because the woman's place is wherever the woman is...

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt was connected to America's White House before she moved in with her husband Franklin in 1933 because she was the niece of President Teddy Roosevelt. Born into the illustrious and very wealthy family in 1884, Roosevelt early on recognized and made peace with the fact that she was no "good-looker," so she was going to have to prioritize other qualities of her personhood. And she did.

Starting out as a shy, somewhat naive young lady who was so old fashioned as a child her mother called her "Granny," Roosevelt was eventually called "The First Lady of the World" and by 1999, she had appeared in the top ten on Gallop's List of the Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century. It was a long and difficult path.

Even though Roosevelt was presented to New York society as a debutante at the Waldorf-Astoria, her education at the exclusive Allenswood Academy outside of London, England, her years as a Junior League volunteer in the poverty-stricken tenements of New York City, and her subsequent studies at the radical New School University exposed her to a much broader world and much, much broader perspectives than most with her level of privilege.

When her husband was hit by a devastating illness in the sixteenth year of their marriage and lost his ability to walk just as his political career was taking off good, Roosevelt demonstrated her strength of character, not only by nursing him back to health, but by taking on some of the responsibilities of his various positions (including three terms as President of the United States) when they required gallivanting around, which he could not easily do. She made appearances all over the nation and all over the world. She held no fewer than 348 press conferences on her own. She went down into a coal mine to prove the federal government cared about workers. She stepped in and offered Marian Anderson the Lincoln Memorial for a concert when the world famous singer was denied the ability to perform at Constitution Hall because of her race. She asked Mary McLeod Bethune -- a seriously in-your-face woman and close personal friend -- to organize an informal Federal Council of Negro Affairs (otherwise known as the Black Cabinet) to advise the President. And when the United States Army Air Corps trained the Tuskegee Airmen, but wouldn't let them fly, Roosevelt herself went up in a plane with one of the Airmen, giving them the White House's official seal of approval (see photo above).

Eventually, after her death in 1962, it was acknowledged that FDR was a inveterate womanizer and that Eleanor Roosevelt had also had a long-standing and affectionate romance with journalist Lorena Hickock. Life can be complicated for in-your-face women. Yet the way she will always be remembered is typified by a quote from Roosevelt's 1958 speech before the United Nations which appears at her memorial in Riverside Park in New York City. It reads: "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity." Indeed.

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