Google+ Badge

Monday, January 14, 2013

Eleanor Roosevelt: A Power "Granny" For the Ages

“Happiness is not a goal...
it's a by-product of a life well lived.”
- Eleanor Roosevelt (1888-1962)

I love biography that reveals the struggles of a life complicated by the environment and by the times. Through glimpses of individual behaviors and the words of others, we can learn so much about unique human beings who rose to defeat adversity and climb to great stature. We can also find in the lives of biographical subjects some answers to our own questions about perseverance and living a good life.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a remarkable woman. What a study for those who feel self absorbed and righteous because they perceive their personal lives aren't fair or exceedingly happy. As a woman who, quite frankly, now would be stereotyped as too homely and too “out of fashion” to be taken seriously by the glamour-seeking masses, Eleanor gracefully taught the world a lesson about avoiding the snares of riches and the pitfalls of high social position.

Eleanor lived a dignified life while expressing great fortitude, boundless initiative, and outstanding service despite many personal problems that threatened to make her a pawn. In brief, her life demonstrated the model existence of a person determined to rise about the calculated grip of others to become herself – a loving and caring individual.

A Brief Biography of Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City in 1884, the daughter of Elliot Roosevelt and Anna Hall Roosevelt. She entered the world as a child of immense wealth and privilege. Her family was part of New York high society called the “swells.” She was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Though she was born into a family of incredible wealth and privilege, Eleanor's young life was not easy. Her experiences led to early maturity. Eleanor's father was an alcoholic and her mother, whom she regarded as "the most beautiful woman (she had) ever seen" was disappointed in her daughter's looks.

This criticism increasingly made young Eleanor profoundly self-conscious about her demeanor and appearance, her mother even going so far as to nickname her "Granny" for her "very plain," and "old fashioned" personality. Remembering her childhood, Eleanor later wrote, "I was a solemn child without beauty. I seemed like a little old woman entirely lacking in the spontaneous joy and mirth of youth." Despite her early insecurity, she taught herself that beauty mattered little, and she devoted herself to her studies.

Both parents passed away before Eleanor was ten. Her mother died from diphtheria when Roosevelt was eight, Her father, although handsome and charming, suffered from frequent mental depression and alcoholism. He was confined to a sanitarium, and he died less than two years later when he tried to jump from a window during a fit of delirium tremens.

In addition to losing her parents at a very young age, Eleanor also lost one of her brothers, Elliot Jr., to diphtheria a year after her mother succumbed to the disease. These experiences seemed to age her, a person already considered “old” for her years. In addition, Eleanor's childhood losses left her prone to depression throughout her life.

After the deaths of her parents, Roosevelt was raised in the household of her maternal grandmother, Mary Ludlow Hall in Tivoli, New York. Her grandmother sheltered Eleanor from all outside contact except for family acquaintances. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, Joseph P. Lash described her during this period of childhood as insecure and starved for affection, considering herself the "ugly duckling."

Eleanor was educated by private tutors until age 15. Then, in 1899, Eleanor was dispatched by her grandmother to a finishing school in England, Allenswood Academy, where all classes were conducted in French. For three years, she studied languages and literature and traveled periodically on the continent.

The headmistress of Allenswood, Marie Souvestre, was a noted feminist educator who sought to cultivate independent thinking in the young women in her charge. Souvestre took a special interest in Roosevelt, and according to Eleanor's first cousin, Corinne Robinson, she soon became “everything at the school and beloved by everybody.” In particular, Eleanor's critical thinking skills seemed to blossom. Souvestre invited Eleanor to be her traveling companion through France and Italy during holiday breaks from school while encouraging her to be an independent and confident woman.

And, Eleanor did grow into a very self-confident young woman. One of her great moments at her school at Allenswood was when she made the field hockey team. Roosevelt wished to continue at Allenswood, but in 1902, she was summoned home by her grandmother to make her social debut, thus ending her formal education.

At the age of 17, Eleanor was “presented” at a debutante ball at the Waldorf-Astoria. But, she felt the life of a debutante to be too stifling. Here was a woman nearly 6 feet tall and willowy, with prominent teeth and a weak chin - not the social belle that her mother had been and that her grandmother wished her to be.

Instead of contributing to patronizing with high society, her early life experiences led Roosevelt to empathize with the downtrodden. After all, she knew money couldn't buy everything. Eleanor had already lost her family, and she understood discrimination.

Then, many people underestimated the will of Eleanor Roosevelt because of her gender and physical appearance. Undaunted, she involved herself in the Rivington Street Settlement, where she taught dancing, literature and calisthenics. Eleanor wanted to help others. She visited needy children in the slums and investigated working conditions in garment factories and department stores.

In the summer of 1902, Eleanor encountered her father's fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, on a train to Tivoli, New York. The two began a secret correspondence and romance, and became engaged on November 22, 1903. Of their meeting, she said later, "He was young and gay and good-looking, and I was shy and awkward and thrilled when he asked me to dance."

Franklin's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, opposed the union, and made Franklin promise that the engagement would not be officially announced for a year. "I know what pain I must have caused you," Franklin wrote his mother of his decision. But, he added, "I know my own mind, and known it for a long time, and know that I could never think otherwise."

Sara took her son on a Caribbean cruise in 1904, hoping that a separation would squelch the romance, but Franklin remained determined. The wedding date was fixed to accommodate President Teddy Roosevelt, who agreed to give the bride away.

Despite the objections of Sara Roosevelt, Franklin and Eleanor were married in March 1905. The couple spent a preliminary honeymoon of one week at Hyde Park, then set up housekeeping in an apartment in New York. That summer they went on their formal honeymoon, a three-month tour of Europe.

From 1906 to 1916, the Roosevelts had six children, one of whom, a boy, died in infancy. Eleanor herself, having not had much of a childhood of her own, felt inadequate as a mother. She didn't know how to play with her children and struggled with FDR's mother Sara, who had given them a townhouse and who lived next door. (The dwellings were actually connected by sliding doors.) Despite her busy home life, Eleanor became active in public service during World War I, working for the American Red Cross.

Of course, Franklin loved the public eye and didn't really understand Eleanor's struggles to overcome her shyness and insecurities. Early on, Eleanor had a breakdown in which she explained to Franklin that "I did not like to live in a house which was not in any way mine, one that I had done nothing about and which did not represent the way I wanted to live", but little changed.

Sara also sought to control the raising of her grandchildren, and Eleanor reflected later that "Franklin's children were more my mother-in-law's children than they were mine.” Eleanor's son James remembered Sara telling her grandchildren, "Your mother only bore you, I am more your mother than your mother is."

In 1918, while unpacking a suitcase of Franklin's, Eleanor discovered that her husband had been having a long-term affair (one of several of FDR's extra-marital relationships) with her personal secretary Lucy Page Mercer, She offered to divorce him. However, following pressure from Franklin's political advisor Louis Howe and from his mother Sara, they remained married.

His mother advised him that divorce and subsequent remarriage to a Catholic would create seemingly insurmountable public relations impediments to his intended national political ambitions and that she would further cut off his inheritance which afforded him the luxury of not having to earn a salary to support himself and his family. Turning down Eleanor Roosevelt’s offer of divorce, FDR further promised that he would end his relationship with Mercer (a promise he did not keep).
The couple maintained the marriage in name, but not in spirit. Disillusioned, Eleanor again became active in public life, and focused increasingly on her social work rather than on her role as a wife, as she had for the previous decade. For emotional support and intimacy, she turned to others. According to her biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor loved and frequently traveled with Lorena Hickok, an AP reporter assigned to follow her when she was the First Lady.

The Roosevelts’ marriage settled into a routine in which both principals kept independent agendas while remaining respectful of and affectionate toward each other. But their relationship had ceased to be an intimate one. Later, Mercer and other glamorous, witty women continued to attract Franklin's attention and claim his time.

In August 1921, the family was vacationing at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, when Franklin was stricken with polio, which permanently paralyzed his legs. When the extent of his disability became clear, Eleanor finally asserted her will over her mother-in-law, persuading Franklin to stay in politics despite Sara's urgings that he retire and become a country gentleman. Eleanor nursed Franklin back into activity, and he regained his strength and political ambitions.

This proved a turning point in Eleanor and Sara's long-running struggle, and as Eleanor's public role grew, she became increasingly independent of Sara's control. Tensions between Sara and Eleanor over her new political friends rose to the point that the family constructed a cottage, Val-Kill, which Eleanor and her guests lived in when Franklin and the children were away from Hyde Park.

Eleanor soon became Franklin's “legs” and “ears.” After Franklin became governor of New York in 1928, she kept busy inspecting state hospitals, homes, and prisons for her husband. FDR owed a great deal of his political success to Eleanor. She mastered public speaking (no small feat for a girl known for her shyness) and frequently represented her husband.

During the 1932 Presidential election, Eleanor organized the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee, mobilizing thousands of female precinct workers.

When her husband became president in 1933, Eleanor dramatically changed the role of the first lady. She quickly became the best known and the most criticized first lady in American history. Not content to stay in the background and handle domestic matters, she showed the world that the First Lady was an important part of American politics. She became FDR's most important, and most progressive adviser. No First Lady before or since – not even Hillary Clinton – has had as much influence while her husband was president.

Eleanor gave press conferences and spoke out for human rights, children's causes, and women's issues, working on behalf of the League of Women Voters. She even had her own newspaper column, "My Day." The First Lady usually dictated the day’s column to her secretary or, when she traveled solo, pecked it out on a typewriter herself.

The president's wife was not afraid to speak her own mind, even if her views did not coincide with the views of the president. In “My Day,” for example, she announced and explained her resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution over the organization’s refusal to lease their auditorium to permit African-American contralto singer Marian Anderson to perform there.

By 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt’s views had evolved to the point where equality of all races had become one of her core values as a person. Far more than her husband, she believed the U.S. government had a moral duty to initiate and enforce changes that furthered or ensured racial equality. This was viewed by the larger white population at that time as nothing short of radical, yet it never persuaded her to restrain her words and deeds.

She showed her opposition to segregation laws when she came to the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in November of 1938, in Birmingham, Alabama, and moved her chair into the aisle, between the “whites-only” and “colored-only” sections.

The First Lady vigorously and unapologetic ally pressed the President to support a proposed anti-lynching law – but he failed to do so, due to FDR’s practical realization that southern Democrats might abandon his ongoing and future legislative agenda. She also sought support for the bill elsewhere, such as the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.

Eleanor also became the first white resident of Washington, D.C. to join the local chapters of both the NAACP and National Urban League, becoming the first white D.C. resident to respond to the group’s membership drives.

In 1936, she attended and addressed the annual conventions of both organizations. She worked in tandem with these organizations and also on individual efforts. She worked actively as a chair of the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax. Within the New Deal programs of the federal government, she made efforts to forge more racial equity.

Eleanor pushed for those administering the Agricultural Adjustment Act to acknowledge how white landowners regularly discriminated against African-Americans and similarly pressured the Resettlement Administration to do so on behalf of black sharecroppers. She sought to make certain that African-Americans were paid the same wage within the ranks of administrative workers in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.

Eleanor also focused on helping the country's poor, stood against racial discrimination and, during World War II, traveled abroad to boost the morale of the U.S. Troops and to inspect Red Cross facilities. She boldly addressed the moral necessity of civil rights, for example, in magazines ranging from The Saturday Evening Post to The American Magazine to The New Republic.

Eleanor became a dependable voice for those in need, including working women, African Americans, youth, and tenant farmers. She also became a key contact within President Franklin's administration for officials seeking the president's support.

During her tenure as First Lady, it is estimated that she gave about 1,400 speeches. She wrote all of them herself, although it was usually a mere outline rather than a prepared text from which she spoke. On occasion, she relied on experts in or out of the federal government to provide specifics or statistics to bolster the case she might be making in the speech.
Initially, her presentations lacked impact due to their rambling nature, her own strident, high-pitched voice and highly distinct elite-class accent. Never a relaxed public speaker, she did learn to hone her message and modulate her voice, taking lessons with vocal coach Elizabeth von Hesse. In 1935, she contracted with the W. Colston Leigh Bureau of Lectures and Entertainments to do two annual lecture circuit tours a year. Her audiences were usually large organizations, sometimes as numerous as 15,000 people in attendance.
Eleanor certainly didn't “rubber stamp” all of Franklin's presidential decisions. For example, during the Second War, her husband signed an order named Executive Order 9066. This order confine in special camps about 110,000 American citizens of Japanese descent. Eleanor opposed her husband's decision to sign this order.

Eleanor publicly upheld her beliefs, and some of these views caused controversy during her life as evidenced in the fact that she was never as popular among Catholics as her husband. They were also not happy at Eleanor’s support birth control movement. They had also resented her prewar (before the Second World War) sponsorship of the American Youth Congress, in which the Communists had been heavily represented, but Catholic youth groups were not represented. It was reported that FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover kept extensive files on Eleanor.

The First Lady consistently addressed gender inequity in American life wherever she saw it. She believed women should be given universal military training and even that housewives should be allowed to work only regular hours and be salaried for it. She worked closely with her friend Molly Dewson, who ran the National Democratic Committee’s Women’s Division, to integrate as many qualified women into the Roosevelt Administration and the federal government in high- and mid-level administrative posts.

Roosevelt was successful in changing both the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to expand to include divisions that dealt specifically with the problems faced by unemployed women. Further, she suggested the individuals who would be appointed to lead the bureaus. Similarly, when she learned that the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided forestry work to young people, was available only to men, she successfully pressed for the same program for young women.

And how about her open affection for women? Many biographers and historians believe that Eleanor was bisexual. She became friendly with Lorena Hickok, a correspondent of the Associated Press. Lorena conducted many interviews of Eleanor.

Spurred by the release in 1978 of the letters Roosevelt and Hickok exchanged, which suggest a kind of intimacy that goes beyond the current definition of female friendship, many rumors arose about their lesbian sex relationship.

However, the case for Roosevelt's lesbianism is one of inference and is not a view universally shared. Among experts who take an opposing view are historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.; Lorena Hickok's biographer, Doris Faber; and Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.

To make sense of the debate, it is important to understand the political and cultural context in which Eleanor Roosevelt grew up and spent her adult years. In her book Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg describes the high degree of physicality, even eroticism, that marked female friendships during the sex-segregated Victorian age of the 19th century.

In her book, Smith-Rosenberg also examines what she calls the "New Woman," an emerging model of the first half of the 20th century that fits Eleanor Roosevelt like a glove. These were women who, in the company of other women, worked for social justice and in the settlement house movement. Often they never married and found their emotional and even sensual needs met in female-to-female relationships.
Smith-Rosenberg said during a telephone interview from Ann Arbor, Michigan, that Eleanor Roosevelt “found her emotional sustenance with women contemporaries; after all, her husband was unfaithful, her mother-in-law difficult, and her children the challenge that all children can be.” A friend of Cook's, Smith-Rosenberg finds the possibility of a relationship between ER and Hickok plausible.

Her family members refuted all such claims. Her son James Roosevelt maintained that his mother "did not know what a lesbian was" and believed that his mother, who grew up in the Victorian era, often used tones that could seem overly affectionate, which lead to her statements being misconstrued. Her cousin Alice, with whom she had not very happy relations, also refuted any such claims. Once she stated loudly in a fashionable restaurant, "I do not care what they say. I simply cannot believe that Eleanor Roosevelt is a lesbian.”

As mentioned before, for her active roles in public policy, Eleanor was heavily criticized by some. She was praised by others, however, and today, she is regarded by as one of the most important leaders of women's and civil rights, as well as one of the first public officials to publicize important issues through the mass media.

In his later years at the White House, when Franklin Roosevelt was increasingly overworked, his daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger had moved in to provide her father companionship and support. Anna had also arranged for her father to meet with his former mistress, the now widowed Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd.

Artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who maintained close friendships with both Roosevelt and Mercer, rushed Mercer away to avoid negative publicity and implications of infidelity. When Eleanor heard about her husband's death, she was also faced with the news that Anna had been arranging these meetings with Mercer and that Mercer had been with Franklin when he died on April 12, 1945 at Warm Springs, Georgia.

After Franklin's death, Eleanor told interviewers that she didn't have plans for continuing her public service: "The story is over," she reportedly stated.

However, the opposite would actually prove to be true. From 1945 to 1953, Eleanor served as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. She also became chair of the UN's Human Rights Commission. As a member of the Human Rights Commission, she helped to write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—an effort that she considered to be her greatest achievement.

Outside of her political work, Eleanor wrote several books about her life and experiences, including This Is My Story (1937), This I Remember (1949), On My Own (1958) and Autobiography (1961). She made a return to public service the same year her autobiography was published (1961), when President John F. Kennedy made her a delegate to the United Nations. President Kennedy also appointed Eleanor chair of the Commission on the Status of Women.

Eleanor died of cancer on November 7, 1962, at the age of 78. A revolutionary first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most outspoken women to live in the White House. She was a great humanitarian who dedicated much of her life to fighting for political and social change.
Eleanor Roosevelt was quoted saying, "You get more joy out of the giving to others, and should put a good deal of thought into the happiness you are able to give." Not only did she give America love and happiness, but she gave it her life.

My Take

I hope every young person reads about the incredible life of Eleanor Roosevelt. Born into a life of incredible wealth, she might have easily let all her hard times and disappointments drive her underground. She found out through her early experiences that money alone could not buy her happiness. Yet, she persevered.

The lessons taken from Eleanor's life are many. The best, to me, is her incredible courage in the face of a society that routinely devoured the fortitude of "ugly ducklings" and caused these less-than-beautiful, solemn girls to cradle their insecurities and forever remain beneath the radar of achievement.

Realizing the vanity of prizing physical attractiveness over intelligence, Eleanor found her beauty within to become an elegant, intelligent woman. She confidently married a future president, one who did things that might have destroyed every vestige of her self worth, and she selflessly served her country while attaining heights no other woman ever reached. What an important story for the young women of today.

I would have loved to meet Eleanor Roosevelt. Left with the distance and perception of print about her life, I am quite sure she would have dazzled me with her real refinement. Without the trappings of glamour and glitz, she lived a rich life served well through simple, caring eyes.

Please share this story with your children. To at least one, it may make a difference.

“Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt

Post a Comment