Untraditional First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt Invented a Role No Successor Has Quite Matched

By Ruth Rosen. Ruth Rosen, a. professor of history University of California, Davis, writes regularly on political culture. | The Christian Science Monitor, September 4, 1992 | Go to article overview

Untraditional First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt Invented a Role No Successor Has Quite Matched


Ruth Rosen. Ruth Rosen, a. professor of history University of California, Davis, writes regularly on political culture., The Christian Science Monitor


WHEN her husband entered the presidential campaign, newspapers editorialized against her liberal causes. Republicans cast her as a radical who threatened American values. Critics painted her as a negligent mother.

She violated every kind of social and political expectation. While her husband was governor, she pursued a professional career and stumped the nation in behalf of women's and children's rights. Big business hated her because she championed the cause of the worker. Even the FBI kept a secret file on her activities.

Though she and her husband maintained separate private lives, theirs was a close political partnership. He learned to trust her political advice. He agreed to bring female leaders into his inner circle. And he adopted her civil rights stance as his own.

Her name was Eleanor Roosevelt, the most influential First Lady in American history. Columnist, teacher, activist, editor, she entered Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first presidential campaign as a well-known political activist. During his presidency, Republicans red-baited her as a Bolshevik who threatened the nation's security. Magazines ridiculed the barbecues she substituted for formal presidential dinners. Still, she outlasted her critics. After FDR's death, she championed the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and gained the status of elder stateswoman. In her last years, she chaired JFK's Committee on the Status on Women, helping spark the revival of feminism.

Hillary Clinton has said that Eleanor Roosevelt is her idea of a model first lady. It's hard to imagine a better choice. Before FDR's presidency, Eleanor Roosevelt championed all kinds of causes many considered un-American: child labor protection, social security, consumer rights, equal pay for equal work, and civil rights legislation. According to Blanche Wiesen Cook's new biography, Eleanor Roosevelt gently nudged FDR in ever more progressive directions.

Like Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton has been demonized by the right-wing as a backstage usurper scheming to take over the White House. …

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