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How Eleanor Roosevelt Revolutionized Politics

How Eleanor Roosevelt Revolutionized Politics

“This country,” Margaret Fuller wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century as she considered what makes a great leader, “needs… no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist, but a man whose eye reads the heavens, while his feet step firmly on the ground, and his hands are strong and dexterous for the use of human implements… a man of universal sympathies, but self-possessed; a man who knows the region of emotion, though he is not its slave; a man to whom this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value.”

Like all great seers of truth, for all her genius, Fuller was still a product of her time and place. Even as she was laying the groundwork for women’s political and civic empowerment, she chose “man” as the universal pronoun depicting the ideal leader — hers, after all, was still a time when every woman was a “man.” But how thrilled Fuller would have been to know that, exactly a century later, a leader would emerge to embody these very qualities — and she would be a woman.

eleanorroosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt (Library of Congress)

Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 7, 1962) entered the White House on March 4, 1933, as the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By the time she exited it twelve years later, she could be said to have effected more enduring social change than her husband. She had championed science as a centerpiece of a thriving democratic society, stood up for integrity and nonconformity, empowered individual citizens to take the reins of reform, and redefined the role of the First Lady not as a social decoration to the President but as a position of substantive leadership.

Roosevelt’s lasting impact on culture comes alive in These Truths (public library) — Jill Lepore’s masterful and surprisingly poetic history of the United States.

Eleanor Roosevelt visits a coal mine in Bellaire, Ohio, May 1935. (From These Truths by Jill Lepore.)

Lepore writes:

FDR’s election and the New Deal coalition also marked a turning point in another way, in the character and ambition of his wife, the indomitable Eleanor Roosevelt. Born in New York in 1884, she’d been orphaned as a child. She married FDR, her fifth cousin, in 1905; they had six children. Nine years into their marriage, Franklin began an affair with Eleanor’s social secretary, and when Eleanor found out, he refused to agree to a divorce, fearing it would end his career in politics. Eleanor turned her energies outward. During the war, she worked on international relief, and, after Franklin was struck with polio in 1921, she began speaking in public, heeding a call that brought so many women to the stage for the first time: she was sent to appear in her husband’s stead.

Eleanor Roosevelt became a major figure in American politics in her own right just at a time when women were entering political parties. It was out of frustration with the major parties’ evasions on equal rights that Alice Paul had founded the National Woman’s Party in 1916. Fearful that soon-to-be enfranchised female voters would form their own voting bloc, the Democratic and Republican Parties had then begun recruiting women. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) formed a Women’s Division in 1917, and the next year, the Republicans did the same, the party chairman pledging “to check any tendency toward the formation of a separate women’s party.” After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the League of Women Voters, steered women away from the National Woman’s Party and urged them to join one of the two major parties, advising, “The only way to get things in this country is to find them on the inside of the political party.” Few women answered that call more vigorously than Eleanor Roosevelt, who became a leader of the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Party while her husband campaigned and served as governor of the state. By 1928, she was one of the two most powerful women in American politics, head of the Women’s Division of the DNC.

Roosevelt rose to a role she never wanted, then rather than conforming to its existing template, she redefined it to suit her aptitudes and transfigured it into a platform for change — her kind of change, on her terms. Like Emily Dickinson, who revolutionized the written word and channeled infinities from the seventeen and a half square inches of her cherrywood writing desk, Roosevelt took the narrow parameters of her station and created from within them something unexampled and far-reaching. Lepore writes:

Eleanor Roosevelt, lean and rangy, wore floral dresses and tucked flowers in the brim of floppy hats perched on top of her wavy hair, but she had a spine as stiff as the steel girder of a skyscraper. She hadn’t wanted her husband to run for president, mainly because she had so little interest in becoming First Lady, a role that, with rare exception, had meant serving as a hostess at state dinners while demurring to the men when the talk turned to affairs of state. She made that role her own, deciding to use her position to advance causes she cared about: women’s rights and civil rights. She went on a national tour, wrote a regular newspaper column, and in December 1932 began delivering a series of thirteen nationwide radio broadcasts. While not a naturally gifted speaker, she earned an extraordinarily loyal following and became a radio celebrity. From the White House, she eventually delivered some three hundred broadcasts, about as many as FDR. Perhaps most significantly, she reached rural women, who had few ties to the national culture except by radio. “As I have talked to you,” she told her audience, “I have tried to realize that way up in the high mountain farms of Tennessee, on lonely ranches in the Texas plains, in thousands and thousands of homes, there are women listening to what I say.”

Eleanor Roosevelt not only brought women into politics and reinvented the role of the First Lady, she also tilted the Democratic Party toward the interests of women, a dramatic reversal. The GOP had courted the support of women since its founding in 1854; the Democratic Party had turned women away and dismissed their concerns. With Eleanor Roosevelt, that began to change. During years when women were choosing a party for the first time, more of them became Democrats than Republicans. Between 1934 and 1938, while the numbers of Republican women grew by 400 percent, the numbers of Democratic women grew by 700 percent.

In January 1933, she announced that she intended to write a book. “Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who has been one of the most active women in the country since her husband was elected President, is going to write a 40,000-word book between now and the March inauguration,” the Boston Globe reported, incredulous. “Every word will be written by Mrs. Roosevelt herself.”

It’s Up to the Women came out that spring. Only women could lead the nation out of the Depression, she argued — by frugality, hard work, common sense, and civic participation. The “really new deal for the people,” Eleanor Roosevelt always said, had to do with the awakening of women.

Complement this fragment of Lepore’s rigorous and riveting These Truths with Adrienne Rich on the antidote to the white male capitalist model, then revisit Eleanor Roosevelt’s breathtaking love letters to Lorena Hickok.

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