Monday, December 06, 2010

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

by Brigid O'Farrell, Cornell University Press, 2010, 304 pp.

On December 10, 2010, World Human Rights Day, the AFL-CIO is hosting an event at its headquarters in Washington DC to honour Eleanor Roosevelt. The speakers are Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, and Julie Kushner, director of Region 9A of the United Auto Workers, and, Brigid O'Farrell, the author of this book.

Human Rights Day is an appropriate date because of Roosevelt's prominent and pivotal work in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, has now been translated into 375 languages, and counting.

Especially pertinent to workers and the labour movement are these three articles of the Declaration:

Article 23

1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25

1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

--from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, official English translation.

It is noteworthy that the recently created United Nations Human Rights Council is developing a method for reviewing and delivering opinions on human rights complaints on a regular basis.

According to the unions organizing the Friday, December 10, event, Eleanor Roosevelt "was born to privilege and married a U.S. President, but Eleanor Roosevelt was a committed, lifelong advocate for workers and a proud union member for more than 25 years. She Was One of Us reveals—for the first time—the story of our greatest First Lady’s deep ties to the American Labor movement."

The Cornell University Press webpage for the book is more explicit about Roosevelt's union membership, in the AFL-CIO's Newspaper Guild. I have not yet seen the book, but here is the remainder of the description from the publisher's site:

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.

This event and book came to my attention through the US National Council of Women's Organizations. Brigid O'Farrell is a member of NCWO, and she researched labor issues at NCWO and at the Women’s Research and Education Institute (WREI). She is now affiliated with the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson's first ladies

by Kristie Miller.
Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2010

Guest review by Jo Freeman. This review has been reposted by permission of the author, from Senior Women's Web at

Woodrow Wilson's Women

More than most men, Woodrow Wilson needed women. He needed their love, their support and their companionship. In the confines of his home, he surrounded himself with women. He had two wives (sequentially), one mistress, and three daughters.

Theirs is a complex story of love and politics. In this book, Ellen and Edith come alive as real persons and not just appendages to their famous husband, even though they eagerly took on the job of helpmate as their major role in life. The author tells their story in an engaging manner while opening a new window on the character of our 28th President and the entire Wilson presidency.

Born in Savannah, Georgia on May 15, 1860, Ellen Axson met Woodrow Wilson in Rome, Georgia when she was 23. A talented artist, she was convinced that no man was good enough for her. Both were the children of Presbyterian ministers with strong allegiances to the Confederacy, though her Southern roots were deeper.

Woodrow was on his way to an academic career. Ellen quickly set aside whatever ambitions she had to become a model faculty wife. She translated scholarly articles from German and digested other material to save him time. She studied home economics so she could better manage her household and entertain his colleagues. In her spare time she reared and home-schooled their daughters.

After Woodrow became President of Princeton University in 1902 her responsibilities increased. She had to entertain constantly, relieving her husband of a responsibility he did not like. She became his advisor on the intricacies of academic politics. All this was good training for her two years as wife of the Governor of New Jersey and then first lady. As Woodrow moved into electoral politics, she helped shape his ideas and write his speeches. Indeed many thought that she was the better politician of the two.

Woodrow and Ellen were a devoted couple, writing intimate and passionate letters to each other whenever they were apart more than a few days. This did not prevent him from establishing an intense friendship with Mary Allen Hulbert Peck, a married woman he met in Bermuda in 1907. Woodrow had been ordered to take a rest for his health; Ellen had stayed behind to care for an ill daughter. Wilson continued his relationship with Mary, writing and visiting her for years. Ellen was wounded, but the only change it made in their life was that she made more time for her own painting.

Ellen was just as ambitious for Woodrow as he was. She wanted to be the wife of a great man. When he became President she continued to be his sounding board and chief advisor, sitting in on meetings and helping with his correspondence. She also lent her name and prestige to various charitable endeavors in addition to her own projects, one of which was designing the White House rose garden.

Ellen died of kidney failure on August 6, 1914. Woodrow wept profusely; her death left him totally depressed and despondent. Friends wondered if he could carry on as President. Seven months later he found a balm for his pain.

Edith Bolling had also married at 23, to Norman Galt in 1896. Born in a small town in Virginia, her formal education was spotty as her family was large and her brothers got preference. She married the son of a jewelry store owner in Washington, D.C., and herself became the owner in 1908 after the men died. Her only child was born prematurely, living just three days.

Her route to the grieving widower was through Woodrow’s friend and personal physician, who was dating a friend of Edith’s. One contact led to another until Edith had her first dinner with Woodrow in the White House on March 23, 1915. Within a few weeks he had professed his love and was writing her daily.

They married on December 18, 1915, later than Woodrow wished but still close enough to Ellen’s death to provoke some unseemly gossip.

Before marrying Edith, Woodrow had to extricate himself from his relationship with Mary, who had divorced her husband in 1912. It’s unclear whether Woodrow was no longer emotionally attached to Mary at the time Ellen died, or whether he did not think she would make a suitable first lady.

Whatever the reason, he did not call her to his side, though she seems to have expected as much. After he became engaged to Edith, he sent Mary a “Dear John” letter. He also sent her several sizable checks as she was in financial straits. Despite rumors that Mary might publish some of Woodrow’s letters to her, there was no scandal.

Once married, Woodrow could seldom bear to be away from Edith, sharing his work as well as his leisure with her. She would often read dispatches to him from abroad, or decode messages and code his to be sent oversees. She made phone calls for him, reviewed his speeches and generally acted like an extension of his own self.

Although Edith had long tasted independence, she devoted her life to a man who, according to her social secretary, “needs love and care more than any I have ever seen.” She rose with him at 5:00 a.m. to make him breakfast in order not to disturb the servants. She watched over his diet and his exercise, and made sure that his work was interspersed with some fun.

In the Spring of 1919 Woodrow suffered what in retrospect look like a series of small strokes. At the time they were attributed to various causes, particularly overwork. They presaged the major stroke he suffered in October, which paralyzed his left side. In between he had more bouts of disability, especially on a September tour through the US to sell the League of Nations to the public. The tour was cut short in Utah after what would be his last speech. As their train rushed the ailing President home, Edith wrote that their life was “in ruins.”

The extent of Woodrow’s disability was not disclosed to the public, though there was much speculation that he had suffered a stroke. Even when word leaked out after four months of dissimulation, it was still unclear how ill he was. Woodrow had long suffered from high blood pressure, but at the time the only treatment was rest – which became impossible during the treaty negotiations in Europe and the fight for the League. Now Edith made sure he got plenty of rest, mostly by not letting anyone with official business see him at all.

When Woodrow’s mind was able to function some of the time, Edith took over the task of deciding what matters should be brought to his attention and what should be delegated to others in the Administration, or simply ignored. She thought work would help restore him to heath if it wasn’t too strenuous or upsetting.

Edith watched closely over her husband, acting as his gatekeeper, determining which public business was important enough to take up his limited time and energy. She spoke with the officials who wanted to talk to Woodrow and decided whom to allow into his sick room. Decisions on appointments and other matters were announced by her. All this led to speculation that she had become the first woman President. While it’s unlikely that she made any decisions, she gave the impression that she was more than her husband’s amanuensis.

There was little pressure for Woodrow to resign, partially because no one knew how much or how soon he would recover. Vice President Thomas Marshall made no effort to take over. He had been kept out of the loop since taking office in 1913, tasked solely with presiding over the Senate. Edith knew more about the affairs of state – thanks to four years of Woodrow’s tutelage – than the Vice President did.

After his Presidency ended, the Wilsons moved into a newly purchased house in Washington. Woodrow did some writing, but he was very frail, dying on February 23, 1924. Edith lived there another forty years, sharing the house with one or more siblings until her death on December 28 (Woodrow’s birthday), 1961. She spent these decades promoting her husband’s legacy, controlling access to his papers, and generally being the dean of all First Ladies. Others may have thought that she was the woman who would be President, but she never did.


I asked the reviewer: I wonder how much she influenced his decision in January 1918 to support women's suffrage "as a war measure." He had been busting the picketers outside the White house the year before, but somehow he met with Carrie Chapman Catt and they exchanged causes - she backed the war, and he backed suffrage. - FW

Answer: "Edith appears to have had no interest in Suffrage one way or the other. Woodrow moved gradually from opposition to support. One of his daughters was a suffrage supporter; she may have had some influence on her father. Read my review of the Alice Paul book [ ], or better yet, read the book." -JF