October 11, 1884– Eleanor Roosevelt
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home… so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood they live in; the school or college they attend; the factory, farm, or office where they work. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
She did not set out to become a hero or a person of power; she simply wanted to become a wife. In doing so, she afforded herself the chance to start a tide of change in this country. The ripples are still being felt today.
When I am questioned about my political beliefs, I answer: “I am in favor of all the good things & I am against all the bad things.”
Most often the questioner will shoot back: “What does that mean?”
I smartly return with: “If you need me to clarify, I am concerned for you.”
If really pressed, I could explain further: “I am an FDR style Democrat. I believe in a strong active Federal Government and I believe in great public works: Infrastructure, Universities, Arts, and Science/Technology. There is work to be done in this country!”
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born to a high society New York family. The Roosevelts were poised to be a political dynasty, with her uncle Theodore, on the path to be President someday. The family came from Dutch aristocracy and young Roosevelt spent her first years in luxury and with an air of high achievement.
She was not a pretty girl. She had buck teeth and a troubled grin. A solemn child with good manners, she stumbled and stammered with her words.
Roosevelt became an orphan at 10 years old. She was shipped off to England for finishing school in London. She blossomed there. In her studies, it was the subjects involving human suffering and injustice that held her interest. Having always lived in the lap of luxury, the concept of not having enough to eat, facing prejudice every day, or having no shelter came as a terrible shock to young Roosevelt.
Back in New York, her distant cousin, Franklin, was a part of her social circle. He was a rising political star. He dreamed one day of following in the footsteps of his famous relative, Theodore and becoming President of The United States. They became close friends with a special understanding of where their relationship was heading. They married and started a family. During the first 11 years of their marriage, they had six children, a girl and five boys. Roosevelt became involved in the League Of Women Voters and the Women’s Trade Union while her husband was serving in the State Senate of New York.
In their 13th year as a couple, Roosevelt discovered, from letters her husband had left lying around, that he was having a love affair with another woman. She experienced an overwhelming sense of loneliness. A devoted wife for so many years, Roosevelt had built her life around her husband, paying little attention to her own identity. The Roosevelts decided to patch up their relationship, but Eleanor had found that she needed to seek a life outside of her marriage and her own sense of purpose.
Equality became her life’s work: Child Labor, Workers’ Rights and the creation of a Minimum Wage became her passions. Her work made her more politically astute. This proved to be extremely advantageous when, at 39 years old, her husband was struck down by polio and she traveled the country as his “eyes and ears”. She reported the country’s needs back to her husband so he could build his positions and election campaigns around them. He had the Presidential persona, she had the political brains.
In 1933 when FDR became President, he inherited a broken USA. The Wall Street Crash of 1919 had spun into a full blown Depression. The center of the country was a giant dustbowl. Banks were shutting, unable to pay out to their customers, unemployment was at record levels and many families were living way below the poverty level. Sounds like 2008, right? The task facing FDR must have seemed overwhelming.
The Roosevelt marriage was now a purely professional partnership. While on the campaign trail, the new First Lady met with a top female reporter, Lorena Hickock. The pair fell passionately in love. Hickock decided to leave her promising newspaper career and take the job at the White House which was offered to her by the sympathetic and womanizing President.
The President and First Lady began a radical overhaul of the entire country. The First Lady’s style could clearly be seen in the New Deal, the name the Roosevelts gave to their sweeping changes made to the system of government. The banks were forced to open again and changes were made to the way they were run.
In a move that would make today’s Republicans heads explode, government agencies were set up to deal with every aspect of the Great Depression. The acronyms were flying. There was an agency created to cover nearly every social problem: The CCC: Civilian Conservation Corps found jobs to the unemployed; The AAA: Agricultural Adjustment Administration set to sorting out the devastated farming land; a little agency titled The SSA: Social Security Administration was put in charge of relief payments. Over 20 new agencies were set up within the first year of the President’s term.
All of the reforms of the New Deal had Eleanor Roosevelt’s political fingerprints all over them. She was the strongest figure in FDR’s Presidency. During the economic recovery, she traveled the country ensuring that everything was going as planned. It was during this time that she began the radical step of sounding her objections to America’s blatant racism. Eleanor took the bold step of insisting black workers be given the same rights as whites. She refused to attend a conference when told that she could not sit in the “black section” with a pair of her friends. Her actions were very unpopular in this country.
Americans became obsessed with hunting out communists. With her social and humanitarian conscience, and concern for black people, Roosevelt was branded a Communist.
The FBI began dogging Eleanor Roosevelt. As the President’s wife, and with the knowledge of her huge input into the running of the country, certain people felt that a close eye needed to be kept on her work and her politics. In thousands of pages of letters, articles and public hearsay, her life was documented in the smallest detail.
But, the most intimate documents relating to her love life are now largely lost. Her beloved Hickock encouraged Roosevelt to write her a letter each evening when they were apart. In these letters Roosevelt spoke in detail of her affection for Hickock:
“I want lie down with you and hold you in my arms, I adore your soft caress and gentle kiss”.
The letters left no ambiguity about their relationship. Immediately after Hickock’s death, her family burned all the letters. The true story of their love affair went up in flames.
FDR died, while still in office, in 1945. He had been President since 1933. Roosevelt approached the new President offering her service. Harry Truman saw her potential and the public sympathy for her. He gave her a position as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. Later, she would become Chairperson Of The UN Human Rights Commission, giving her the huge responsibility of overseeing the drafting of the UN’s Universal Declaration Of Human Rights.
Roosevelt left this world in 1968, taken by TB at 78 years old. She lived one of the greatest political careers in history. She had played a huge part in fight for equality for both minorities and women and by the late 1960s the battle was starting to bring small victories.
Roosevelt’s gayness was closely guarded by those around her, even after she was gone. Although the idea of Gay Rights was mostly unheard of during her lifetime, Roosevelt knew her sexuality would undoubtedly put her in a minority group that America was oppressing at every opportunity. This could possibly be the impetus for taking on causes that no other white woman would have dreamed of touching. Although she was the nation’s First Lady, her work as the President’s wife has been a hard act for the wives of future Presidents to follow.
I don’t believe it matters how you get to be who you are, even if you reach your position of authority by marrying the right person. Eleanor Roosevelt’s positions required bravery, brilliance and benevolence. She made a difference in this world.
“Do what you feel is right in your heart. Let it to be right for you. You will be criticized anyway. You are damned if you do, you are damned if you don’t.”
You simply must watch all eight hours of Ken Burn’s The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014) available on PBS On Demand.