When you enter the fourth floor of the New-York Historical Society, you’re greeted by dazzling Tiffany lamps and a stunning portrait of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt painted in broad blue and purple brushstrokes by contemporary artist Karen Schwartz. Roosevelt was born in 1884, and Oct. 11 marks the 135th anniversary of her birth.
Roosevelt is a fitting figure to welcome visitors to our Center for Women’s History. Not only did she visit New-York Historical for our 1952 exhibit, Votes for Women,but her influence on the history of American politics and social reform extends beyond her many years in the White House.
Her work as a writer and public speaker shifted perceptions of what the role of a first lady could entail. Her support for labor unions, civil rights, women’s rights, and international cooperation shaped policy at every level, including the enactment of many New Deal programs. After Franklin Roosevelt’s death, she served as Ambassador to the United Nations in 1945 and as the chair of the committee charged with drafting the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, earning her the moniker, “First Lady of the World.”
Roosevelt’s last project was chairing the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, which John F. Kennedy formed to examine gender disparities. The commission’s report, American Women, was published about a year after her death on her birthday, October 11, 1963. In the letter of transmittal for the report, the committee quoted Roosevelt’s optimism about the changes that would lay ahead for the nation’s women:
“Because I anticipate success in achieving full employment and full use of America’s magnificent potential, I feel confident that in the years ahead many of the remaining barriers to women’s aspirations will disappear.”
While this conversation, and the resulting report did not seek to upend the male breadwinner model that shaped women’s employment prospects, family structure, and gender norms, it reveals how pressure to expand women’s roles was mounting. The subsequent report proposed widespread changes to government policy in education, federal and private employment, labor regulations, social insurance, taxes, maternity and child care policies, and more. Most of all, it laid the groundwork for the groundswell of feminist activism in the coming decades by calling national attention to gender inequality.
The JFK Library has made audio available online of a fascinating conversation between Roosevelt and Kennedy from April 1962. The president and former first lady discuss the goals of the commission and their objectives for expanding women’s employment. When Kennedy states that women’s primary “responsibility” remains within the home, Roosevelt presses him on why American women have not achieved as many high professional positions as women in other countries in policy making. The two bemoan that even educated women—for example students graduating from Radcliffe College—do not stay in the workforce after marriage and tease the upcoming CSW report’s proposals for improving public services and removing obstacles to women’s work, including equal-pay legislation.
Listen to the audio to catch a moment in time featuring two icons of American history. And to learn more about Eleanor Roosevelt, we recommend this three-volume biography written by our board member, historian and scholar Blanche Wiesen Cook.
Written by Anna Danziger Halperin, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Women’s History