Jesus, Gandhi, Buddha, and Eleanor: Identifying With ER

 

She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker
By Brigid O’Farrell
Ithaca: ILR Press of Cornell University Press, 2010, 274 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Eleanor Roosevelt: Transformative First Lady
By Maurine H. Beasley
Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010, 304 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage
By Hazel Rowley
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, 345 pp., $27.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Priscilla Murolo

 

Mostly, first ladies come and go, but almost a half-century after her death in 1962, Eleanor Roosevelt remains an American icon.  She’s been the subject of documentary films, TV movies, innumerable magazine articles, and hundreds of books, from multivolume biographies to novels, memoirs, children’s literature, photo essays, and even an encyclopedia.  The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University has created gigantic Internet archives of her writings, including all 8,112 of the nationally syndicated My Day columns she published six days a week from 1936 to 1962.  Both university and trade presses continue to issue annotated collections of her letters, speeches, and articles.  And at the other end of the highbrow-lowbrow spectrum, she’s a perennial figure in motivational literature—not just straight-laced anthologies of inspirational quotations or life stories but also brassy bestsellers like Kelly Cutrone’s Normal Gets You Nowhere (2011), which compares her to Jesus, Gandhi, and the Buddha.

Clearly, there was something special about Eleanor Roosevelt.  Each of the three books reviewed here defines that “something” differently, and despite their focus on a well-worn topic, each can justly claim to offer new perspectives.  With regard to originality, however, Brigid O’Farrell’s She Was One of Us stands head and shoulders above the others.  For Hazel Rowley in Franklin and Eleanor and Maurine Beasley in Eleanor Roosevelt, the most salient fact about Eleanor is that she was a political wife with her own political agenda.  For O’Farrell, that’s a given; what matters is the agenda’s content, in particular the many goals it shared with progressive sectors of the American labor movement.

Rowley conceives Franklin and Eleanor as a corrective to historical gossip that the Roosevelt marriage was merely a charade after 1918, when Eleanor discovered Franklin’s love affair with her social secretary and, the story goes, mended a broken heart by henceforth ignoring her husband and throwing herself into politics.  Rowley finds this “an absurdly conventional and condescending interpretation of one of the most interesting and radical marriages in history.” In her counternarrative, what began as a Victorian arrangement—husband devoted to public affairs, wife tending his home and advancing his career—turned into a genuine partnership following Franklin’s bout with polio in 1921.  He would never again walk without crutches and painful leg braces, and until the end of his life he needed hydrotherapy that would take him out of the public eye for days or even weeks at a time.  Eleanor, a naïve woman who had married at age twenty, born six children over the next decade, and kept house under her mother-in-law’s watchful eye, now blossomed into her husband’s colleague.

Together, they set their sights on the White House, and they got there thanks in large part to Eleanor’s efforts.  Her activism with the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee helped Franklin expand both his popular base and his contacts with political insiders.  Eleanor persuaded him to run for governor of New York, and both of them used their two terms in Albany to construct networks of advisers who would later accompany them to Washington.

Just as Franklin made the radio addresses known as fireside chats signatures of his presidency, Eleanor’s My Day newspaper columns brought her political views to millions of readers.  Although she did not publicly criticize her husband’s administration, behind the scenes she often tried to move him in progressive directions—toward federal legislation against lynching, for example.  Because Franklin’s disability made travel difficult, Eleanor was perpetually on the move, inspecting federal projects, attending public functions, and making goodwill tours on his behalf.  The couple enjoyed living communally with friends and extended family.  Both found romance outside the marriage, and each generously tolerated the other’s affairs.  Their partnership was a “model of equality, openness, and freedom of speech,” writes Rowley.

Rowley tells this story in genial, chatty prose that makes Franklin and Eleanor an enjoyable read, but her promise to construct a new history of the Roosevelt marriage goes unfulfilled.  Since her protagonists left behind little evidence of what they privately thought and felt about each other, Rowley relies almost entirely on public records, the observations of various relatives and friends, and the pathbreaking Roosevelt biographies by Joseph P. Lash and Blanche Wiesen Cook—sources that either whitewash the marriage’s departures from convention or regard it as a troubled match.  Rowley extracts from this material a great many anecdotes that buttress her interpretation, but the narrative that results has an exceedingly weak central thread.  Jumping back and forth between stories about Eleanor and stories about Franklin, the book reveals considerably less about a marriage than about two individuals who happened to be married.  While Rowley succeeds in liberating Eleanor from the demeaning role of scorned wife, she’s a long way from establishing the Roosevelts as colleagues happily ensconced in a marriage that exemplified democracy.

 

 

The marriage looms large in Maurine Beasley’s Eleanor Roosevelt as well, and she too portrays it as a political partnership.  In this telling of the story, however, the partners often pursued different objectives.  According to Beasley, Franklin’s infidelity provided the catalyst for Eleanor’s activism, but she was not simply licking wounds. An indifferent homemaker and detached mother, she found politics a welcome relief from domesticity and never looked back.  She and Franklin lived separate lives in New York’s governor’s mansion and developed separate networks of political contacts.  From household servants to high-level advisers, the staff that surrounded them in Washington divided itself into two camps:  “the President’s people” and “Mrs. Roosevelt’s people.”

In a sharp break with tradition, Eleanor earned money as first lady, selling her My Day columns to newspapers, publishing several books, and collecting fees for speeches and feature journalism.  By the 1940s, her annual income matched Franklin’s presidential salary, and the Gallup poll reported that her popularity topped his.  Working in private to push his administration leftward, she also staged her own press conferences—open to women reporters only—and used them to  advance causes such as equality for women, jobs for youth, civil rights for African Americans, and opening the United States to Jewish refugees from fascist Europe.  She joined the American Newspaper Guild, got involved in union affairs, won admission to the Women’s National Press Club, hobnobbed with young leftists from the American Youth Congress, went tit for tat with the right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler, and made known her opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Much of this irritated Franklin, who kept in his desk a satirical poem charging that “The Lady Eleanor” promoted political causes merely to promote herself.  Should his advisers criticize her, however, he shut them down.  Despite Eleanor’s many differences from Franklin, her place in American hearts made her an indispensable political asset.

In her conclusion, Beasley—a former professor of journalism and author of First Ladies and the Press: The Unfinished Partnership of the Media Age (2005)—proposes that Eleanor Roosevelt’s political significance derived from her “recognition that politics were becoming ever more dependent on the mass media.”  More than any of her predecessors and quite a few of her successors, “[s]he saw presidential politics as a spectator sport and realized that the first lady was a vital member of the presidential team.” That’s an important point.  It cannot be mere coincidence that the most widely admired and beloved first lady in US history was also the most prolific writer, a frequent public speaker in the golden age of radio, and the first to acquire her own press corps.

Brigid O’Farrell suggests, however, that a more vital factor was Eleanor Roosevelt’s exceptional empathy for working people; legions of ordinary Americans identified with ER, as they often called her, because she identified with them and actually knew quite a bit about their daily lives.  Expanding on this insight, O’Farrell organizes her book around two central themes:  how Eleanor Roosevelt got so smart about working-class life, and how she used what she learned.  She Was One of Us thus highlights the continuities in what Rowley and Beasley present as ER’s fairly eclectic progressive agenda.

Throughout her long career as an activist, Eleanor Roosevelt sought out contact with working people and labor reformers.  Before she married, she volunteered her time at the Rivington Street Settlement in New York City and investigated factory conditions as a member of the National Consumers’ League.  When she revived her activism in her late thirties, she once again gravitated to class-bridging projects, working with the Women’s Trade Union League to educate women wage-earners in current events, to win back pay for those who had been stiffed by employers, and to promote women’s unionization.  Her involvement in the league continued until its break-up in the mid-1950s—and her association with it was just one of many ways in which she connected with the labor movement.  As first lady, she also proclaimed sympathy for strikers, staged inspection tours that exposed employers’ violations of labor law, and became so active in the American Newspaper Guild that its executive board tried to draft her into running for union president.

After FDR’s death in 1945, ER’s labor advocacy continued.  She vocally opposed the Taft-Hartley Act’s restrictions on unions, chaired the international commission that incorporated workers’ right to organize into the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, pressed unions to overcome differences with one another and build stronger alliances with the movement for civil rights, and worked closely with unionists as chair of the Kennedy administration’s Commission on the Status of Women.  Along the way, she formed enduring friendships with labor leaders who educated her not only on union affairs but also on the everyday realities of working-class life.  Her most important teachers in this regard were Rose Schneiderman of the Women’s Trade Union League, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers.

As O’Farrell makes plain, ER was by no means a labor militant, and her progressivism had boundaries.  Like most labor reformers of her class and generation, she hoped that compulsory arbitration would someday replace strikes, and she opposed the Equal Rights Amendment on the grounds that it would undermine sex-specific laws that protected women workers.  After World War II, she endorsed American labor’s participation in the World Federation of Trade Unions, where representatives of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) rubbed elbows with unionists from the socialist bloc, but she did not demur when the CIO later withdrew from this alliance.  Defending labor’s mainstream when it came under fire from McCarthyites, she nonetheless condoned the CIO’s expulsion of Communist-led unions that opposed the Cold War.

By the early 1950s, ER’s advocacy for labor and other progressive causes rested on anticommunism—the proposition that the Cold War abroad demanded reform at home.  As she explained from the podium of the 1955 convention at which the CIO reunited with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), “First, of course, we have to set our own house in order.  We cannot hold up to the world either standards of race equality or of equal opportunity or of better conditions of labor unless we have them.” She did not live long enough to face the test that the US war in Vietnam would pose for Cold War progressives, and it’s impossible to know for certain how she would have responded:  like Reuther, who eventually came out against the war, or like Dubinsky, who backed it to the bitter end.  Whatever might have developed on that score, it is not an exaggeration to say that Eleanor Roosevelt embodied both the promise and the limits of American liberalism in the Cold War era.

That O’Farrell allows us to see her in this light speaks volumes about the value of She Was One of Us.  In this book, Eleanor’s relationship to Franklin is only a small part of her story, and that analytic shift opens new vistas on her career.  As its continuities come into sharper focus, so do its longevity and breadth.  Rowley and Beasley each compress into one chapter ER’s activity after FDR’s death, but those busy years absorb a full half of O’Farrell’s book.

To understand Eleanor Roosevelt’s iconic status, one certainly has to take her marriage into account.  To define her as a wife, however—even a one-of-a-kind first lady—sells her short.  The marriage gave her political clout and high visibility, but what she did with those assets was all her own.

 

Priscilla Murolo is a professor of History at Sarah Lawrence College, where she co-directs the graduate program in Women’s History.

 

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