Brigid O’Farrell’s lecture on Monday, April 23 was part of her initiative to put Eleanor Roosevelt’s “commitment to labor unions and women’s rights in the national dialog,” she told students, faculty and members of the community gathered at Worcester State University for the Women’s Studies Department’s annual Sharbach Lecture.
O’Farrell said she broke new ground by researching this aspect of Roosevelt’s life. “It took me a long time to put this story together,” she said. What she learned is that “while circumstances have changed, the arguments she made have held steadfast.”
Roosevelt, a woman born into privilege, the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt and the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, advocated for unionized labor, fair labor practices, women’s issues and right to work, human rights, and eventually the Equal Rights Amendment over the course of 26 years. O’Farrell noted that she wrote 27 books and more than 8,000 newspaper columns titled “My Day,” gave more than 50 speeches a year, and had one of the first television shows in 1958.
As a syndicated columnist, she joined the Newspaper Guild. “It would be extraordinary for a First Lady to be a member of a union today; it was in 1936,” O’Farrell said.
Roosevelt’s most notable and lasting accomplishment was her work as a UN delegate appointed by President Harry Truman. When she became the chair of the UN’s Human Rights Commission, she helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
She agreed with leaders of the AFL and CIO unions that economic and social rights should be recognized alongside human and civil rights in the declaration, O’Farrell explained. She also advocated that the declaration be written in language ordinary people could understand. It passed 48-0 with the Soviet Union abstaining.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy once again made her a delegate to the United Nations, and he selected her to serve as chair of the Commission on the Status of Women.
Roosevelt’s activism earned her the careful attention of the FBI under Director J. Edgar Hoover; she had one of the largest FBI files dating back to the 1920s, O’Farrell said. The Ku Klux Klan also had a bounty on her head.
After the lecture, O’Farrell signed copies of her book She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker. She gave a second lecture, “The Challenge of Archives and Audiences, Union and Universities,” during which she discussed her research methods, later that night.
The lecture series was named after the late Dr. Sarah Sharbach, who taught history at WSU. During her time here, she was a human rights activist for abuse and violence. Her commitment continued even after she learned that she had breast cancer in 2000. She passed away in 2004, but her legacy lives on through this lecture series.