I knew only enough about Eleanor Roosevelt to love her.
I knew she dealt plainly with people, and she glowed with integrity. I sensed that it would have been a joy to have her as a high school teacher or a favorite aunt—someone who shapes you before it is too late, who will roll up her sleeves and help solve any problem. I trusted her not to gloss over the truth or slick it up for easier passage.
She was formidable, I knew that too. So much of what we still struggle with—racial justice, equality for women, a fair chance for those who were not gumming silver spoons at birth—struck her as urgent more than a century ago, and she laid a solid groundwork (that fear and self-interest later trampled). Without her calm leadership through three years of global negotiations, we might never have forged the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
All this, from a woman who once said, “If I had to go out and earn my own living, I doubt if I’d even make a very good cleaning woman. I have no talents, no experience, no training for anything.”
She created herself.
She was not pretty or elegant or even jolie-laide, that wonderful French phrase for someone so ugly she is beautiful. This is relevant, because it let the men of her day take her seriously and gave other women hope.
“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity,” Eleanor once remarked. Her own mind was eager and agile, constantly absorbing new knowledge. And it was unconstrained by pettiness. “Great minds discuss ideas,” she said, “average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”
She was a tall woman—five-eleven, it turns out. I can close my eyes and see her plain, friendly face, the lips generous and a little too full. She was not pretty or elegant or even jolie-laide, that wonderful French phrase for someone so ugly she is beautiful. This is relevant, because it let the men of her day take her seriously and gave other women hope.
What I knew was the surface. But Eleanor, David Michaelis’s recent biography, let me step into her heart. Now I could imagine how she ached for her father’s company, how her relatives’ comments must have stung, how her school days charged her mind and set it in perpetual motion. How awkward it was for her to show tenderness, how desperately she craved it. How fully she became herself and what power that gave her.
Was I the only one just now discovering all this? And in today’s jumbled cultural landscape, was Eleanor Roosevelt still—that overused word—relevant?
• • •
We know she was relevant. In Gallup’s List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century, Eleanor Roosevelt came in ninth.
“You are something so rare,” Jackie Kennedy told her, “and so good for all women of my age to have to emulate—a great lady.”
In 1960, a young poet dreamed that Eleanor Roosevelt was his neighbor and that he was desperate to tell her something, but she asked him to wait, and when she returned, she was “deaf as a park statue, big as the Colossus of Rhodes. The poet is desperate to be seen. ‘I have remembered you and your work,’ he says, choking back tears, ‘and I want to say I love you: what you have stood for and done, and my name is Allen Ginsberg.’”
But what about today, when we live such ahistoric lives, the past flattened with a Google search? Eleanor may have been a great lady, but she lacked Jackie Kennedy’s sophistication and quiet drama, and while she was utterly approachable, she was maybe not quite as much fun as Michelle Obama. Is Michaelis’s beautiful biography Eleanor’s last hurrah?
There is evidence to the contrary. A recent headline in Smithsonian: “Why Eleanor Roosevelt’s Example Matters More Than Ever.” A 2018 Twitter post by the woman who is now our vice president, celebrating the anniversary of Eleanor Roosevelt’s birthday. “Her legacy serves as a powerful reminder that every single life has worth and calls us to secure human rights for all,” Kamala Harris wrote. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns posted too: “Today would have been Eleanor Roosevelt’s birthday. I miss her.” Concerned about women’s rights in India, a man tweets, “#EleanorRoosevelt must be turning in grave for you silence on not defending women against abuse.” A post about #COVID19 links to a broadcast Eleanor made in 1941 and says “If only @FLOTUS had appeared on television with similar encouragement, how many lives would have been saved.”
There are three Eleanor Roosevelt high schools; an Eleanor Roosevelt College; an Eleanor Roosevelt Prize for Global Human Rights Advancement. She has her own monument, and she is part of Franklin’s monument as well. There is a political committee called Eleanor’s Legacy; an Eleanor Roosevelt Fund Award for outstanding contributions to equality and education for women and girls; a public education initiative called Eleanor’s Hope. An old friend of mine named his indie band for Eleanor Roosevelt and is happy to report that her children have not filed a cease-and-desist order.
Scores of books have been written about Eleanor, even down to the details of her time in Greenwich Village and the flight she made with her friend Amelia Earhart. There is an Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia, not to mention all the collections and compilations of her letters, the documentaries and miniseries, plays, and even romances. And her own work lives on, all twenty-eight books and thousands of articles and newspaper columns. Some say she had influence because she did so much writing and speaking, as though her power were loquaciousness, but I think she did all that writing and speaking because she cared, and that compassion kept her relationship with the public alive, even post-mortem.
An old friend of mine named his indie band for Eleanor Roosevelt and is happy to report that her children have not filed a cease-and-desist order.
How else do we decide relevance? If merch is the measure, Eleanor holds strong: There is an Eleanor Roosevelt finger puppet. Eleanor Roosevelt bobblehead dolls, formal dolls, plush dolls, action figures. Eleanor Roosevelt cocktail napkins and bookmarks, totes and T-shirts, and tea towels. Even an Eleanor Roosevelt commemorative Barbie doll, released March 2021 and sold out almost immediately.
“In our museum store, Eleanor Roosevelt merchandise sells better than FDR merchandise,” reports Paul Sparrow, director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. He thinks this is because she lived well into the media age, but I suspect it is because she was warmer and gutsier, at once nobler and easier to relate to. Even in 1939, she ranked higher in public opinion polls than her husband did.
Eleanor (I am using the name that was her own, not the Roosevelt she shared) owes her retail presence to her own eloquence; it is her quotes people want to possess. They have been translated into many languages, and they are so fabulous, people have taken to making up new ones. Michaelis could only groan when he found “‘Don’t call a woman a bitch, call her an asshole. It still gets the point across without being sexist.’—Eleanor Roosevelt.” C’mon.
Still, the impulse to add her imprimatur is itself significant. The name has street cred. She is the archetypal role model. Michaelis tells me he was once asked to guest-lecture about her at a prison, because her writing was invariably popular there. This puzzled him until he realized: Here is somebody who nobody believed would ever become anything.
• • •
For a time, a silly little story flew loop de loops around the internet, accusing Hillary Clinton of “channelling” Eleanor Roosevelt as though by candlelight, with a levitating table. The truth is calmer: Clinton deeply admired Eleanor, and she did imagine conversations with her. “Those interior dialogues were helpful,” Clinton writes in The Book of Gutsy Women. “She overcame personal, political, and public challenges that would have flattened most of us.” After the mortification of Franklin’s affair with her social secretary, Eleanor was devastated but decided to stay in the marriage, Clinton adds, “which can be, as I know well, a ‘gutsy’ decision.” So was her commitment to human rights and the way she pushed politicians of both parties “to live up to our nation’s founding ideals.”
“Do one thing every day that scares you,” she urged Americans. “You must do the things you think you cannot do.”
Her bravery was fierce, yet as a child, she was scared of nearly everything. On her first sea voyage, at age three, she heard the deafening grind and screech of metal as the ship collided with another vessel and nearly sank. Her tiny, terrified body was passed from hands to hands over dark, roiling water, and from then on, any large body of water meant the chance of death. A fall from a horse could kill you, too. And her fear of death proved prescient, because her mother died of diphtheria when Eleanor was eight, her little brother soon after. “I do not feel she has much chance, poor little soul,” an aunt wrote of her timid, bereft niece—and just two years later, Eleanor’s beloved father, soaked in the alcohol that had taken him over, threw himself from a window in a fit of delirium tremens and died of a seizure.
She would look back on her childhood as “one long battle against fear.” Yet the word used of her again and again is “fearless.” “Do one thing every day that scares you,” she urged Americans. “You must do the things you think you cannot do.” Visit shell-shocked soldiers (and start off by apologizing, because she knows they would rather see their girlfriend or their mom). Stand as the lone witness at Arlington Cemetery, so no soldier was buried alone. Hike rough hills to go door-to-door in West Virginia, seeing the pale, grimy faces of children with no food to eat.
“I think she felt that in order to do something, she had to overcome her fears,” says historian Margaret Power. “I think she used her suffering to care about other people.”
Today, people breathe in her courage to keep going. The Trevor Project for LGBTQ youth posts a picture of Eleanor Roosevelt and writes, “Be brave.” Recipients of the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights include a congressman who fought human trafficking, an activist who urged the Chinese government toward human rights; a woman who urged justice for girls and women in Sudan.
• • •
“When I was ten,” journalist Susan Margolis Balk confides, “I used to imagine I was Eleanor Roosevelt and I was telling people what I thought.” I grin, loving the image—I was too shy to even dream of that. “Don’t raise your hand too much,” my grandmother used to warn me, “or boys won’t like you.” Seven decades earlier, Eleanor’s headmistress had her girls not only raise their hands but lie down and think upon a single thought for ninety minutes, then discuss it with her over tea. She insisted that they think for themselves, and the imperative woke Eleanor’s interest in the world.
After early years with parents who were both so hungry for attention, they could not give it, Eleanor had grown adept at pleasing. She focused on being a helpmeet, first to her wayward father, then to her philandering husband. This was not instinctive nurturing, Michaelis makes plain, but a desperation to be loved.
Most of us, when desperate, lose a bit of who we are. Not Eleanor. “I felt obliged to notice everything,” she said—a telling quote Michaelis chose to open her biography. She kept tabs on the president’s integrity and the nation’s soul. She was one of the few people willing to tell Franklin when he was wrong. And oh, was she criticized herself, accused of neglecting her children, wasting taxpayer dollars, spying for the Soviets, having a nervous …. She marched on. “A long time ago,” she told a reporter, “I made up my mind that nothing of this kind ever was permanent. I felt very sure that eventually the truth would come out.”
Because she wasted no time worrying what people thought of her, she had vast reserves of energy with which to think, speak her mind, and act. She wrote her own speeches and gave public statements without White House clearance. She urged college students to “study history realistically,” and “do not always believe your country is right.”
After early years with parents who were both so hungry for attention, they could not give it, Eleanor had grown adept at pleasing. She focused on being a helpmeet, first to her wayward father, then to her philandering husband.
What helped her be honest, I suspect, was one of the traits Michaelis most admires: her willingness to not have the answers, to not cling to what seemed safe. Used to adapting (to loss, trauma, her relatives’ homes, boarding school, an unconventional marriage, the demands of public life), she was nearly always able to admit she had been wrong and open herself to new information, he says. “She changed with every single thing that happened to her.”
In the biography, he writes that Eleanor “gave the impression of doing everything easily. She seemed unrushed, never flustered.” This completes my mental picture of the picnic she held for visiting British royals—she served up American hot dogs. Her stock advice (which Hillary Clinton read and reread) was to “do what you feel in your heart to be right—for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”
How could someone so sensitive grow such a tough skin, weather such vitriol? “I think it’s that she had no doubts about who she was,” Michaelis tells me. “It was deeply important to her to remain who she was. Eleanor was Eleanor because she was Eleanor.”
She also, it occurs to me, had nothing left to lose. She had set her heart on her father’s love, then Franklin’s fidelity, and both had been yanked away—leaving her with only herself, and a life she felt responsible for creating.
• • •
We are still fighting, just a bit further along, the same battles Eleanor fought: for human rights, for women’s rights, for civil rights. We have slid back to the precarious, lopsided distribution of wealth that the Roosevelts had to repair. Where Eleanor faced world wars, we face domestic and international terrorism. What is urgent and new is the fight to save the environment—and today’s most progressive initiative is called the Green New Deal.
In Brooklyn, Hannah Firestone started an artists’ chapter of the Sunrise movement, formed to push politicians toward that Green New Deal. Curious how much she knows about Eleanor Roosevelt, I call and ask. It turns out she knows considerably more than most twenty-seven-year-olds, having grown up with “a lesbian feminist mother who was very into Eleanor Roosevelt. We had a photograph of her hanging in the bathroom with the quotation ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’”
That one and “A woman is like a teabag—you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water” kept Firestone company in her early teens, when she felt apart and uncertain and needed the words desperately. Her studies did not add much information, though: “I remember hearing a tiny bit about her in AP history, but I couldn’t tell you what. In college, I was a gender studies major, and the notable information I remember was that she’d had at least one relationship with a woman, clandestinely. But I don’t hear much about her among people my age.”
“And yet,” I cannot help pointing out, “you are working for a Green New Deal.”
“Right,” she agrees, “and she certainly doesn’t come up.” She pauses. “The movement is pretty distanced from any specific people associated with the original New Deal. Our emphasis on mobilizing young people. It wouldn’t have even occurred to me to have more of that focus.”
Silly, for me to feel so disappointed. “Well,” I say, “your project comes out of a very different kind of emergency.”
“Totally,” Firestone says—then hesitates. “Although it’s looking more and more like a similar emergency.”
• • •
Not only was Eleanor Roosevelt our longest-tenured First Lady, but she was “the first to have an independent political identity that existed nationally outside of the political class in D.C.,” says Peter Kastor, chair of history at Washington University and a scholar of the American presidency. I am reminded of Princess Diana, though the two women could not be less similar in temperament. Diana was hungry for reassurance, and Eleanor was a “self-eraser,” as Michaelis puts it, “always letting people be more aware of themselves than of her.”
It took the back-to-back crises of the Depression and World War II to make room for Eleanor in the public sphere, Kastor says. “The Depression was a social crisis, and women progressives had long seen their role as responding to those crises.” It felt natural and not the least bit threatening for Eleanor to crisscross the country boosting morale and responding to families in distress.
She traveled so tirelessly, the Secret Service nicknamed her Rover and the Washington Post once ran the headline “First Lady Spends Night in White House.” Her many causes may have been occasioned by a state of emergency, but they set a precedent for all future First Ladies, as did her startling openness. Today, it is expected that the First Lady reveal tidbits of White House domesticity and allow herself to be featured (if invited) on magazine covers. Though Dolly Madison charmed D.C. and Mary Todd Lincoln captured our melancholy imagination, it was not until Eleanor Roosevelt that First Ladies were thought to matter.
Not only was Eleanor Roosevelt our longest-tenured First Lady, but she was “the first to have an independent political identity that existed nationally outside of the political class in D.C.,” says Peter Kastor, chair of history at Washington University and a scholar of the American presidency.
“Ulysses S. Grant loved his wife deeply,” Kastor points out, “and was distraught when they were apart, yet his 800-page memoir tells you all about flanking maneuvers in the Mexican-American war and nothing about his wife.” Presidents are inscribed on the landscape; we find them on statues, on Mount Rushmore, on our currency. Dolly Madison had to settle for cupcakes.
With Eleanor, though, the ground shifted. She needed no graven images to become an icon (though in 2016, there was even talk of putting her on the five-dollar bill; the redesign was dropped by the Trump Administration). Today, “if she espouses your politics, she becomes a way to advance them,” Kastor says. “She stands for gender equity, compassion, service, dedication, hard work, social justice, patriotism, internationalism, and fearlessness.”
• • •
Margaret Power grew up next to Norvelt, a farmstead community Eleanor helped develop in the early 1930s to ease the poverty coal miners had endured in the Depression. She was no fan of paternalism or “charity,” she said briskly, these cooperative settlements would preserve equality of opportunity. She overrode husband’s minimal construction standards, insisting on plumbing, electric lights, and other modern conveniences.
She also opposed the residents who wanted to ban the application of a Black family, Power tells me, informing them that if that family were not allowed to join, their community would cease to exist.
When she moved home to care for her mother, Power, who teaches history at the Illinois Institute of Technology, made Norvelt a project. Interviewing current residents, she heard how their parents had thought of Eleanor Roosevelt as their savior; how the town had taken its very name from the last syllables of hers. Norvelt is now ninety-nine percent White, in a county that is ninety-seven percent White, and “it is completely pro-Trump,” she says, her tone wry. “Back in 2008, they said it was wrenching for them to vote for a Republican, given what they felt they owed the Democrats, but they could not bring themselves to vote for Obama.”
This makes me wonder how that pioneering Black family fared. “The daughter said growing up there was fine, that her mom’s pies won the Best Pie contest,” Power says. “But there was a son, too, and he wouldn’t talk to me, and I’ve always wondered why.”
Her research, meanwhile, was underscoring how anti-racist Eleanor was. How calmly she violated nearly all of society’s gender norms. How much quiet power she wielded. “I teach a U.S. Women’s History class, and students are blown away when they find out how radical she was.”
• • •
Older women know. Shira Scheindlin, a retired U.S. district judge in New York, took Eleanor as her role model: “She was independent of her husband and carved out an important role for herself. And what a career! A true and very early champion of human rights for all people, no matter their color or their economic status. She inspired generations of advocates for human rights and women’s rights and gave many people who were ‘different’ or ‘other’ the courage to fight for their beliefs.
Franklin’s “repeated caving to Southern lawmakers on any form of anti-lynching legislation had deeply shaken her,” Michaelis writes, “as did FDR’s unwillingness to make any straightforward statement or offer any program to integrate the armed services.”
“When down and out and out of hope, I sometimes say, ‘What would Eleanor Roosevelt have said?’” Scheindlin adds. “And then I sit down and write an op-ed explaining where this country has gone wrong.”
After the storming of the Capitol, Steve Weinberg, an investigative journalist and professor emeritus at Missouri School of Journalism, posted about Eleanor Roosevelt on Facebook: “I’m sharing this today because of the chatter among compassionate, privileged White people about employing our inherent influence to narrow the divides destroying U.S. society. Eleanor Roosevelt employed her influence as vigorously and effectively as any White person I can think of. Perhaps you might find a smidgen of inspiration in her life of pushing for equality.”
Lisa Van Amburg found her whole life’s inspiration in Eleanor’s values. “Growing up in New Orleans at the height of the civil rights movement, I was aware of her even in high school,” Van Amburg says, “and that steered my career.” After twenty-seven years as a civil rights lawyer, Van Amburg took the bench on the Missouri Court of Appeals and hung a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt in her chambers. Every time she left her chambers to enter the courtroom, she met Eleanor’s level gaze on the way.
When Eleanor moved into the White House, Black men were still being lynched, notes Sparrow. “The Ku Klux Klan put a $20,000 bounty on her head, but she was fearless. She never backed down.” Sometimes she communicated with small, eloquent acts, like resigning from the Daughters of the American Revolution when they refused to allow the Black singer Marian Anderson to perform in their auditorium, or inviting Black girls at a substandard reform school to the White House as her guests. When a young Black man accidentally backed his car into her and knocked her down, she insisted it was entirely her fault before she even took the time to brush off her skirt, afraid that he would be in trouble. Franklin’s “repeated caving to Southern lawmakers on any form of anti-lynching legislation had deeply shaken her,” Michaelis writes, “as did FDR’s unwillingness to make any straightforward statement or offer any program to integrate the armed services.”
“Eleanor Roosevelt did a lot,” Justice Thurgood Marshall remarked, “but her husband didn’t do a damn thing.”
• • •
At the start of his research, Michaelis played the Google AutoComplete game, typing “Is Eleanor Roosevelt” to see what searches came up. Every time he typed the phrase, the suggested query was “Is Eleanor Roosevelt gay?”
Did it matter?
Blanche Wiesen Cook’s three-volume biography emphasizes the role of passion in Eleanor’s life, and we find its clearest expression in the letters between her and journalist Lorena Hickok. “I remember your eyes with a kind of teasing smile in them,” Hick once wrote, “and the feeling of that soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips.” “Hick, darling,” Eleanor once wrote, “…If I could just take you in my arms…. Someday perhaps fate will be kind & let us arrange a life more to our liking.”
“She is constantly taken as the avatar of one thing or another. But all you have to do is go into her life, and you are not going to be able to categorize it. Even her sexuality was adaptable—there’s no fairer thing to say about it. You can’t put her in a box.” [Eleanor biographer]
Cook was accused of unfairly outing Eleanor. Up at the FDR Museum, Sparrow shares the critics’ hesitation. “In my personal opinion,” he says, “if she had a sexual relationship with anyone other than Franklin, it was with Earl Miller, her bodyguard.” While she was courageous in forming friendships with lesbians “at a time when you could be put in jail or murdered for being a homosexual,” Sparrow continues, Eleanor “never admitted to having a lesbian relationship or identified that way. If you read the letters she wrote to her mother-in-law, she used much of the same language.”
I test the comparison on Michaelis. “She did write strangely affectionate, girlish letters to her mother-in-law when she was younger,” he says. “But when people try to say oh, that was how Victorian women wrote letters—” He is not persuaded. Nor is he persuaded that we need to label Eleanor a lesbian. “She is constantly taken as the avatar of one thing or another. But all you have to do is go into her life, and you are not going to be able to categorize it. Even her sexuality was adaptable—there’s no fairer thing to say about it. You can’t put her in a box.”
What we do know is that she was both brave and lonely. When it became clear that her husband would always seek solace from other women, she came to terms. “Either you must learn to allow someone else to meet the need, without bitterness or envy, and accept it,” she later wrote in You Learn by Living, “or somehow you must make yourself learn to meet it. if you refuse to accept the limitation in yourself, you will be unable to grow beyond this point.”
Eleanor worked as Franklin’s partner, pushing for his goals, yet eventually admitted that in many ways, he was still a stranger to her, albeit “a nice man.”
And so, she and her husband lived their own lives. I marvel at her sang-froid; I would have been in a corner sticking pins in dolls that wore my rivals’ faces. Eleanor worked as Franklin’s partner, pushing for his goals, yet eventually admitted that in many ways, he was still a stranger to her, albeit “a nice man.” When she became friendly with a lesbian couple, it was an awkward transition from a lifetime of habitual solitude. “It is new for me to have anyone know when I have ‘moods’ much less have it make any real difference,” she blurted. “If you’ll try not to take them too seriously, I’ll try not to let myself have them.” This almost teenage earnestness twists my heart—how could she hope to awaken emotional needs without emotion? She went on to have intense relationships with both women and men, and the undercurrent of her entire life was a quest for intimacy and ease. “Mrs. R.’s problem,” announced her friend and rival Martha Gellhorn, “is a craving to be loved.”
• • •
My first college professor teetered into class in Lucite platform sandals and a miniskirt only two decades out of sync, her fine short gray hair slicked down into sideburns in front of rather large ears, her only makeup a thin, wavering strip of bright orange lipstick. She held us all spellbound. One day, she confided the advice she had received as a girl: “You are not pretty, so you will have to try even harder to be funny and charming.”
Eleanor, cursed with a beautiful mother who yearned for a beautiful daughter, received the same message. “Little Eleanor is looking so well,” her mother wrote before her first birthday, “and her four little pearly front teeth have altered the entire expression of the face to quite a pretty one.” The words sound oddly distant to me, yet nervous with hope. I am used to a mother who decided wholeheartedly, with no recourse to fact, that her baby was beautiful. Mrs. Roosevelt applied aesthetic criteria instead.
Years later, after an obligatory dance with his gawky fifth cousin, Franklin observed, “Eleanor has a fine mind.”
The wince of seeing her as a young woman, when we are trained to expect a glowing, flawless, clean-lined symmetry, was replaced by a relieved grin. She had sailed over the norms of femininity like a thoroughbred at a steeplechase, and she had landed with unexpected grace.
I love her for not bothering to primp, not feeling she owed the world an apology for her appearance. Maybe there was some safety, if not comfort, in the plainness: She once remarked of herself as a child, “Being ugly and innocent, nothing disagreeable ever happened to me.” But then the oddest thing happened, a fairy-tale sort of truth: She became lovely. Not by aesthetic standards—though Michaelis sounds a wee bit bewitched when he talks about her “sea-glass eyes that lit up, went from this misty blue gray when she was sad to an absolute high sparkle, and the smile would open up like sun on water.” What I see in the photographs from her later years is a clear inner light, an energy and joy you can feel just by looking. By living so fully as herself, she had come into her own.
She said it herself: “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.” The wince of seeing her as a young woman, when we are trained to expect a glowing, flawless, clean-lined symmetry, was replaced by a relieved grin. She had sailed over the norms of femininity like a thoroughbred at a steeplechase, and she had landed with unexpected grace.
Granted, that did not stop the stonemasons who were building the National Cathedral in D.C. from carving a Mrs. Roosevelt gargoyle that had huge slabs of limestone—Eleanor’s buck teeth—to sluice the water. And it did not stop wealthy Republicans from naming certain holes on their country club golf courses “Eleanor’s teeth.” What is odd nowadays, Michaelis says, is that the old animus toward Eleanor seems to have completely dissolved. “There’s almost uncritical good will. Maybe after Melania Trump’s ‘I really don’t care, do you?’ coat, we need someone like Eleanor.”
I wonder if tossing aside the frippery made it easier for Eleanor to be her time’s version of a feminist? There is no denying the energy one saves. Eleanor worked to win equal pay for women, met alone with heads of state, and gave press conferences exclusively for women journalists—which I used to assume was a comfort zone but I now suspect was a strategy. Give women information, urge them to think for themselves, let the world see them as powerful. When the Kennedys moved into the White House and John gave Eleanor a tour, she stopped him to ask, “Where, Mr. President, is Mrs. Kennedy’s desk?” He put Eleanor in charge of his President’s Commission on the Status of Women, and she spent the last years of her life digging into gender discrimination for a landmark report. When she died, in November 1962, The New York Times headline read “She Was the Symbol of the New Role Women Were to Play in the World.” A sub-headline: “She Won Acclaim in Her Own Right.”
Today, bookstore shelves sag under the weight of children’s books about Eleanor Roosevelt. All a girl need do is learn Eleanor’s life to feel better about her own.
• • •
Those who still think with any frequency about Eleanor Roosevelt divide her up by her causes and invoke her values, but her overarching contribution is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Harry Truman asked Eleanor to be part of the first U.S. delegation to the new United Nations. She must have gulped; she would be the only woman and the only member without a college degree. She agreed and studied up, preparing to expand her fight for civil rights to the entire world. After visiting the sites of concentration camps and involving herself in the plight of the sixty million displaced persons in Europe, she returned home to remind Americans: “You cannot live for yourselves alone.”
Then, as chair of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, she steered the writing of what Hillary Clinton would later call “the most far-reaching and advanced definition of social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights in human history.” And because she was Eleanor Roosevelt, she traced this abstract ideal all the way back to individuals in their neighborhoods, schools, factories, and farms. “Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination,” she wrote. “Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”
When, at three in the morning on December 10, 1948, the delegates of the United Nations voted to adopt the declaration, Eleanor stepped to the podium, Michaelis writes, and “the entire Assembly got to its feet. Her fellow delegates then accorded her something that had never been given before and would never be given again in the United Nations: an ovation for a single delegate by all nations.”
If we forget about Eleanor Roosevelt, we forget that was possible. And might be again.