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Eleanor Roosevelt: The Activist

Out from the shadows...

Hi there- Bette Hardwick here from sometime in the 1920s with the last installment of the four-part series on Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt.

There was a lot to tell, so I’ve divided my notes up into four parts: Childhood, School, Early Marriage, and Political Activism.

A Political Life

A significant change occurred for the Roosevelt’s in 1911 when Dutchess County elected Eleanor’s husband to the New York state senate. Franklin asked her to leave New York City and to set up a home for the family in Albany.

“For the first time, I was going to live on my own. I wanted to be independent. I was beginning to realize that something within me craved to be an individual.” ER

Eager to leave the vigilance of her mother-in-law, Eleanor tackled the move with enthusiasm and discipline.

By the time Franklin left Albany to join Woodrow Wilson’s administration two years later, Eleanor had begun to view independence in personal and political terms.

“That year taught me many things about politics and started me thinking along lines that were completely new.” ER

Franklin Roosevelt has said, “Albany was the beginning of my wife’s political sagacity and co-operation.”

Consequently, when her husband was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy in autumn 1913, Eleanor knew most of the rules by which a political couple operated.

“I was really well schooled now. . . . I simply knew that what we had to do we did, and that my job was to make it easy.” “It,” was whatever needed to be done to complete a specific family or political task.

As Eleanor oversaw the Roosevelts’ transitions from Albany to Hyde Park to Washington, coordinated the family’s entrance into the proper social circles for a junior Cabinet member, and evaluated Franklin’s administrative and political experiences, her independence increased as her managerial expertise grew.

When the threat of world war freed Cabinet wives from the obligatory social rounds, Eleanor, with her commitment to settlement work, administrative skills, disdain for social small-talk, and aversion to corrupt political machines, entered war work eager for new responsibilities.

World War I

The war gave Eleanor an acceptable arena in which to challenge existing social restrictions and the connections necessary to push forward reform.

Anxious to escape the confines of Washington high society, Eleanor threw herself into wartime relief with a zeal that amazed her family and her colleagues. Her fierce dedication to Navy Relief and the Red Cross canteen not only stunned soldiers and Washington officials but shocked Eleanor as well.

“I became more determined to try for certain ultimate objectives. I had gained a certain assurance as to my ability to run things, and the knowledge that there is joy in accomplishing good.”

Eleanor began to realize that she could contribute valuable service to projects that she was interested in and that her energies did not necessarily have to focus on her husband’s political career.

Emboldened by these experiences, Eleanor began to respond to requests for a more public political role. When a Navy chaplain whom she had met through her Red Cross efforts asked her to visit shell-shocked sailors confined in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the federal government’s facility for the insane, she immediately accepted his invitation.

Appalled by the quality of treatment the sailors received, as well as the shortage of aides, supplies, and equipment available to all the St. Elizabeth’s patients, Eleanor urged her friend, Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, to visit the facility. When Lane declined to intervene, Eleanor pressured him until he appointed a commission to investigate the institution.

Spouse of the Candidate

In June 1920, Franklin received the Democratic nomination for Vice-President. Although both her grandmother and mother-in-law strongly believed that “a woman’s place was not in the public eye” and pressured Eleanor to respond to press inquiries through her social secretary, she developed a close working relationship with her husband’s intimate advisor and press liaison, Louis Howe.

Invigorated by Howe’s support, Eleanor threw herself into the election and reveled in the routine political decisions that daily confronted the ticket. By the end of the campaign, while other journalists aboard the Roosevelt campaign train played cards, Louis Howe and Eleanor could frequently be found huddled over paperwork, reviewing Franklin’s speeches and discussing campaign protocol.

The Republican candidate won the ticket that year, and the Franklins returned to Albany.

Back into the shadows

Eleanor was not thrilled with the prospect of returning to Albany and the governor’s mansion. It was a goldfish bowl in which all her movements would be both confined by and interpreted through her husband’s political prestige.

She told her son James that “she knew that Franklin would expect her to move into the shadows as he moved into the limelight.” This shift depressed her immensely. Various people have said that Eleanor’s “dread” of returning to the shadows was so strong that it fostered a rebellion which “strained at the leash of her self-control.”

However, Eleanor also realized that her political expertise and her new support system provided new opportunities she hadn’t had previously. Instead of becoming a compliant helpmate, she concentrated on how to find the most appropriate manner to promote two careers at once. Eleanor sought ways to pursue her separate interests so that they did not undermine her husband’s public standing.

She knew how threatening this would be to some pundits. So, immediately after the election, Eleanor launched a media campaign to make the press treat her various activities in the most positive light possible.

Franklin’s struck with polio

Tragedy struck Eleanor’s life again when Franklin contracted polio in 1921.
With her husband incapacitated and undergoing intensive treatment, Eleanor began serving as a stand-in, making public appearances on his behalf, often carefully coached by Louis Howe.

She also started working with the Women’s Trade Union League(WTUL), raising funds in support of the union’s goals: a 48-hour work week, minimum wage, and the abolition of child labor.

Eleanor was also very active in The Women’s City Club of New York. It kept women informed of political issues of the day and offered members a network of fellow professional women.

Within three years of joining this organization, Eleanor Roosevelt would be elected to the board and then first vice president. She became the club’s literal voice, initiating her career in radio with broadcasts intended to make women listeners informed on current political issues affecting them.

Some of the public questions that she encountered included government low-income housing, access to birth control information for married women, child labor regulation, worker’s compensation, and protective measures for working women. Her work with the Club helped develop her own organizational, writing and speaking skills.

Throughout the 1920s, through these initiatives and others, Eleanor became increasingly influential as a leader in the New York State Democratic Party while Franklin used her contacts among Democratic women to strengthen his standing with them, winning their committed support for the future

There are rumors that Franklin is considering a run at the White House. More information about Eleanor’s life and her husband’s political career can be found on The Bootleggers’ Chronicles and online.



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