CLIO TALKS BACK: Eleanor Roosevelt and America’s Working Women

publisher: Cornell University Press
book cover She Was One of Us
Clio attended a book party last weekend for a long-time author-colleague and friend. The book is called She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker, and the author is Brigid O’Farrell, a sociologista and political activist who “backed into history” in order to understand how certain developments came about concerning women’s employment.

Brigid discovered that in all the many publications concerning Eleanor Roosevelt (ER, 1888-1962, first lady of the US from 1933 to 1945, thanks to her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s nearly four full terms as president), she found virtually no information about Mrs. Roosevelt’s relationship with the labor movement, which began with issues facing women in the workforce.

She decided to do something about eliminating that gap in our knowledge. This book is the happy result of her research.

Our author learned that Eleanor Roosevelt was extremely engaged in addressing the plight of working women in particular, and tried to do many things to assist them. Importantly, she became a staunch advocate of equal pay for equal work and asserted that labor rights were human rights. One of her enduring partnerships was with the Women’s Trade Union League, headed by the remarkable Rose Schneiderman, an immigrant from Russian Poland.

The first chapter of this book is “Why Women Should Join Unions.” There O’Farrell tells the story of how ER met Rose Schneiderman in 1922, invited her over for supper and asked her why women should join unions. She quotes Schneiderman’s reply: “I remember so well telling her that that was the only way working people could help themselves. I pointed to the unions of skilled men and told her how well they were doing. By contrast, women were much worse off because they were less skilled or had no skills and could be easily replaced if they complained. They were working for $3.00 a week for nine or ten hours a day, often longer.” (Schneiderman & Goldthwaite, pp. 150-51).

The book tells us how ER joined the Women’s Trade Union League and worked with its finance and education committees. With women now voting, in 1924 she chaired an advisory committee on women’s issues for the Democratic National committee, which endorsed equal pay for equal work and the right to organize unions and bargain collectively – the committee’s recommendations were rejected by the men who then controlled the Democratic Party!

The story goes on and it is fascinating!

Brigid O’Farrell remarks: “As ER’s reform ideas developed, her mutually beneficial relationship with labor deepened. Her dialogue with labor activists clarified issues that arose in the workplace and in politics. At the same time, organized labor provided a grass-roots platform for her broader reform agenda. During her twelve years as first lady, she built on her accomplishments and skills to expand her labor concerns beyond the problems of working women to include economic and social rights for all workers. After FDR’s death she took her agenda to the United Nations, where she led an international team to craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which included the right to join a union.” And equal pay for equal work. It was at the United Nations, of course, that she used her tea table diplomacy to such good effect.

Clio says: Everyone interested in ER, the politics of women’s employment, and the complex story of women’s participation in organized labor more generally, will appreciate this thought-provoking book.

Sources and Further Reading:
• Brigid O’Farrell, She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker (Cornell University Press, 2010).
• Rose Schneiderman and Lucy Goldthwaite, All for One (Eriksson, 1967).
• Nancy Schrom Dye, As Equals and as Sisters: Feminism, the Labor Movement, and the Women’s Trade Union League of New York (University of Missouri Press, 1980).
• Brigid O’Farrell & Joyce Kornbluh, Rocking the Boat: Union Women’s Voices, 1915-1975 (Rutgers University Press, 1996).
• The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project