When talking about the Kennedys, the names most often spoken are JFK, Bobby and Ted. But in a new biography, their sister Eunice takes center stage.
In the book, “Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World,” author Eileen McNamara offers a rare look at how Eunice Kennedy Shriver became a political force in her own right as a leading advocate for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
“She was an ambitious woman at a time when it was difficult to be an ambitious woman in any family. But to be an ambitious woman in that family — where you’re invisible — was really hard,” McNamara told Greater Boston Wednesday.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and director of the journalism department at Brandeis University told host Jim Braude she was motivated to write about Kennedy Shriver because it's “too easy to write women out of history.” She pointed to a “disparity” in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s and his sister's obituaries as an example.
“One of the things that struck me the most was the photo array in the New York Times [obituary] of Sen. Ted Kennedy misidentified all the women. So, it was as if they were interchangeable or invisible," said McNamara. The senator and his sister died just weeks apart.
McNamara said Kennedy Shriver's drive to reform mental health care stemmed in part from the treatment of her sister, Rosemary. Rosemary Kennedy was born with mild intellectual disabilities and, with her family in search of a cure, underwent a lobotomy, which ultimately failed.
“I think she had a lot of rage about the way that Rosemary was treated,” McNamara said, noting that during this time, Kennedy Shriver didn’t see her sister for at least 10 years.
Kennedy Shriver's advocacy for mental health eventually led to the founding of the Special Olympics.
Though Kennedy Shriver was never a politician, McNamara said she was uniquely adept at pushing for change and credits her for influencing her brother, President John F. Kennedy’s agenda.
Asked what the readers should take away from the book, McNamara said, simply, to “stop overlooking women.”