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She Was One of Us:

Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker

by Brigid O'Farrell, Cornell University Press, ©2010; 304 pages

A review by Jo Freeman

Eleanor Roosevelt (ER) was a chameleon. A child of wealth and privilege, she had a talent for getting people with whom she had little in common to believe that "she was one of us." During her twelve years as first lady, members of the working class -- black and white together -- believed that they had a friend in the White House.

Born in 1884, ER was raised by her maternal grandmother. She inherited her progressive views from her Uncle Teddy, who became President when she was 17, and her independence from the feminist headmistress at the finishing school she attended in London, who taught her to think for herself. She spent her debutante years volunteering at a settlement house on the lower east side of Manhattan, while being courted by her fifth cousin, once removed.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt got his initial exposure to the problems of ordinary workers through ER and this continued after he became President. Women trade unionists that ER met through the Women's Trade Union League were invited to their homes in Manhattan and upstate New York, and later to the White House. During her travels, when ER heard stories of employer atrocities that she thought the federal government could respond to, she passed the information on to her husband.

However, it's what she did on her own, not just as a conduit to FDR, that made her loved by the workers. ER walked on picket lines, went into mines to inspect working conditions, visited migrant camps and testified before Congress about what she saw. She also wrote.

On December 31, 1935, ER published her first syndicated newspaper column. Called "My Day," it appeared six days a week and reached over four million readers of many different newspapers daily. A year later, she joined a new labor union, the American Newspaper Guild, which was affiliated with the CIO -- the Congress of Industrial Organizations. ER used her column to talk about workers' problems, the need for unions, and also to speak to union leaders. Even during wartime she spoke for the right of all workers to join unions.

ER's outspoken support gave labor unions what political scientists call "elite legitimation." Labor unions had been around for a long time but only during FDR's administration did they acquire mainstream respectability. To this, the first lady made a major contribution.

She both listened to and criticized the labor movement. She adopted its opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment because the elimination of all sex-specific laws would remove the protective labor laws union leaders believed women needed to curtail workplace exploitation. She also chastised unions for the lack of women in leadership positions and for policies and practices which excluded African-Americans from unions or limited their job opportunities.

Although ER's road to prominence had been through her powerful husband, she became an opinion leader in her own right. Initially attacked by many for breaking the mold of proper behavior for first ladies, after FDR's death, she became an icon. She supported striking workers in her column even when it meant opposing President Truman's request for legislation to curtail strikes.

ER wasn't a big fan of Truman, but he needed her, so he appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations. She chaired its Human Rights Commission, where she argued that the right to join a labor union was "an essential element of freedom." She left the UN when the Republicans took power after the 1952 election, but didn't give up writing, lecturing or bringing people together.

The years after WWII were difficult ones for organized labor. Labor strife generated adverse laws. Major battles of the Cold War took place in unions, which were attacked for having Communists in their midst. Some unions responded by becoming militantly anti-Communist, while others refused to purge their Communist members even though it meant losing some legal protections. ER argued that union leaders should not be put in this double bind, but should be able to do what they thought best.

This is a very rich book. Thoroughly researched and well written, it blends labor history, women's history and political history. Through it all, Eleanor Roosevelt is one who thoroughly cared about making the world a better place for everyone. Even if you think you already know much about ER, this book is well worth the read.

©2011 Jo Freeman for

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