notably, the United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther. Finally, and most important, She Was One of Us also contributes to the development of one of the most significant interpretations of post-World War II feminism. . . . She Was One of Us is a solidly researched and well-written account that stands as an important contribution not only to further reconsiderations of Eleanor Roosevelt's career after World War II but also to studies of the development of labor feminism from the 1940s through the early 1960s."—John Thomas McGuire, Journal of American History

"This is an inspiring book and should be read by women of all ages, and of all stations in life. (Men: You can learn from it too!)"—Pete Seeger

"I am very proud to say that Eleanor Roosevelt was a long-standing member of the labor movement, the Newspaper Guild, AFL-CIO. In She Was One of Us, Brigid O'Farrell brings to light not only Eleanor Roosevelt's significant work with unions but also the labor movement's contributions to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our labor history is enriched and ourefforts tosecure workers' rightsareenhanced by readingEleanor Roosevelt'sinspiring wordsand following her call to action close to home and around the world. She was, indeed, one of us."—Richard L. Trumka, President, AFL-CIO

"Eleanor Roosevelt found the American labor movement a crucial ally in her efforts to advance democracy and human rights. In She Was One of Us, Brigid O'Farrell tells us why. Along the way, we also get an entertaining and fresh slice of American labor history and even-handed treatments of such controversial subjects as the cold war divide in the labor movement and the debates over the Equal Rights Amendment. She Was One of Us has many fine features and deserves a wide audience."—Dorothy Sue Cobble, Rutgers University, author of The Other Women's Movement

"She Was One of Us is profoundly researched and powerfully written. Brigid O'Farrell has gifted us with a timely, galvanizing, much needed study of Eleanor Roosevelt's democratic vision and union participation. This book well serves O'Farrell’s hope for a new generation of activism to ensure workers' rights, human rights, dignity for all. Her brilliant journey of alliance in the long struggle for economic security, worker safety, union influence is filled with surprises—new and amazing details. It enables us to imagine a global future of full employment, equitable wages, and worker health free of toxic industrial poisons. Everybody concerned about a just and livable world will rush to buy, read, assign, this splendid, important book."—Blanche Wiesen Cook, Distinguished Professor, John Jay College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of Eleanor Roosevelt

"Want to make your workplace safer? To have a say in setting your wages and benefits? To join a union? Read this book. Timely and compelling, She Was One of Us shows us how First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt translated her ideas about social and economic justice into action. As a union member, she understood that workers' rights are human rights and she championed the men and women who go to work each day in steel mills, restaurants, coal mines, garment factories, hospitals, offices, and schools. Brigid O'Farrell has written a book that provides inspiration and practical guidance for all of us who carry on the legacy of making Eleanor Roosevelt's vision of workplace democracy a reality at home and around the world."—Kimberly Freeman Brown, Executive Director, American Rights at Work

"Nowhere was Eleanor Roosevelt's democratic vision more evident than in her lifelong commitment to the American labor movement. Thanks to Brigid O'Farrell's fine book, Roosevelt's legacy serves as a challenge and an inspiration to new generations in their quest for economic justice for all citizens."—Susan Ware, editor of Notable American Women: Completing the Twentieth Century

Product Details

Cornell University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

Brigid O'Farrell is an independent scholar affiliated with Mills College, Oakland, California. She is the coauthor of Rocking the Boat: Union Women’s Voices 1915–1975 and coeditor of Work and Family: Policies for a Changing Work Force.

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