Growing up in India, as I did, one never hears about female elected officials of United States. We had our own female leaders to study that not much was taught about female leaders of other countries. But among the exception was Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of one the greatest American President. Though, she was the wife of Franklin Roosevelt, she was not known for being his wife. She, as I remember, more than any other woman, “typified… the realizaton of the dreams of the female Crusaders of the 19th century who threw off the restrictions of the Victorian age.” So when I had the opportuinity to study the life of any female American leader, I choose Eleanor Roosevelt for her achivements, her strugel and her vision of a United world. For someone who never held elective office, Eleanor Roosevelt wielded a great deal of political power. She wrote now laws and appointed no high officials, yet the self-knowledge and profound humility that invested her regard for every human being has made the story of her life a morality play that brightens the American memory. “There is no human being,” wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in one of her several columns that she frequently wrote for newspaper, from whom we cannot learn something if we are interested enough to dig deep.” This basic sense fo kinship with which she approaced the world dictated her vocation of helpfulness. The honesty with whcihc she told us of hte long path she travelded to free herself of fear and prejudice and become an independent person has placed her in that specaila pantheon reserved for shapers of the human spirit. Eleanor Roosevelt appeared on the American secent, and began being herself, out in the open wehre folks could see the process of women’s long struggle to free themselves from their husbands’s dutiful shadows.
“It is said that famous mane are usually the product of an unhappy childhood,” wrote Winston Churchill. “The stern compression of circumstance, the spur of slights and taunts in early years are needed to evoke that ruthless fixity of purpose and tenacious mother-wit without wich great actions are seldom accomplished.” His words, about an unhappy childhood shaping the reateness of later years, were applicable to Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1 make friends easily. She would have to regain her trust in the world befor she could act upon the lession her Grandfather Theodore had impressed upon his children-receive people’s love and peopld will love you.
After her father’s death a fear of loneliness and abadonment become ruling emotions in her life. She concealed such fears and longing that both shaped her approach to reality and prepared the way for deep disappointments in her relationships with others, especially men. Her memory of him strengthened her efforts to live up to his expectations of her. He had been a man of tender chivalry, and she wanted her man to behave similaryly. But men did not live upto such ideals, including the wish that they remain permanently and exclusively hers. And somewhere, too, she carried the forbidden knowledge of her father’s weakness-his bouts of drunkenness, use of drugs, and philandering. Life and hte veiled memories of her father’s frailities in time make her more tolerant of weaknesses in others.
Her other model in adolescence was Mlle Souvestre, da;ugher of a French philosophe and headmistress of Allenswood, a finishing shcool on hte outskirts of London for hte daughters of eininet European families. Sou, as Eleanor called her, was a women of flashing wit and wide learning whose milieu was the upper echelon of cultivated western European society. Her standards of morality, propriety, and learning were irreproachable.
A year after Eleanor arrived at Allenswood, Mlle Souverstre had following words for her:
All what you said when she came here of the purity of her heart, the nobleness of her thought has been veri8fied by her conduct among people who were at first perfect strangers to her. I have not found her easily influenced in anything that was not perfectly straightforward and honest but I often found she influenced others in the right direction. She is full of sympathy for all those who live with her and shows an intellighent interest in everything she comes in contact with.
Eleanor blossomed in the warm, freindly environment of Allenswood-it was as if she had started life anew. Behind her were the people who pitied her because she was an orphan or who taunted her for her virtues, and for the first time in her life all fear left her and her personality began to shine forth. “As a pupil she is very satisfactory,” Mlle Souvestre’s evalution continued, “but even that is of small account when you compare it with the perfect quality of her soul.”
Stuggle as wife in early 19th century
Eleanor returned in 1902 to the United States after three years with Mlle Souvestre. As New York society sought to engage her in its rituals, she peresents us, according to her own accounts of her coming-out, with an image of outer srecity and innter terror. Only occasionally did she reveal the anguished inner self. About this time young Franklin Roosevelt, handsome and debonair, an upperclassman at Harvard, the apple of his mother’s eye, entered Eleanor’s life in earnest. He seemed to Eleanor an improbable suitor. In any case, Franklin’s determined courship and Eleanors’s hunger for a home and family and desire to experiecen everything that was the lot of women routed all doubts. She had been brought up to regard the marriage bed as a duty and burgen and may well have meant that at that time the element of sensuality was lacking on he side. All her relationships were characterized by care, solicitude, and helpfulnes. She destroyed his courship letters, perhaps because sh found too painful the contrast between his youthful avowals of “fear nothing and be faithful unto death” contained in a poem he sent her that she quoted and his strategims of escape from intimacy of later years.
Eleanor, spirited andstrong-willed, concentrated on making her marriage a success. Friends remember those first years of her marriage as the period when Eleanor in dutiful attendance to her mother-in-law was wont to reply to the older woman, “Yes, Mama” or “No, Mama.” Her submission to her mother-in-law paralleled her meekness to Franklin at that time. In her autobiography she writes that she was jealous beyond words of other women giving him pleasure.
Beneath the subordination and surrender to her husband and mother-in-law, however, were an awareness of her own abilities and a fierce pride in her own family that led her to resent appraisals by her husbands’s or, more perticularly, her mother-in-law’s houshold.
In 1910 when Franklin Roosevelt anounced that he was going to run for a state senate race, Eleanor wrote: ” I listened to all his plans with a great deal of interest. It never occured to me that I had any part. I felt I must acquiesce in whatever he might decide and be willing to go to Albany.” Politics was man’s business, and in this particular cas he embodied the push and elan associted with the male animal, and she was the model of wifely subordination. In 1912, when Franklin fell ill while running for reelection, she took on briefly the management of the final weeks of the compaign before she too bacame sick. During the democratic convention the same year, she accompained Franklin to Baltimore. She was content to remain in hte backgroung, a position he preferred. She found the convention boring and meaningless. Her dislike for the convention spectacle always remained with her.
Under the impact of Franklin’s political nececssities and the promptings of her heart and curiosity, she was begginning to outgrow the limitations and taboos of a society that sought to preserve its rule by its exclusiveness.
Eleanor blamed herself for the way she brought up her children. She sought to play with them, to be their guid, to teach them to concentrate, as she had learned at Mlle Souvestre’s, to speak French, to be self-reliant, and to accept pain stoically, but she thought later she had “enforced a discipline which in many ways was unwise.” ” She felt a tremendous sense of duty to us,” Anna later said, “… but she did not understand to statisfy the need of a child for primary closeness to a parent.” Her children’s “wildness” scared her, for it revived memories of her self-indulgent father and uncles.
Nineteen-twenty was the first presidnetioal election in which women voted, and Franklin aslked her to join him on the campaign train, an experience that taught her much about the nuts and bolts of hte democratic process. It also markde the beginning of genuine friendship with Louis Howe. Louis sensed Eleanor’s loneliness and her interest in being more than an onlooker. He began to discuss Franklin’s speeches and campaign strategies with her. By the end of the trip, he began to plan like a Machiavelli, and the tall, queenly woman who would not permit herself airs- had a political confederate and a good friend.
After his defeat in 1920 and the passage of voting rights act for women, she started a new career of independence and self-realization. She became active in a network of organizations, many of them run by veterans of hte suffrage struggles, dedicated, kknowledgeable women. The orgainizations included the League of Women Voter, successor to the National Women’s Suffrage Association, the Women’s Trade Union League, housing and consumer movements, and the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Party.
Working at all these different places, she made several personal friends who were so different from those with whom she had grown up. Her readiness to work and good sense enchanted all. She was quickly recognized as a leader. Steadily she developed as a speaker, coached constantly by Louis. He edited her drafts, gave her pointers in delivery, and sat in the back of the hall preparing his critiques. She was active in Hyde Park and Dutchess County affairs. Such neighborly activities were worth doing on their own.
She had developed her own views with such a flair for apt statement that magazines asked her for paid pieces. One such article in 1927 had been written for Success magine. Her willingness to write for a journal with that title suggested, as did the subject itself, “What I Most Want Out of Life,” that she was not indifferent to achievement.
The article stressed the usefulness of political acitvity as a safeguard agains the emptiness of women’s lives, especially after their children were grown. “Home comes first. But-in second and third and last place there is room for countless other concerns. … And so if anyone were to ask me what I want out of life I would say – the opportunity for doing something useful, for in no other way, I am convinced, can true happpiness be attained.”
“I never wanted to be a President’s wife, and don’t want it now” Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932
A month before Roosevelt’s election, a month as black as any as the depression approached its nadir, she had done a magazine article on the meaning of relition, writing: “The worst thing that has come to us from the depression is fear. Fear of an uncertain future, fear of not being abel to meet our problems, fear of not being equipped to cope with life as we live it today.” She had her antidote, and rooted in it was the basis of her democratic faith: “The fundamental vital thing which must be alive in each human consciousness is the religious teaching that we cannot live for ourselves alone and that as long as we are here on this earth we are all of us brothers, regardless of race, creed or color.”
In the depths of the depression, she campaigned against sweatshops. She urged women to shop where decent working conditions were provided. She called for the elimination of child labor and advocated more money for teachers’ salaries. On the eve of the World Economic Conference, with foreign dignitaries trooping in and out of the White House, she addressed her press conference with an anit-isolationist plea whose intensity impressed the hard-bitten press corps.
By the end of Roosvelt’s first year, the mood of the country had changed. Eleanor shared in the adulation that flowed toward the White House from a reviving people. But it was more than that. She as much as her husband had come to personify the Roosvelt era. Bess Furman had ended her story about Mrs. Roosevelt’s debut as first lady with “Washington had never; seen the like-a social transformation had taken place with the New Deal.” And Cissy Patterson, the publisher of the Washington Herald, whom Eleanor had known in her debutante days, ended an interview with Eleanor on an unusual note of admiration: “Mrs. Roosevelt had solved the problem of living better than any woman I have ever known.”
Her days seemed to be planned so as never to allow her to be alone, and when she was alone she immersed herlsf in the papers. There were reports and manuscripts to read, articles an leattre tobe written, the latter in the thousands, many to friends and children. Long after everyone but the Secret Service agents had gone to sleep, she worked at her desk. It was as if she discovered her inner voice in thes dialogues with the people seh loved. She defined herself in relation to other people. “We are the product of the choices we have made,” she often said, but meaningful choices required self-knowledge, which she described as the ability to look at oneslf honestly. Until one could do that, one was unable to be sympathetic with or understanding of others. Always available to people and to cause, she soon became one of Washington’s legends. She tirelessy toured the nation and gave out speeches on several subjects infused them with her spontaneity and warmth.