God and Mrs. Roosevelt: Harvard Scholar Mary Ann Glendon Finds in Eleanor Roosevelt a Surprising Voice of Modesty and Faith
Glendon, Mary Ann, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
In her 1958 autobiography, Eleanor Roosevelt described an occasion in the early days of the U.N. Human Rights Commission when she invited three key players to her Washington Square apartment for tea. The guests that afternoon were the commission's two leading intellectuals, Charles Malik of Lebanon and China's Peng-chun Chang, along with John Humphrey, the Canadian director of the U.N.'s Human Rights Division.
"As we settled down over the teacups," the former First Lady recalled, "one of them made a remark with philosophical implications, and a heated discussion ensued."
By Roosevelt's account, Dr. Chang was "a pluralist and held forth in charming fashion on the proposition that there is more than one kind of ultimate reality." Malik responded to the remark by an extended reference to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. The conversation became, as Roosevelt recalled, "so lofty" that she couldn't even follow along.
"So I simply filled the teacups again," Roosevelt wrote, "and sat back to be entertained by the talk of these learned gentlemen."
None of the guests on that occasion would have taken this archly modest account at face value. They were already familiar with her style of chairmanship, in which she did, indeed, "sit back" and let everyone have his or her say--all the while studying how to steer the discussion toward her desired outcome.
In this way Eleanor Roosevelt herself contributed to the odd tendency of some political historians to underestimate her importance. She had been raised in an ethos where women were schooled to be self-effacing. Later, shrewd political actor that she was, she was not above feigning naivete when it suited her purposes.
Perhaps this is why, in the early 1990s, when I began researching Eleanor Roosevelt's role as chair of the U.N.'s first Human Rights Commission, I found that key aspects of Roosevelt's life and work had been ignored or underrated by historians and biographers. Although Roosevelt herself regarded her work on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as her single greatest public achievement, diplomatic historians and writers on foreign policy had given short shrift to her role. Even her biographers had not treated her U.N. work in any detail. In fact, most biographies left off with her departure from the White House after the death of her husband in the spring of 1945.
It also struck me as curious that most contributors to the voluminous Roosevelt literature had overlooked the connection between Eleanor Roosevelt's achievements and the high-minded Protestant Christianity that was so much a part of her public and private persona. One notable exception was Jean Bethke Elshtain's 1986 essay on "Eleanor Roosevelt as Activist and Thinker," in which Elshtain pondered why that dimension of Roosevelt's life had been so frequently ignored--and why …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: God and Mrs. Roosevelt: Harvard Scholar Mary Ann Glendon Finds in Eleanor Roosevelt a Surprising Voice of Modesty and Faith. Contributors: Glendon, Mary Ann - Author. Magazine title: First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. Issue: 203 Publication date: May 2010. Page number: 21+. © 2009 Institute on Religion and Public Life. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.