Earlier this month when I was reading about African American women who made a difference so that I could feature them in the special issue of Notes to Women newsletter, one name kept popping up–Eleanor Roosevelt. I promised myself that I would do a little writeup on her. And here we are.
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world” (http://www.udhr.org/history/biographies/bioer.htm).
She basically believed that charity begins at home. And she reminds me of something a friend once said to me. “The difficulty in following Jesus’ command is that we often pick and choose who we decide is our neighbour. We see our neighbour as the starving, AIDS infected person in the Third World or the orphan in a war torn country, needing our love and care but often perceive the homeless in our community as undeserving of our love.”
Eleanor’s childhood was a dreadfully unhappy one. Her father was an alcoholic who was disowned by his family. Her mother, renowned for her beauty, was distant from her daughter whom she nicknamed “Granny” because she seemed to her old-fashioned. After Anna Roosevelt died of diphtheria in 1892, Eleanor, age eight, was raised by her maternal grandmother. She rarely saw her father thereafter, and he died of drink in 1894 when she was ten. These traumatic experiences affected Eleanor for life and she would harbor a constant yearning for unconditional love (http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/roos-elex.htm).
Life didn’t improve much when when Eleanor married Franklin, a distant cousin and they had six children. Eleanor had to deal with her overbearing mother-in-law who apparently told her grandchildren that their mother only bore them. She tried to control Eleanor, making her daughter-in-law feel utterly dependent.
Then Eleanor found out that Franklin was having an affair with Lucy Mercer, her secretary. She offered him a divorce, but he declined for the sake of his political career and because his mother threatened to disinherit him if he did. He and Eleanor never shared a bedroom after that, but their working relationship was respectful, for the time (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FranklinDRoosevelt).
Eleanor Roosevelt was the first First Lady to be more politically active, involving herself in causes like Civil Rights. Perhaps it was because there was lack of charity in her own home that made Eleanor want to reach out to her community. From early adulthood Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated herself to liberty, justice, and compassion for all.
Racial injustice came to her attention only after she reached the White House. By that time, she was already active in promoting other groups’ causes. Before she married Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1905, she worked with the immigrants at the Rivington Street Settlement House. During World War I she helped improve conditions for US servicemen.When Franklin fell ill, leaving him crippled, she once again found herself standing up for someone whose value to society was doubted, this time her own husband. The 1921 experience deepened her concern for society’s unaccepted. Later the same decade she began her work promoting women’s causes. Women had just gained the right to vote, and Eleanor encouraged them to make the most of that right and run for office.
After leaving the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt found herself more free than ever to promote equal rights for African Americans. During her final years she continued fighting as hard and fearlessly as ever. On at least one occassion, the Secret Service warned her not to keep a speaking engagement on civil disobedience. The Ku Klux Klan had put a price on her head and the Secret Service said they could not guarantee her safety. Undeterred, she traveled with another lady and her revolver. Such was her determination, independence, and courage right up to the year she died.
Mrs. Roosevelt was not always successful, even despairing at times of making any progress at all. And not every one of the causes she championed, such as the United Nations, turned out to be all that she hoped. But she used every ounce of her influence, charisma, and political capital for the causes in which she believed. Right or wrong, she fought zealously and courageously, and in most cases the world is a better place because of those fights. This zealous First Lady’s support moved African Americans’ cause ahead by decades
Eleanor Roosevelt came a long way from being an unhappy child and dependent woman to becoming a champion for women’s and civil rights. She was committed to what she believed in.
Be inspired by this remarkable woman who endured so much but in the end gave so much because she cared about the rights of others.
You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one