Nancy Woloch is a historian of women at Barnard College and a member of the Center for Women’s History Scholarly Advisory Committee. For women’s history month, she sat down with Women at the Center to discuss her new book, Eleanor Roosevelt: In Her Words: On Women, Politics, Leadership, and Lessons from Life, published by Black Dog & Leventhal/Hachette in 2017.
Q: What was your goal in writing this book?
A: To show the relevance of Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice in today’s world. It is vital right now, in an era of challenge, to grasp Eleanor’s ideas about democracy – about the interdependence of people and nations — and to hear her defend democratic ideals.
The book provides an introduction to ER (as she signed her letters to FDR), through excerpts from her books, magazine articles, newspaper columns, speeches, radio talks, press conferences, and advice literature. It suggests the many roles that she played—not only as politician and diplomat, but also as teacher, journalist, writer, broadcaster, and public personality. Finally, it serves as a companion to the great biographies of ER.
Why is Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice still relevant?
ER wrote and spoke about topics of enduring interest – about women’s roles in society and in politics, about education, race, civil rights, human rights, and international peace, and about human emotions and interpersonal relations. Almost everything she says in the book, even if somewhat “dated,” as is often the case, resonates in some way with modern readers – from her advice columns to her calls for racial justice – to say nothing of her many responses to the question “Can a Woman become President?” Above all, ER defended democratic values. To win influence abroad, for instance, according to ER, the US must practice democracy at home. When ER talks about democracy, she invariably refers to civil rights – to voting rights, equal education, equal economic opportunity, and justice before the law. ER’s defense of democracy speaks powerfully to modern readers.
Did any surprises occur as you explored ER’s career?
I was surprised by ER’s intense ambition. She has a sort of do-good reputation; she is associated with support for worthy causes and with compassion for others. This is all accurate, of course. But ER’s drive, aspiration, and professionalism were impressive, too. Best remembered as a politician and diplomat, ER was also a journalist. She became a journalist in the early 1920s, and she was very competitive in her field – and very prolific! Her extensive writing enabled me to put this book together.
Some related surprises: ER liked power more than she let on. She had a combative and disruptive streak. She was totally capable of crushing opponents, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939 or Henry A. Wallace in 1948. She was very tough! A friend to so many, she could be a fierce rival and a fierce enemy. Another surprise: ER was extraordinarily well prepared to be First Lady and to enter politics. The extent of her preparation is daunting. The biggest surprise: ER’s engagement in the battle for civil rights from 1933 onward. Her involvement, which we now take for granted, was astonishing and unprecedented. No resident of the White House since Lincoln had taken up the cause of African American civil rights with such commitment. This was truly exceptional.
One more surprise: ER was a wonderful advice writer. The reading public loved her advice columns and so do I.
How would ER react to US politics today?
ER and the current president are polar opposites. Just about everything this president has said violates a core belief of ER’s. For instance: the current president fuels racism, denigrates minority groups, mocks disability, praises authoritarian leaders, hopes to rebuild the nuclear arsenal, looks for fights with other nations, disparages the press, takes advice from the ghost of Roy Cohn (that is, practices the tactic of the “big lie”), and plans to dismantle the New Deal regulatory state. In each of these instances, and more, ER and our president would be on a collision course. Examine the relation of each of them to history, for example. ER often draws lessons from history, with which she was totally familiar; indeed, she taught it. The current president, in contrast, lacks familiarity with history –which is why he brings the “America First” expression back into use without knowledge of its roots. ER, who spurns the “America First” movement of the late 1930s for its isolationism, underscores the interconnections of nations and of peoples. Democratic values constitute a point of difference. The current president demeans the very democracy that ER defended.
But there is a more fundamental, overriding difference. Overall, ER drew out the best in other people and sought to make the world a better place. Our current president, in contrast, draws out the worst in others and degrades whatever he gets near. To elicit the best in others, as ER did, is the essence of leadership.
Was Eleanor Roosevelt ever criticized?
Continually. She had many critics, starting with Republicans. In the election of 1940, Republican women wore buttons that said “We Don’t Want Eleanor Either.” ER’s fellow columnist Westbrook Pegler famously criticized ER for both her politics and for her journalism. She was not a journalist, he said in 1940, “but a diarist and dilettante.” He called her an “amateur fussbudget.” Beyond that, ER endured criticism for just about everything she did. When she became First Lady in the 1930s, critics attacked her for meddling in government affairs and for wasting the government’s money on pet projects like the Arthurdale community in West Virginia. When she took an official post in government in 1941-2, as assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense, critics scolded her for doing that. Some critics felt she had no business taking a government job (she accepted no pay). Moreover, she feuded with the director, NYC mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. ER envisioned home security as a mini-New Deal, a stance with which many –including LaGuardia–disagreed. Throughout her White House years, critics attacked ER for making money through journalism, public speaking, and radio talks. Opponents alleged that she exploited the role of first lady for financial gain, although she gave away most of what she earned. Finally, foes of ER’s civil rights agenda charged that black women organized “Eleanor Clubs” that harassed white people; such clubs, as ER explained repeatedly, never existed. These are just a few examples. ER even wrote an article on how she responded to her critics, mainly by persevering.
Some critics, of course, were closer to home. ER’s cousin, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, TR’s daughter, born the same year (1884), was a childhood rival and lifelong critic. Known for her caustic remarks, Alice attacked ER as a prig and FDR as a mama’s boy. Alice on ER: “She took everything—most of all herself—so tremendously seriously.” This is in fact an astute comment, and the rivalry with cousin Alice is important. The theme of rivalry is key to understanding ER. She had to compete with one rival after another – with Alice, with Sara Roosevelt, with Lucy Mercer, with FDR’s other women friends – the rivalries persisted.
Why was Eleanor Roosevelt such an effective First Lady?
Preparation, experience, and motivation. Eleanor Roosevelt was uniquely well prepared for a role in national public life. Her training included her few years of education at an excellent girls school in England, Allenswood, where she was a top student and school leader; she had the crucial experience of being “head girl,” or its equivalent. Her subsequent training in journalism and politics with the Roosevelt’s influential advisor, Louis M. Howe, was vital, too. FDR provided a political education as well. Then, ER had a decade of experience in public life, in the 1920s—in New York women’s organizations; in New York State politics; and as New York State’s First Lady for two terms. Finally, ER had exceptional motivation: she was driven and ambitious. In a sense, ER imitated FDR and competed with FDR; at the same time, she strove to be “useful” to FDR. Ironically, her effort to be useful to FDR fostered her independent political career. Her aspiration to excel in public life was intense.
Equally important: ER was not afraid of radicalism or of taking risks – in her support for organized labor and for civil rights. Like FDR, she was experimental.
Of all the professional roles that ER assumed—politician, diplomat, journalist, and so on—what was her favorite?
ER’s favorite role, she stated, was that of teacher. She held this role only briefly, 1927-33 at the New York City’s Todhunter School, a school for girls, where she taught history, current events, and some other subjects. ER was also part-owner of the school, with two of her friends. Eventually, in 1939, Todhunter merged with the Dalton School. But the role of educator remained pivotal to ER. Reporters who attended her all-women press conferences observed that she ran each conference like a school. She had a didactic streak. Also, ER’s commitment to the principles of progressive education affected her writing and publication.
Her next-favorite career was journalist, writer, and communicator. Immensely productive, ER experimented with many forms and modes of communication. That is, she gave speeches and radio talks; she published a daily diary of sorts that fused her activities and opinion (“My Day”), a sort of blog; she wrote many types of articles, published in all sorts of venues, from popular magazines to scholarly journals; she also wrote her marvelous question-and-answer advice column, “If You Ask Me,” published in the Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s. All of this, in addition to her several volumes of autobiography, published in 1937, 1946, 1958, and finally, a combined edition of 1961. Plus ER wrote over twenty books, and had an extensive correspondence with scores of friends, colleagues, and constituents.
As education was of such interest to ER, in what ways did her own education shape her future and her leadership ability?
ER attributed her education mainly to three sources. First, Marie Souvestre, the head of Allenswood, the secondary school she attended, was a major influence. ER’s invaluable experience with Mlle Souvestre fostered her curiosity, ER said. Just as important, at Allenswood, ER took on the role of “head girl,” or its equivalent, and in essence, later on, played that part for much of her life. Whenever the chance for leadership arose, she was ready. A second major influence was journalist Louis M. Howe, who advised FDR on political strategy. It was Howe who encouraged ER to enter public life in the 1920s when FDR was out of it, in order to keep FDR’s political prospects afloat and his name in public view. Following Howe’s directives, ER became a journalist, a participant in women’s groups, and an activist in New York State Democratic politics. Finally, FDR was perhaps ER’s most important instructor, as she stated in print after his death. FDR provided her with superb training in politics. Of course, as ER also realized late in life, FDR used her for his own purposes; so did Louis Howe. But she used them as well.
To what extent did social class play a role in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life?
To a large extent ER tried to transcend social class and surely succeeded. She sought to connect with other people of all backgrounds and classes, and did so. Still, social class counted for a lot in her career. Social class shaped her few crucial years of education and her experience as “head girl” at Allenswood. Social class gave her authority and confidence and helped shape her leadership skill. There is no doubt a contradiction here. ER disparaged class, but it made a difference in her life and career.
Tell us about ER’s autobiographical writing. What can we learn from it, and what does she omit, if anything?
All autobiographers reshape their lives as they recount them; even those who try hard to be totally honest tend to forget, ignore, or just avoid various parts of their lives and/or to distort parts, or to recount them inaccurately. Autobiographers are by nature revisionists. ER was no exception. Much of what she writes about herself is brutally candid, especially about the miseries of her tumultuous childhood. In some instances, she reveals more and more about certain subjects as the years pass; this is true in relation to FDR and his mother, Sara Roosevelt. Sara takes quite a drubbing from ER. In other instances, ER just bypasses the truth, or what a biographer or historian would see as truth. Some subjects are just off limits. ER never writes, for instance, about FDR’s adultery with Lucy Mercer, an event that reshaped her marriage and turned it into a political partnership, and thus affected the rest of her life. She idolizes her father, Elliott Roosevelt, in print, though his relationship with her, like his short and tormented life, was marred by mental illness and alcoholism. Nor does she mention the likelihood that she had a half-brother, courtesy of Elliott and one of his extra-marital attachments. Nor does she share the exact nature of her romantic relationship with Lorena Hickok, or with anyone else. Clearly, some of what ER ignores or omits reflects a conscious decision; she just decides that some information is none of our business. In yet other instances, no doubt, her omissions are involuntary. We all reshape our experiences as we go along, and autobiography reflects our involuntary reshaping as well as our intentional revisionism.
On what historical scholarship does Eleanor Roosevelt: In Her Words rely?
The literature on ER is huge and inspirational. A major resource: the volumes of Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (1971) and its sequel, Eleanor Alone (1972). Also crucial: the three volumes of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s magisterial biography, Eleanor Roosevelt; the recent publication of volume 3, on World War II, was very helpful. [Editor’s note: Blanche Wiesen Cook is also a member of our Scholarly Advisory Committee, and contributed discussions of Eleanor Roosevelt to our Massive Open Online Course, “Women Have Always Worked, a clip of which can be viewed below].
Maurine H. Beasley has several terrific books on ER’s role as communicator. Allida M. Black has a fine book on ER’s postwar career. A raft of fascinating books on the Roosevelts appeared in 2016. Susan Quinn, Eleanor and Hick, on the pivotal relationship of ER and journalist Lorena Hickok, is most valuable. So is William J. Mann, The Wars of the Roosevelts, which covers family dynamics and the career of ER’s illegitimate half-brother, Elliott Roosevelt Mann. Matt Dallek’s recent book, Defenseless Under the Night, discusses ER’s career during WWII, when she served briefly at the Office of Civilian Defense. ER’s autobiographies and other books remain in print. Websites devoted to ER include the two major websites at the FDR Library and at George Washington University, both wonderful resources. The FDRL website includes some of ER’s extensive correspondence. Two excellent volumes of ER’s postwar papers, edited by Allida M. Black and other scholars, have been published to date. Finally, I appreciated the PBS documentary on the Roosevelt family by Ken Burns.
Many thanks for making the time to speak with us today!
Top image credits: Eleanor Roosevelt at the New-York Historical Society exhibit Votes for Women, October 1952. New-York Historical Society.