Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was the 32nd First Lady of America. Born on October 11, 1884, she grew as an orphan from the age of ten. Her life took a turning point in March 1905, when she married Franklin D. Roosevelt, a distant cousin and future U.S President. In her early marriage, she was concerned with the responsibilities of parenthood, and, as such, her life was restricted to domestic chores. In her autobiography, she laments that “for ten years, I was always just getting over having a baby or about to have another one, so my occupations were considerably restricted during this period” (Roosevelt 62). Her book, The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt, explores the challenges she encountered as a woman in a society dominated by men, where women's roles were restricted to child rearing and housekeeping.
However, Eleanor’s life changed in 1918, when she learned of a love affair between her husband and her secretary, Lucy Mercer. A compromise crafted by her mother in-law, Sara Roosevelt, saved their marriage. Despite the agreement, however, her life was confronted with the harsh realities of being a woman. She states that “The bottom dropped out of my own particular world.....I faced myself, my surroundings, my world, honestly for the first time” (Roosevelt 66). This event alone forced her to stand for herself, becoming independent of her husband. Her worldview expanded outside the confines of marriage, her desire beyond the needs and wants of one man.
With a new sense of independence, Eleanor channeled her efforts to various reformist groups, joining a cliché of feminist leaders committed to ending child labor, establishing a minimum wage, and providing legal protection for female workers. It was then that she discovered her public speaking and organizational skills which she employed while agitating for social justice. During the time when Roosevelt worked as a deputy secretary in the American navy during WWI, Eleanor engaged herself in charitable missions with the Red Cross, visiting wounded soldiers in the Naval Hospital.
Like other women before her who became champions in women's movements, Eleanor Roosevelt first confronted the obstacles women faced in the course of her work with other female leaders on various gender injustice issues. Her involvement in the women movements began soon after WWI, while working with the Women's International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the International Congress of Working Women (ICWW), both of which aimed to address the causes of war and poverty.
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However, it was her role as the First Lady of America that impacted significantly the progress of feminist movements. Franklin Roosevelt’s election as President catapulted Eleanor to a national platform through which she championed the rights of women and marginalized groups in society. Traditionally, the role of the First Lady was confined to the White House, but she shattered this trend by reshaping and redefining it around her dedication to social reform. She voiced the blight of the marginalized and downtrodden members of society, especially women and children. She was the first female ever to address a national convention, earn as lecturer, write a syndicated magazine column, and hold press conferences.
In her press conferences, Eleanor spoke only to female reporters mainly on issues that affected women. This was an indirect revenge against male chauvinists, since she believed that her conferences should address those not deemed as deserving to hear from a man. She focused on feminist issues relevant to the American women, such as poverty, unemployment, rural life, education, and women’s place in society. This forum gave women the opportunity to think in a broader perspective, outside their restricted domestic lives. She attacked the dominant institutions that failed to provide equal opportunities for women. By the time Eleanor became the US First Lady most women were condemned to domestic lifestyles in their homes, with only twenty five percent working in salaried employment. The remaining majority, over seventy five percent, were unemployed housewives. Using her influence in the media, Eleanor reached these masses of marginalized homemakers and rallied them to demand their rightful place in society. She was against the tendency to judge women “when it comes to appointing them or electing them, purely because they are women.” The First Lady wanted to witness the country “get away from considering a man or woman from the point of view of religion, color or sex.” (Roosevelt 403). At more than three hundred press conferences she held as the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt cleverly manipulated most news agencies to hire their first ever female journalists by shutting out male reporters. She knew that they will respond accordingly in order to gain access to vital information.
In her public speeches and magazine columns, Eleanor strongly campaigned for the recruitment of female workers in the factories following an increased demand for labor after the war. Cautioning young women not to marry before having a chance to increase their opportunities, she challenged them to learn useful skills offered in the factories. And when they were indefinitely sacked after the war, she fought to have them reinstated. She observed that whoever wanted to work and had the ability was at liberty to do so and be productive. She challenged women workers to courageously and vocally demand for their rights.
When she started writing the column “My Day” in 1935, Eleanor brought into the fore political, social and economic challenges of the time which greatly disadvantaged women. Mrs Roosevelt advocated for a change in the household structure as a way of addressing the social inequalities. The column also chronicled the First Lady’s daily schedule, and soon became a newsletter for women politicians. By 1939, her column had started to address political issues aimed at bringing women into active roles in the society. Eleanor called upon them to be active in media communication as a means of interacting, breaking the barriers of their domestic lifestyles and broadening their worldview beyond what the society wanted them to know.
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Eleanor made major contributions to the majority of the 20th Century movements for social reform, such as the New Deal, the Progressive Movement, the Women’s Movement, and The Struggle for Racial Justice. In addition, she developed a personal liberal ideology to empower women in society. Indeed, ever since she voluntarily started working in the Rivington Street Settlement in 1903, Mrs Roosevelt was against child labor, fought for a limit in the hours women worked and for an end to women exploitation in the workplace. While working with other women activists, the First Lady supported the full inclusion of women in labor unions, higher living wages, and birth control. When displaced male workers blamed women workers for intruding into the job market during the Great Depression, it was Eleanor who defended them in her articles, public speeches, and at press conferences.
In 1924, the Democratic National Committee had asked the First Lady to lead its committee on women’s issues. She used this opportunity to work with women’s movements to consolidate their political muscle. When the male-dominated committee ignored their recommendations, she ganged up with other women leaders and prevailed upon the convention to allow women to appoint female delegates, marking the beginning of women involvement in active politics. Nevertheless, she saw the convention’s exclusion of female members from its high profile meetings as an insult to women in general. Eleanor later recalled that for the first time,
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I saw where the women stood when it came to a national convention. I shortly discovered that they were of little importance. They stood outside the door of all important meetings and waited (Roosevelt 132).
When the New Deal was formed, Mrs Roosevelt took the campaign for gender equality into the White House, where she fought for women to be appointed to administrative positions. After assembling a list of women with academic qualifications and expertise to hold executive positions, she confronted the government to hire them. When she felt that justice had not been done in the appointments, she always took her grievances to the president. Meanwhile, she kept the women population informed and urged them to use their voting powers to participate in politics and policy formulation. In her book It’s Up To The Women, Eleanor challenged them to pursue the dreams and ambitions of their lives. When the state started rearming in anticipation for WWII, she rallied women to seek employment in the industries, the military and other defense assignments, including armed field combat. She went a step further when she supported a legislation to establish day care facilities for women defense workers with children. Even after her days in the White House, she compelled President Kennedy to include more women in his administration, leading to the creation of a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, to which she was appointed the chairperson.
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In this regard, The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt shows that America's 32nd First Lady contributed greatly to 20th century feminism. From the time she got into the White House, she championed the rights of women in various forums. In her press conferences, public speeches and magazine columns, she confronted the dominant ideologies, political and economic establishments that relegated women to domestic roles. Nevertheless, there is contention whether Eleanor was really a feminist. Critics point out that her stand against the National Women’s Party and the amendment for equal rights rob her of the essence of feminism. Lois Scharf, for instance, argues that Eleanor did not “view social problems through the unique lens of gender, discover and define the discriminatory features of society, examine the underlying causes for female inferiority, and concentrate on their alleviation” (Scharf 233). However other historians contend that she was a feminist because she campaigned for causes of the feminist nature that surpassed a support for the women’s party or the rights amendment. In their view, “feminism is broader than supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and dedication to gender-based analysis” (Scharf 234).
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This notwithstanding, The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt makes it clear that Eleanor contributed greatly to the elevation of women in society. She opposed the exploitation of women in the workplaces. She joined other women leaders to force the appointment of women delegates in political parties. In her capacity as the First Lady, she pushed her husband’s administration to appoint women into public offices. In the job market, Eleanor manipulated the media industry to employ female reporters, thus paving the way for women’s entry into journalism. Even in her later years, she was vocal in forcing the administrations of John Kennedy and Harry Truman to address problems facing women (Roosevelt 268). The story of her life, then, is characterized with steadfast commitment to feminism. The search for her identity, becoming independent of the shadow of her husband and family, unwavering struggle to make society accommodative to the socio-economic and political progress of women, and her attempts to manipulate the male-dominated culture to her advantage and women in general all point to an enduring feminist who overcame the social and political challenges of her time to become one of the 20th Century’s leading voices in advocating for gender equality and social justice.
Eleanor Roosevelt died on 7 November 1962, aged 78 years old.
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