Eunice Kennedy Shriver, "A Feminist Before That Was Cool," Dies At 88

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics and matriarch of the Kennedy/Shriver clan, died today at the age of 88, surrounded by her husband, her five children, and her 19 grandchildren.

Sister of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Ted Kennedy, Shriver had graduated from Stanford with a degree in sociology, then worked with prisoners of war and at a women's prison, before starting a summer day camp for disabled children in her backyard. The camp was inspired by a friend, she once recalled, who couldn't find summer activities for her intellectually disabled child. She told NPR,

I said: ‘You don't have to talk about it anymore. You come here a month from today. I'll start my own camp. No charge to go into the camp, but you have to get your kid here, and you have to come and pick your kid up.'

The camp grew to become the Special Olympics, which had its first international competition in Chicago in 1968. The Special Olympics were inspired in part by Shriver's sister Rosemary, who was institutionalized after a failed lobotomy, and whose intellectual disabilities Shriver disclosed to the world in a 1962 article in The Saturday Evening Post. The Special Olympics provided one of the first venues for intellectually disabled children to excel athletically — many of them had been previously excluded from all sports, leading to high rates of obesity. In a statement today, President Obama said that Shriver "will be remembered [...] as a champion for people with intellectual disabilities, and as an extraordinary woman who, as much as anyone, taught our nation – and our world – that no physical or mental barrier can restrain the power of the human spirit."

One of the most striking things about Shriver is that she combined having a family with fulfilling work at a time when this was not particularly easy. She and her loved ones describe these two parts of her life as equally important. Shriver said,

Most people believe I spent my whole life really interested in only one thing and that one thing is working to make the world a better place for people with intellectual disabilities. As important as it has been, it is not the whole story of my life. My life is about being lucky as a child to be raised by parents who loved me and made me believe in possibilities. It is also about being lucky to have had these extraordinary children

Her daughter, Maria Shriver, wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger, recalled in 2004,

She was certainly a feminist before that was cool or out there, and yet she always combined it with talking about motherhood. She raised me to believe you are as good as the boys, as tough and as competitive as the boys, and you need to do something to help the world.

Shriver's father Joseph Kennedy once said of her, "If that girl had been born with balls, she would have been a hell of a politician." Her accomplishments were such that the U.S. News & World Report wrote in 1993 that, "When the full judgment of the Kennedy legacy is made [...] the changes wrought by Eunice Shriver may well be seen as the most consequential." We can only imagine what she would have done had she been born in a time when feminism was cool. That time may not be here yet — but perhaps Shriver's example will hasten it.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver Dies At 88 [Wall Street Journal]
Eunice Kennedy Shriver Dies [CNN]
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Founder Of Special Olympics, Dies At 88 [New York Times]
Obama Statement On Passing Of Eunice Kennedy Shriver [The Page]