Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady of the World
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 22, 2006
The Sermon by Rev. Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz
Shortly after Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962, a cartoon appeared in The New Yorker showing two angels, with slightly apprehensive faces, standing guard at the Pearly Gates in Heaven. As they peer forward into the clouds, one says to the other: “Here she comes!”
When Eleanor Roosevelt was still alive, there was another editorial cartoon that appeared from coast to coast. An immigrant woman and her young son are standing at the railing of a ship, heading into New York Harbor, and they are looking out toward the Statue of Liberty, just off in the distance. The young boy is turned toward his mother, and he says: “Of course I know who that is, Mama. That’s Mrs. Roosevelt!”
When we visited the Roosevelt home and museum in Hyde Park, New York, this past summer (a trip we take every couple of years as a sort of pilgrimage), I continued to be amazed at just what an amazing woman—and a powerful woman—Eleanor Roosevelt was. She was years ahead of her time (she would still be ahead of our times, in many ways); and she was every inch Franklin’s equal both as a public citizen, and as a political tactician. Theirs was truly an amazing public/private partnership.
In an age where political reputations falter and fade quickly (even FDR, titan that he was, has appeared increasingly fallible and faulted-- and human, I guess—in several recent studies) Eleanor’s reputation (in spite of a bit of snickering about her private life here and there) remains as strong as ever, at least among those who pay attention to such things. Certainly, she may not be as much of a household name as when she was alive (amazingly, a Gallup poll found that she was the most admired woman in the world, for fifteen consecutive years, from 1946 through 1961). But still, Eleanor Roosevelt served as a role model for a generation (or more) of American women; she was perhaps the most widely traveled and recognizable woman of her day, and her accomplishments in a wide range of fields were legendary; and there is still so much that we can learn from the wisdom and example of this good woman. As we pause this morning to celebrate the United Nations, I can think of no single person who epitomizes better a dedication to the ideals of peace, justice, and freedom at the heart of that world organization.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 11, 1884. Think of how much the world has changed in those 122 years! That was back before the turn of the twentieth century—before the First World War, let alone the Second. Chester Allen Arthur was President of the United States; Victoria was Queen of England—and would be for another 17 years. There was, of course, no radio (no electric lights, even), no automobiles (let alone airplanes). Eleanor Roosevelt lived such a long time ago; yet, in many ways, she seems such a modern (even contemporary) figure.
To me at least she seems like that favorite old aunt, who never quite got as old as the people around her; who never really seemed to get old at all. “I could not at any age be content to take my place in the corner by the fireside and simply look on,” she once said. “Life was meant to be lived,” she added, “and curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.”
It wasn’t that her life was easy, certainly. She was born into wealth and privilege: her mother was Anna Hall, a beautiful socialite from an old established New York family. Her father was Elliot Roosevelt, brother of Theodore, of the Roosevelts of Oyster Bay on Long Island. Her parents were wealthy, but their values were shallow and superficial. Her mother expressed herself “appalled” that she had produced such a somber, unattractive daughter, and often mocked Eleanor by calling her “Granny”. Eleanor adored her father, but he was, in many ways, a ne’er-do-well; addicted to alcohol, he was unable to work; a sexual philanderer, he may well have fathered an illegitimate child by one of the family’s maids. Finally, it became too much for the other Roosevelts, including Uncle Teddy, and they sent him south, away from his family, alone. Shortly thereafter, Anna Roosevelt died of diphtheria, when Eleanor was only eight; two years later, her father died as well, and Eleanor became an orphan. She and her brother were sent to live with her father’s mother, but life among the Hall family was not happy either, and Eleanor’s childhood was, to put it mildly, miserable. Her grandmother was strict and humorless. Eleanor also speaks of having three locks on her bedroom door, either because she had been abused by male family members, or perhaps feared being as much.
Certainly, these early years didn’t bode well for the blossoming of such a hearty flower of humanitarian concern and exuberance about life. But then, when she was 15, everything changed—for the better: Eleanor was sent to England to a finishing school run by a French woman named Mademoiselle Souvestre, where she became an exceptional student, a natural-born leader, extremely popular with both students and teachers alike. The torments of her younger years could have crushed her, and forced her back into a shell of self-consciousness and self-loathing from which she might never have emerged. Instead, through some wondrous combination of inner fortitude, and radical educational theory, and the grace of God, Eleanor Roosevelt completed her formal education and emerged as a compassionate, energetic, fully-actualized woman of the world.
She returned to America in 1902, at the age of 18, and went through with the ritual of making her debut at the Waldorf Astoria.(Can you imagine Eleanor Roosevelt as a debutante?) But the social circles of New York no longer interested her, and instead she became involved with the Junior League, working on its behalf in the settlement houses and slums of the city; working with the poor; tutoring newly arrived immigrants. She also worked with the Consumers’ League, investigating conditions in the sweatshops of New York, and pressing for reform. From early in her life, then, Eleanor Roosevelt came face to face with the privation and illness and despair faced by so many people, so far removed from her own social class.
Soon, too, she was introduced to her fifth cousin (once removed), her father’s godson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt—at the time a somewhat reticent and mother-dominated young man derided by even some of his own relatives as “Feather Duster” Roosevelt. Unhappy at Groton, undistinguished at Harvard, young Franklin seemed destined to drift aimlessly through a life of money and privilege. When the two of them announced their intentions to marry, relatives on both sides thought that each could have “done better”; but marry they did, in New York City, in 1905, with Uncle Teddy, the President of the United States, giving the bride away.
Family life was tumultuous and trying. The Roosevelts had six children over the next ten years, five of whom survived infancy. Eleanor herself described her parenting skills as “miserable”—think back to her own childhood and the awful role models she had. In 1918, Eleanor discovered her husband’s extra-marital affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, and offered him a divorce. But Franklin’s mother, Sara Roosevelt, would not hear of it, and threatened to disown Franklin if he went through with divorce.
Instead, Eleanor and Franklin agreed to remain together, as much political partners, perhaps, as husband and wife. She campaigned for him vigorously when he was nominated for the Vice-Presidency by the Democrats in 1920 (an election the Democrats would lose to the Republican ticket of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge). In 1921, when Franklin contracted polio, it was Eleanor who nursed him around the clock. Soon, she became his public “voice” and his “legs”. She joined the New York Democratic Committee and traveled around the state, keeping the Roosevelt name in the public eye. It paid off, and in 1928, FDR was elected Governor of New York; four years later, in the midst of the Great Depression, he was elected President.
Eleanor was hardly delighted by the prospect of becoming First Lady, and seriously considered leaving Franklin before the inauguration. She feared that she would be “absorbed” by her husband’s presidency, and that it would bring to an end all of her hard work on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. Finally, Eleanor decided to at least try to cope with the challenge that lay ahead.
Needless to say, she wasn’t “absorbed” at all, and her awe-inspiring personality shown all the more brightly in the light of notoriety. She emerged as a force for social change second to none—in her own day, or at any time in American history perhaps. She was once again her husband’s eyes and legs—traveling across the country making speeches; climbing down mine shafts to speak with coal miners; visiting farms and speaking out against foreclosures; sitting down in conversation with common folk everywhere; giving a voice to the aspirations of the less fortunate and less privileged. If she was FDR’s eyes and legs, then she also became the New Deal’s conscience, as well.
David Bumbaugh of the Unitarian Church in Summit, New Jersey has written:
When FDR died in 1945, Eleanor seems to have honestly thought that she would just retreat back into private life. “”The story is over,” she told reporters who followed her to Hyde Park. But clearly, her story wasn’t over. She became a member of the Board of Directors of the NAACP, and helped lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights revolution that would soon sweep the country. President Truman appointed her a member of the first U.S. delegation to the United Nations, recognizing her roles as one of the chief architects of the U.N. Soon, she became co-chair of the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission, and the co-author of the Declaration of Human Rights. She was no longer the American First Lady, true But in many minds, she had earned the title “First Lady of the World”.
In 1935, she began writing a syndicated newspaper column, “My Day”, which appeared in hundreds of American newspapers, six days a week, for 27 years, until shortly before her death in 1962. (The only time the column did not appear were the four days immediately after her husband’s death in April of 1945.)
Another observer has summed up some of the other contributions she made to the common welfare in those 17 years after leaving the White House:
“She fought with Cardinal Spelman of New York about federal aid to parochial schools, she began a radio and television shows on which she interviewed famous guests, she pushed hard for recognition of the State of Israel, she worked for the election of Adlai Stevenson - twice. She faced off against Khrushchev in Moscow, and then welcomed him as her guest in Hyde Park two years later. She was leery of John Kennedy because of his failure to speak out against McCarthy, but then decided to support him. He appointed her as chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. In the spring of 1962, she chaired an ad hoc Commission of Inquiry into the Administration of Justice in the Freedom Struggle.”
Into her mid-70s, she was still rising at 7:00 AM, heading off for her office by 9:00, entertaining and meeting with guests at her home all afternoon, off to a public gathering till 10:30 or 11:00, then staying up till after 1:00 in the morning answering correspondence and editing her column. (I get tired just reading her schedule, let alone living it!)
She was not universally appreciated, or loved. J. Edgar Hoover was convinced that she was a Communist subversive, and had her followed for many years. Indeed, at the time of her death, Mrs. Roosevelt had the largest FBI file on record. She was reviled in her own time as a “troublemaker”, an “agitator”, a mixer of the races, a traitor to her class, a rabid feminist, and so much more.
But how far she had come from that rejected, timid, somewhat pathetic little girl born in New York so many years before. She had overcome so many obstacles; she had transcended so many barriers.
Perhaps her dear friend Adlai Stevenson said it best in his eulogy for her:
May the radiance of this wonderful woman continue to inspire us all, in our own day, in our own time.