Ruth O’Brien

Position: Professor Political Science, American Studies CP, Women’s Studies CP
Campus Affiliation: Graduate Center
Phone: 212-817-8678
Degrees/Diplomas: Ph.D, UCLA
Research Interests: American political development, social movements, intersectionality and identity politics, and American political thought/theory

Ruth O’Brien, who earned her Ph.D. in political science at UCLA, joined the Graduate Center’s doctoral faculty in 1997 and, in 2004, founded the Writing Politics specialization in political science. She also serves as an adjunct affiliated scholar with the Center for American Progress. In her research and books, she focuses on American politics, law, political theory without national borders, globalism, and American/global dichotomy. She edits the award-winning “Public Square” series for Princeton University Press, showcasing public intellectuals such as Jill Lepore, Jeff Madrick, Anne Norton, Martha Nussbaum, and Joan Scott. O’Brien is also launching “Heretical Thought,” an Oxford University Press political-theory series that is global in outlook.

O’Brien’s latest book, Out of Many One: Obama and the Third American Political Tradition (2013), with a foreword by journalist Thomas Byrnes Edsall, distinguished professor at Columbia’s School of Journalism, was honored with a 2013 “Author Meets Critic” American Political Science Association convention session. She also wrote Bodies in Revolt: Gender, Disability, and a Workplace Ethic of Care (2005), Crippled Justice: The History of Modern Disability Policy in the Workplace (2001), which received an honorable mention from Gustavus Meyers Center for the Study of Human Rights and Bigotry (Meyers Center), and Workers’ Paradox: The Republican Origins of the New Deal Labor Policy, 1886–1935 (1998).

The Writing Politics specialization emanated from two books she contributed to and edited: Telling Stories Out of Court: Narratives about Women and Workplace Discrimination (2008) and Voices from the Edge: Narratives about the Americans with Disabilities Act (2004), which earned another honorable mention from the Meyers Center. O’Brien’s controversial blog led Rush Limbaugh to dub her a “professorette.” For more, see: ruthobrien.org.

Books

Ruth O’Brien ed.,TELLING STORIES OUT OF COURT: Narratives about Women and Workplace Discrimination (New York: Cornell University Press , 2008).

“Few of the countless real-life stories of workplace discrimination suffered by men and women every day are ever told publicly. This book boldly and eloquently rights that wrong, going where no plaintiff testimony could ever dare because these stories are often too raw, honest, ambiguous, and nuanced to be told in court or reported in a newspaper.”–from the Foreword

Telling Stories out of Court reaches readers on both an intellectual and an emotional level, helping them to think about, feel, and share the experiences of women who have faced sexism and discrimination at work. It focuses on how the federal courts interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Offering insights that law texts alone cannot, the short stories collected here–all but two written for this volume–help readers concentrate on the emotional content of the experience with less emphasis on the particulars of the law. Grouped into thematic parts titled “In Their Proper Place,” “Unfair Treatment,” “Sexual Harassment,” and “Hidden Obstacles,” the narratives are combined with interpretive commentary and legal analysis that anchor the book by revealing the impact this revolutionary law had on women in the workplace.

At the same time, the stories succeed on their own terms as compelling works of fiction, from “LaKeesha’s Job Interview,” in which a woman’s ambition to move from welfare to work faces an ironic obstacle, to “Plato, Again,” in which a woman undergoing treatment for cancer finds her career crumble under her, to “Vacation Days,” which takes the reader inside the daily routine of a nanny who works at the whim of her employer.

Ruth O’Brien ed., Voices from the Edge: Narratives About the Americans With Disabilities Act (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004).

Fear, rage, courage, discrimination. These are facts of everyday life for many Americans with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), has made working, traveling, and communicating easier for many individuals. But has this significant piece of civil rights legislation helped those with disabilities become fully accepted members of society? How does an individual deal with discriminatory situations that the law cannot, does not, or will not cover? What is life like in post-ADA America? The stories in this collection give readers a chance to visualize and perhaps resolve these questions for themselves. Using the techniques of both fiction and creative non-fiction, the contributors bring to life the everyday problems that people with disabilities face. Rather than analyzing the law, the writers dramatize the complex set of issues underlying the ADA as it is practiced and interpreted around the country: at a small Southern college, in the Library of Congress, on a New York City sidewalk. The stories from these local battlegrounds form a unique portrait of a continuing struggle. Ruth O’Brien’s legal commentary on the Americans with Disabilities Act supplements these narratives. Organized analytically to reflect the ADA’s main provisions, her commentary draws out and responds to the legal issues raised in each contributor’s narrative. Discussing relevant Supreme Court and federal cases, O’Brien addresses key legal questions such as: What recourse do individuals have when enforcement of the law is ambiguous or virtually nonexistent? What is a disability? How will its changing definition affect individuals’ lives-as well as their legal actions-in the future? Voices from the Edge seeks to challenge the mindset of those who would deny equal protection to the disabled, while providing informative analysis of the intent and application of the ADA for those who wish to learn more about disability rights. Giving voice to many types of discrimination the disabled face while illustrating the personal stakes underlying legal disputes over the ADA, this collection offers unparalleled insight into the lives behind the law.

obrien_crippledjusticeRuth O’Brien, Crippled Justice: The History of Modern Disability Policy in the Workplace (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2001).

Crippled Justice, the first comprehensive intellectual history of disability policy in the workplace from World War II to the present, explains why American employers and judges, despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, have been so resistant to accommodating the disabled in the workplace. Ruth O’Brien traces the origins of this resistance to the postwar disability policies inspired by physicians and psychoanalysts that were based on the notion that disabled people should accommodate society rather than having society accommodate them. O’Brien shows how the remnants of postwar cultural values bogged down the rights-oriented policy in the 1970s and how they continue to permeate judicial interpretations of provisions under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In effect, O’Brien argues, these decisions have created a lose/lose situation for the very people the act was meant to protect. Covering developments up to the present, Crippled Justice is an eye-opening story of government officials and influential experts, and how our legislative and judicial institutions have responded to them.

obrien_workersRuth O’Brien, Workers’ Paradox: The Republican Origins of New Deal Labor Policy, 1886-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
Reinterpreting the roots of twentieth-century American labor law and politics, Ruth O’Brien argues that it was not New Deal Democrats but rather Republicans of an earlier era who developed the fundamental principles underlying modern labor policy. By examining a series of judicial rulings from the first three decades of the century, she demonstrates that the emphasis on establishing the procedural rights of workers that is usually associated with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 actually emerged over a decade earlier, in the Republican-formulated labor legislation of the 1920s.

O’Brien’s findings underscore a paradox within the foundation of labor policy and the development of liberalism in the United States. The leaders of the liberal state created a strict regulatory framework for organized labor only after realizing that the mainstream labor movement’s capacity for collective power threatened to undermine individualism and classlessness in American society. In other words, O’Brien argues, the individualism that accounts for the overall weakness of the liberal state also produced America’s statist labor policy.

OBrien_Bodies_in_RevoltRuth O’Brien, Bodies in Revolt: Gender, Disability, and a Workplace Ethic of Care (New York: Routledge, 2005).

Bodies in Revolt argues that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) could humanize capitalism by turning employers into care-givers, creating an ethic of care in the workplace. Unlike other feminists, Ruth O’Brien bases her ethics not on benevolence, but rather on self-preservation. She relies on Deleuze and Guattari’s interpretation of Spinoza and Foucault’s conception of corporeal resistance to show how a workplace ethic that is neither communitarian nor individualistic can be based upon the rallying cry “one for all and all for one.”

O’Brien contends that, to instigate such a revolt, disability must be viewed as an integral part of life, an ever-evolving, indeed, almost universal aspect of the human condition. This recognition transforms the ADA from a narrow civil rights law into the most revolutionary labor/civil rights law that the United States has ever seen. Its employment provisions would do nothing less than undercut capitalism by making employers provide reasonable accommodations on the basis of human needs instead of profits. Accommodating one person sets precedents for all. Absent a divide between individual rights and collective action, persons with disabilities become Foucauldian agents of resistance or “bodies in revolt,” undermining the standardization and dehumanization of the post-Fordist political economy.

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