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Who Is Ethel Kennedy?

Ethel Kennedy is a beacon of resilience and advocacy, the widow of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Her life is a tapestry of political legacy and personal courage, woven through America's most turbulent times. As she championed social justice, her story became synonymous with strength. Discover how Ethel's enduring spirit has shaped history—what will her next chapter inspire in you?
Sarah Sullins
Sarah Sullins

Ethel Kennedy was born Ethel Skakel in Chicago, Illinois on 11 April 1928. She was the sixth child of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother named George and Anne Skakel. She would eventually come to be known as the wife of Senator Robert Kennedy, a loving mother, and a dedicated public servant.

Her father, George, began his career working as a clerk for the railroad. With the help of some of his friends and coworkers, he developed a privately owned coke and coal company that greatly increased his wealth. When Ethel Kennedy was five years old, her father and mother moved her and her six siblings to a large house in Greenwich, Connecticut, where she attended the Greenwich Academy and the Covenant of the Sacred Heart.

Ethel Kennedy was the wife of Robert F. Kennedy.
Ethel Kennedy was the wife of Robert F. Kennedy.

During the fall of 1945, Ethel enrolled in Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart. She quickly befriended a fellow student named Jean Kennedy. Eventually, Ethel was introduced to Jean’s brother, Robert, who dated Ethel’s sister Patricia for a short time.

When Robert Kennedy and Patricia Skakel parted ways, Ethel and Robert began to date. In February 1950, the two became engaged, and they were married in June of the same year. After their marriage, Robert and Ethel Kennedy moved to Charlottesville, Virginia so Robert could complete his law degree. There Ethel gave birth to her first child, Kathleen. She would go on to have ten more children with Robert.

Ethel Kennedy was the sister-in-law to President John F. Kennedy.
Ethel Kennedy was the sister-in-law to President John F. Kennedy.

After finishing his law degree, Robert and Ethel moved their growing family to Washington, D.C., where he worked in a number of governmental roles. During this time, Ethel was busy at home with the children, but she found time to entertain a number of the political guests and artisans who came to visit the family’s 13 bedroom mansion. The parties that took place under Ethel’s supervision were thought to be extraordinary.

Two years after the untimely death of her parents in a plane crash, Ethel Kennedy’s husband decided to run for a position with the Senate Select committee, and Ethel delved deeply into the world of politics. The public adored her sense of humor and her personality. She also played an instrumental role in the campaign for presidency of her brother-in-law, John F. Kennedy.

Ethel Kennedy and her children supported and campaigned for Robert, and he ended up winning the title of US senator. She also stood by his side as he campaigned for president of the United States. When Robert was shot three times and killed during his 1968 presidential campaign, Ethel was three months pregnant with their eleventh child.

During the 1970s, Ethel spent much of her time doing performing public services. Much of her time was spent helping the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Project, which had been initiated by her husband. Personal struggles during the 1980s and 1990s prevented her from pursuing other areas of public service.

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Discussion Comments


She was indeed very lovely woman. Both Robert and Ethel made such a great couple, an ideal one. Both loyal to each other and their children.

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    • Ethel Kennedy was the wife of Robert F. Kennedy.
      By: Center for Jewish History, NYC
      Ethel Kennedy was the wife of Robert F. Kennedy.
    • Ethel Kennedy was the sister-in-law to President John F. Kennedy.
      By: City of Boston Archives
      Ethel Kennedy was the sister-in-law to President John F. Kennedy.