Happy Birthday ER!


Ms. Shear is well-known as a writer, lecturer, broadcaster, producer, and director of a performing arts production and public relations agency.

Eleanor Roosevelt didn't photograph well. The camera seemed to capture not only the sloping chin and protruding teeth but the insecurity and shyness that had plagued her since childhood. This week, the week of Mrs. Roosevelt’s 125th birthday, some forty-seven years after her death, first-person accounts of the warmth of her presence and the vibrance of her personality – what many who met her describe as a radiant charm and powerful magnetism – are increasingly rare. And the facts of her accomplishments, as well as what she personally had to overcome to achieve them, are fading from general knowledge. The “flaws” of her features, however, seem to be universally recognized and are increasingly coming to define her, providing a basis for ridicule. Asked what they know about Eleanor Roosevelt, many people state that she was the wife of a president (often naming her uncle Theodore rather than Franklin D.) and that she was an activist for good causes; more often, they will mention homeliness, or even ugliness, as an identifying feature. In the 76 years since she first entered the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt has gone from beloved – and controversial – First Lady to icon to caricature.

It's sad that Mrs. Roosevelt was not mentioned more that she was, which was hardly at all, during the recent Democratic convention, campaign, inauguration and beyond. ER was all about change, and the leaders we recently elected seem to have values and priorities that mirror ER's: bipartisanship, a quest to understand and communicate with the opposition, and a moral and ethical foundation to actions and policies.

The presidential “bubble” of isolation that President Obama is concerned about inhabiting was minimized for FDR, who was handicapped by polio as well the restrictions of the office. Mrs. Roosevelt went out into the world for him, traveling relentlessly in search of the truth about the quality of people's lives. From the shacks of Appalachia and the poor South to the wartime South Pacific, she reported back to the heads of state not only about the intolerable conditions she found but what should be done to correct them. These were not photo ops to provide sound bites for favorable press for the administration; these were highly controversial and often physically dangerous missions grounded in compassionate reportage. This was nothing new for her; it was Eleanor who introduced Franklin to the realities of poverty through her volunteer work on New York's Lower East Side, when they were both barely out of their teens.

As journalist, author, broadcaster and public speaker, Mrs. Roosevelt fought for the rights of children, women, refugees, European Jews during the Holocaust, Japanese Americans who faced internment after Pearl Harbor, the labor force, and the physically and mentally ill. Few individuals – black or white – fought longer or more intensely than she for the cause of racial equality. She constantly reminded America that it did not have a true democracy if any segment of the population was subject to discrimination – a reminder that was not always welcome, including by members of her husband's administration.

In the deep South, she took an ice cream cone from a black man's hand and ate from it – an act of integration rarely seen in those days, particularly involving so distinguished a woman. She sat in the middle of the aisle between blacks and whites at a segregated meeting, answering a question about the purpose of her presence by saying that she was “bearing witness.” Refusing the protection of the Secret Service, she drove through the back roads of the South, while she was on the Ku Klux Klan's most wanted list, to advise a group of black people about fighting for their freedom (which had to have involved elements of civil disobedience). In the early 1930s, she brought leaders of the NAACP and African American universities together at the White House to communicate.

When black contralto Marian Anderson was denied the right to perform in Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, ER resigned from the organization and later invited Anderson to sing for the King and Queen of England. She fought against Jim Crow, and demanded that Congress federalize the crime of lynching. She asked to be taken on a flight piloted by Tuskegee airmen as a highly publicized vote of confidence in black competence, and did the same with Amelia Earhart, as an expression of confidence in women's ability, both in an age when air travel was considered somewhat risky.

The “moral conscience of the New Deal,” as she was called, did not limit her activism to her husband's administration. She prodded John F. Kennedy to act more decisively on civil rights, and served as intermediary between Martin Luther King, Jr., and JFK, who was fearful of losing support within his own party by being too close to a black activist. As a delegate to the United Nations (its first woman delegate) during the Truman administration, following the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, she developed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, defining and outlining the rights of all human beings, in language that many countries and cultures were able to relate to and accept. Her efforts on behalf of civil rights and other causes often resulted in accusations of Communist sympathies. She bore it all with the quiet dignity that she wished for all human beings.  

ER could easily have continued leading the elitist life of money and privilege into which she was born. It is hard to imagine other First Ladies, or other “ladies” of her class or generation, descending into coal mines, or, in a Red Cross uniform, holding the hands of gravely injured servicemen and women in the most dangerous arenas of a world war.  

Mrs. Roosevelt's global travels were legendary, but her inner journey was no less long and arduous. Shy, even terrified, of public speaking and uncomfortable in most social situations, ER found her strength in fighting for those who could not fight for themselves. She struggled to overcome a childhood legacy of loss and rejection, forcing herself to face fears and insecurities that would have emotionally crippled others. One wonders if this great compassion could have come from a person who had not known profound sadness and disappointment.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the most admired woman of the 20th century. Now, the public ­– including members of the media – seem almost eager to demean her. A journalist recently wrote about the “masculinity” of Mrs. Roosevelt's glasses without mentioning, or perhaps knowing, that they were an early version of the frames that contained her much-needed hearing aids. And there was a spoof feature in the May 3, 2009, edition of the New York Times Magazine announcing a new movie starring Sean Penn in the role of Eleanor Roosevelt. The woman who famously wrote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” and who did not consider anyone inferior to herself, might or might not be wounded by people's seeming eagerness to focus on the shortcomings of her appearance.

Forgetting her may be natural; names that inhabit boldface headlines are often obscure short years later. But to remember her incorrectly would seem to be a disservice to her and to ourselves. Ultimately, how we remember Eleanor Roosevelt on her 125th birthday will say more about us than about her. Happy birthday, Mrs. Roosevelt. And thank you.

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