Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill
National Park Service site on Eleanor's house, Val-Kill
Sit Still, Eleanor! -- The First Lady of the World
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There are many reasons why I love my job as a Trekker: traveling around the country, meeting interesting people, writing and doing research, and, of course, my fellow trekkers. The best part, though, the experience that makes me wake up with a smile, is stumbling upon a truly amazing story, one that validates my work and moves me to tears.
The story of Eleanor Roosevelt, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's wife, managed to do all that.
To prepare this dispatch, I did all the things a trekker should do -- I visited Eleanor Roosevelt's home, watched a video on her life, interviewed people, read articles, and took photos. And yet, I long for more. I want to read more books, talk to more people, take more notes. Her life's work and the legacy she left behind are fascinating! To condense her achievements to this dispatch seems rude. But its what I have to do, so here goes. Take a deep breath, grab some Kleenex, and prepare to be awed.
Bringing Back Memories from Africa...
Let's begin with a wish, one that was repeated by the maids, secretaries, chauffeurs and Secret Service men who followed Mrs. Roosevelt around: "Dear God, please make Eleanor tired." Some people hoped she would sit still. After all, she traveled more than 50,000 miles by plane, rail and car during her first fifteen months in the White House. Most, however, were simply overwhelmed by this precedent-shattering first lady who defied many conventions and did what she wanted, when she wanted. The list below, from an article published in 1937 (four years into her husband's first term in office), describes Eleanor's "firsts" as first lady:
- She is the first president's wife to continue her own career in the White House.
- The first to hold regular press conferences.
- The first to travel by air.
- The first to have traveled so widely, so extensively and tirelessly, and to have examined conditions at first hand and under all situations.
- The first to drive her own car on long trips and to refuse the guard of Secret Service men except when she was with the President.
- The first to walk unrecognized among miners' wives in West Virginia and to descend into the mines in the regular cage for first-hand inspection of conditions.
- The first to wander as a tourist in San Francisco.
- The first to announce with courage and dignity that her son (Elliot) was seeking a divorce.
- The first to write a syndicated newspaper column.
It's an impressive list. However, it doesn't tell the whole story. It doesn't explain what compelled Eleanor to descend into the mines of West Virginia, what drove her to write a newspaper column (called "My Day" and published six days a week in 40 newspapers up until her death in 1962), and what urged her to assert her independence by driving and walking alone.
The force driving Eleanor was her belief that everyone deserved a shot at a decent life. She spent her own life rallying for the poor, the oppressed, the unfairly treated and the unjustly accused. She broke down racial barriers before the civil rights movement gained mainstream recognition, defended women's right long before it was acceptable to do so, and pushed for world peace and human rights long before they seemed attainable.
Her compassion was all the more striking because she came from a privileged and wealthy background. As members of New York's social elite, her parents went to parties and entertained guests almost every night. Eleanor could have settled for a leisurely life of comfort. But instead of doing what was socially expected, she did what she believed was morally right. According to Diana Rose, administrator of the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill, "The more I learn about her, the more I admire her. She really had to be such a loving and decent human being. She didn't have to do all the things she did because she came from such a privileged background."
Eleanor did receive some criticism from the press and the public. After all, women -- and first ladies -- in the '20s and '30s weren't exactly expected to give press conferences. But when some people suggested that she should stay at home taking care of her family, she remarked that "the conception of a home comprising only the four walls of a house was too outmoded."
Ha! It's a testament to Eleanor's single-mindedness that she was able not only to challenge her critics, but also to change people's concept of what a President's wife ought to do and be. For instance, a Gallup poll conducted in January 1939 gave her a 67% approval rating, despite the fact that she was driving her own car and doing other unconventional things. A New York Times editorial stated: "This is new in American history, and many old-fashioned persons will criticize it . . . but many other persons will welcome Mrs. Roosevelt's emergence . . . because they hold that a woman's place is by her husband's side when he is beleaguered, others because they look upon her as a great leader. Some of the latter have indeed uttered the hope that she will prove to be her husband's choice for nomination as his successor. Stranger things have not happened, but they could." Wow. The New York Times in 1940, toying with the idea that Eleanor could become President! How cool is that?!
Well, not as cool as Eleanor's stance on race relations. She became good friends with African American leader Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, and NAACP leader Walter White. Just after FDR was inaugurated for the first time in 1933, Eleanor invited black leaders to the White House, which at the time was considered shocking. At the Southern Conference on Human Welfare in Alabama in 1939, she protested the conference's segregated seating policy by placing her chair in the aisle -- in the middle of the segregated sections! Also in 1939, she resigned her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) after it denied an African American singer, Marian Anderson, the right to perform in its hall. The list goes on: Eleanor urged FDR to appoint Bethune to head a federal agency (the first black woman to be appointed), visited black sharecroppers in their homes, supported anti-lynching legislation and championed civil rights.
After FDR died in 1945, Eleanor retired to her home (known as Val-Kill) for a time. But as soon as World War II ended, she was back, this time pouring all her energy into establishing world peace through the formation of the United Nations. She was appointed by President Truman to the U.S. delegation to the U.N. conference in London and then headed the U.N. Commission on Human Rights until 1953. Her proudest achievement was spearheading the U.N. General Assembly's adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
That's the part that made me blink back tears. In my opinion, the Declaration of Human Rights is the greatest document ever written -- if enacted, it would end poverty, human suffering, wars and exploitation. Some people consider it too idealistic, but I think it's a beautiful expression of humanity's potential for doing good.
Eleanor's extensive humanitarian missions, including trips to concentration camps after World War II, earned her the title "First Lady of the World." When she died at the age of 78, her friend Adlai Stevenson remarked, "What other human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many? She walked in the slums and ghettos of the world, not on a tour of inspection . . . but as one who could not feel contentment when others were hungry."
Eloquent as Stevenson was, Eleanor herself was even more so. While teaching at Todhunter School in the '20s, she advised her female students, "Don't dry up by inaction, but go out and do new things. Learn new things and see new things with your own eyes."
In the summer before her death, Eleanor dictated in a barely audible voice, "This I believe with all my heart. If we want a free and peaceful world, if we want to make the desert bloom and man grow to greater dignity as a human being -- we can do it!"
In her book Tomorrow is Now, Eleanor wrote: "Nothing can stop us but inaction, lack of imagination, lack of courage, and lack of trained knowledge.""Poverty is an expensive luxury. We cannot afford it.""We make our own history. The course of history is directed by the choices we make and our choices grow out of the ideas, the beliefs, the values, the dreams of the people.""I am convinced that one of the reasons why our young people today feel uncertain is that they are not being trained to examine questions, to decide for themselves on a method of action -- and then to act."
These words are all the more powerful because Eleanor backed them up with actions. She lived her ideals and led by example, unwavering in her quest for social justice. She brought about fundamental change and broke down racial and gender barriers. Most importantly, she taught us that one person can make a difference.
As Eleanor said, "The future is literally in our hands to mold as we like. But we cannot wait until tomorrow. Tomorrow is now."
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P.S. The Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill (ERVK) was founded in 1977 and is devoted to carrying out Eleanor's legacy. ERVK deals with issues such as human rights, racial and gender equality and the responsibilities of citizenship. I had the pleasure of meeting Diana Rose and finding out about some of interesting projects sponsored by ERVK. The coolest one is the "Girls' Leadership Workshop," a program for girls entering their sophomore or junior years in high school. Check out their website, http://www.ervk.org, for more details and find out how you can participate!
Links to Other Dispatches
"Championing a Champion: ER and the Marian Anderson 'Freedom Concert'" by Allida
M. Black, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Fall 1990.
"The Future of E.R." by Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, Harpers, Jan, 1940.
"Eleanor Roosevelt: A Centennial of Remembrance and Reappraisal" by various
authors, Social Education, Nov/Dec 1984.
"Tireless Lady: Eleanor Roosevelt Charms as Public Precedent Breaker," The Literary
Digest, Jan 23, 1937.
"The Real Eleanor" by Blanche Wiesen Cook, Ms., Sep 1984.
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