Friday, May 4, 2012

Remember Her?

     Honestly, I don't remember much about her. She died when I was in junior high school (now known as middle school). But I recall that she loomed large in my young mind, as she was probably the most important woman in the country even though to me she seemed quite elderly. She was born in 1884, which made her almost as old as my grandmother.

      But she couldn't have been more different from my grandmother, who came to America in the late 1890s as a poor immigrant from Eastern Europe. This woman, who's first name was Anna, was born in Manhattan to a wealthy member of New York high society.

     But Anna's life was not simple, and it was not easy. Her mother died from diphtheria when she was only eight, and her father, an alcoholic, was confined to a sanatorium and then died two years later. One of her brothers (she had two brothers and a half brother) also died of diphtheria.

Her home in NY, now a National Historic Site
     Anna went to live with her grandmother in upstate New York along the Hudson River. She was shy and insecure as a child and according to one of her biographers she considered herself "ugly." She was home schooled until age 15, then sent off to a finishing school outside London, England, where she learned French and came under the tutelage of a feminist educator who encouraged her to develop her own independent thinking.

     After she returned to the U. S. she came out at a debutante ball at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, then went to work as a social worker in the New York slums. (Maybe she saw my grandmother there!) At the same time she met her future husband, a dashing Harvard student -- and famously took him on a tour of the tenements where she worked.

     They were married in 1905 by the headmaster of her husband's upper-class prep school, and went on a three-month honeymoon trip to Europe. They set up housekeeping in a Manhattan apartment provided by her husband's family and vacationed in upstate New York and in Maine. Over the next ten years the couple had six children, as her husband began to pursue a political life. He won election to the New York state senate, then an appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He decided to run for the U. S. Senate from New York, but he stumbled and lost in the primary to a fellow Democrat who in turn lost to Republican James W. Wadsworth (who served two terms 1914 - 1926).

     The path of their life soon changed, first when Anna found out that her husband was having an affair with her secretary. They did not get divorced, but Anna then resolved to achieve fulfillment on her own merits and not live in the shadow of her husband. Then, a couple of years later, in 1921, her husband fell ill -- diagnosed with polio (although researchers later suggested it might have been Guillain-Barre syndrome) -- and she stepped forward to take a more active life in politics, giving speeches, developing relationships and building her popularity.

     Her husband spent much of the 1920s fighting to regain his health, and in 1928 she had mixed feelings as he took up the call to run for governor of New York. She supported his ambitions, but feared that she would be relegated back to a behind-the-scenes role.

     Have you guessed who she is? The entire country got to know her after her husband was elected president of the United States and took office in 1933 during the depths of the Depression.

     But even before then, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt had been working for social progress by supporting union activity, calling for the establishment of a 48-hour week, and trying to abolish child labor. Now she took up the cause of her fellow women, spoke in favor of peaceful international relations, and supported rights for African Americans. She wrote about her concerns for women's magazines and penned a syndicated column called "My Day," which ran from 1936 to 1962, and in noting her daily activities addressed subjects such as unemployment, education, rural life and the role of women in society.  

     After FDR died in 1945, Eleanor worked at the United Nations under President Truman, and she supported Adlai Stevenson for president in 1952, 1956, and also in 1960. She had reservations about John Kennedy because of his early reluctance to condemn Joseph McCarthy. But she did eventually throw her support behind him, and after he was elected he in turn appointed her to another post at the U.N.

     There's a lot more to the Eleanor Roosevelt story. If you're interested, a good place to start is the 1995 Doris Kearns Goodwin Pulitzer Prize-winning book No Ordinary Time. Then there's Joseph Lash's 1971 tome Eleanor and Franklin, and a two-volume look at Eleanor Roosevelt by feminist Blanche Wiesen Cook, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt's own autobiography, a book of the best of her "My Day" columns and a guide to her everyday philosophy called You Learn By Living.

     Or if you happen to be in New York, take a trip up the Hudson and visit her house Val-Kill, located across the street from the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, NY.



Janette said...

An amazing woman! I find her more fascinating than FDR myself. She always had the poor at heart.

Olga said...

An all time favorite human being and a personal hero for me.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

She was certainly a remarkable woman, and now that I am finished with this history degree, I will have time to read biographies again. Dianne

MerCyn said...

She was a great woman and an inspiration to all of us - men and women - an outstanding example of the saying that whatever lemons life throw at you, you can always make a wonderful pitcher of lemonade.

rosaria williams said...

Thanks for these beautiful pieces of history I would never have run into. So much to like about Anna Eleanor, and so much to learn from her strength and resolve too.

Arkansas Patti said...

I guess who you were talking about in the beginning but really enjoyed learning all the interesting facts about this amazing woman. Thank you.

Stephen Hayes said...

She ranks near the top of my list of admirable women.

Kay Dennison said...

I guessed it early but I'd just seen the American Experience DVD (from Netflix) about her recently and she has been my heroine for a very long time!!!!!! What great lady!!!!

June said...

I don't "remember" her either, but I do recall all the grownups being very very impressed with her. I've been to Hyde Park and Val-Kill a number of times and the graciousness of all of it just make me feel so comfortable.
A formidable woman, indeed, and SO worthy of your words of remembrance.

Helen711 said...

Seeing a poster of ER with a quote from her changed my life: No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.