Tuesday, January 31, 2012

She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker by Brigid O’Farrell

I just read /She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker by Brigid O’Farrell for my feminist/progressive book club. The book club is a small group but the women are terrific and we have a lot in common—all of us are progressive/feminist activists involved at various points in our lives in feminist, labor, civil rights and peace movements, in community organizing and in grassroots electoral politics. We range in age from 47 to 67 (I’m the old person in the group), and I think we all hope to continue social change work as long as we can.

I remember when I presented at /attended panels at Women’s Studies conferences on feminist activism and it was always so obvious which (usually a very few) panelists had actual experiences as activists. It’s so much more gratifying to discuss these issues with women who have walked the walk and bring their own activist experiences to the discussion.

She Was One of Us is no page turner, but it’s filled with fascinating information. I knew that ER (as she’s referred to throughout the book) was a supporter of the labor movement but I had no idea she was so closely allied to the labor movement and that she managed to form deep, long-lasting cross-class friendships with labor union women --friendships that lasted until the end of her life.

One goal of our group is to read books which will inspire and inform our activism. At my age I need inspiration to keep going. I’m not sure whether I was inspired (by ER's commitment) or depressed that we don’t have anyone like her around these days. At a time when we read story after story about labor’s declining membership and about right wing attacks on labor, it’s a very welcome relief to read about a time when the labor movement had such powerful allies.

There were a few surprises in the book: ER did not initially support public employees unions but eventually came around to the realization that they were necessary. Also, ER did not initially support the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). There were labor feminists who thought the ERA would wipe out the protections for women they had fought so hard to establish. But those protections came with a price—-barring women from higher paying jobs. ER along with the labor movement eventually came around to supporting the ERA.

This is an important book and I hope that it manages to get into the required reading lists of Women’s Studies courses—especially to get into the reading lists of the Introduction to Women’s Studies courses I taught for many years. These courses usually do not assign books but rather anthologies with a snippet of this and a snippet of that. Probably the only way O’Farrell’s valuable material will make it into the intro courses is if she works with a documentary filmmaker to translate her material into film. This is the easiest ( and most effective ) way to get the message out. It’s a very important message for those of us in the 99%.

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