With the Democratic National Convention about to nominate its first female presidential candidate, Hannah Dunleavy tells us about the first woman to ever address the convention and why she might’ve been the best President America never had.
April 18, 1962: charming, handsome, media-savvy John F Kennedy settled down to be interviewed on public television. Opposite him was an unfailingly polite 77-year-old who wanted to talk about the status of women in the US.
It might be easy to assume the President was going to get an easy ride. If his body language wasn’t screaming, “Remind me why I said yes to this”.
He’d already made this woman chair of the newly created Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, the prize she’d extracted for her vital endorsement en route to the White House. She couldn’t be fobbed off with Kennedy charm and he knew it.
At one point, he talks of a woman’s “primary responsibility, the home”. She doesn’t bother to acknowledge it, instead asking why, if nations considered less advanced had women in policy-making roles, the US did not. (His answer’s all over the shop, especially given that he jokes he’s aware it’s important as she keeps writing to tell him it is.)
The whole thing is gentle by modern standards but you see Kennedy’s relief when the world’s politest arse-spanking comes to an end.
When the interviewer died, less than seven months later, he ordered every American flag in the world be flown at half-mast.
Because Eleanor Roosevelt.
Take a superficial glance at Eleanor’s life and you’d think she had things easy. She came from a wealthy, respected family – US aristocracy, if it existed – and for 20 of her 78 years her uncle Teddy or her husband Franklin were in the White House.
In fact, her life was often tragic. Right from the start. Her mother wished her daughter was prettier. Aloud. And called her “Granny” when – huge surprise – she was a serious child.
This fixation on her looks may have contributed to the depression which Eleanor experienced throughout her life. Although depression was a Roosevelt problem. Teddy suffered from it, as did his brother, her father Elliott, who tried to keep it at bay with alcohol, at points drinking six bottles of brandy or champagne a day.
Eleanor’s mother died of diphtheria when she was eight; a younger brother followed six months later. Elliott died when, in the grip of alcohol withdrawal, he began to hallucinate, tried to throw himself out the window and suffered a fatal seizure. Eleanor was 10.
“Although FDR said Eleanor would be his ‘eyes and ears’, she was going to have to be a lot more. She would have to go places, meet people and listen to their problems. And man, did people have problems in 1932.”
With her remaining brother, Hall, she went to live with their maternal grandmother, where she had a governess she was “desperately afraid of” who pulled her hair “mercilessly”.
Also in the house was an aunt, who existed in “perpetual romantic turmoil”. And two uncles. Both of whom were alcoholics. One was such a danger, his niece was sometimes locked in her room for her own safety. (Hall, to whom she was always close, died of alcohol-related illness at 50. Her diary entry after his death remains one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. It’s incredible to me that people had the brass neck to criticise her support of Prohibition.)
When she was 14, Eleanor was sent to a school in England run by the feminist Marie Souvestre. It’s hard not to conclude everything she went on to become stemmed from this decision and she called this period “the happiest of my life”. She arrived “scared of other children” and left the most popular girl there.
She didn’t leave by choice. Her grandmother recalled her to the US at 17 to look for a husband and for the rest of her life she believed she’d been denied an education.
Her soon-to-be-mother-in-law Sara Delano seemed to excel at this. When Eleanor accepted the proposal of a distant relative, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), his mother refused to let the couple announce their engagement for a year and took him on a long holiday to keep them apart.
When they married, in New York, on 17 March 1905, Uncle Teddy, the President, gave her away. He was ebullient at the best of times, let alone having just swung by the St Patrick’s Day parade, so the event became a one-man show. Hardly anyone spoke to the newly-weds, Eleanor said, and not a single photo of them was taken.
Her somewhat notorious cousin Alice (of whom Teddy once said: “I can run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both”) claimed to have had a stab at telling Eleanor what her wedding night would entail but stopped when the bride-to-be tried to suffocate her with a pillow. Eleanor later described sex as “an ordeal to be borne”.
The young couple moved to a house in Manhattan that Delano built for them. She lived in an adjacent property, had connecting doors installed and, despite Eleanor’s protestations, ran both homes. She also made her daughter-in-law give up her volunteer work.
The Roosevelts had six children in 10 years, including a son who died aged seven months, something Eleanor blamed herself for. She later described herself as “ill-suited” to motherhood, something that certainly wasn’t helped by her mother-in-law’s constant interference. (Delano often told her grandchildren: “I am more your mother than she is.”)
And then, in 1918, came the worst blow of all: Eleanor discovered FDR had been having an affair with her social secretary. For years. And was planning to leave her. It changed her life.
Eleanor voiced doubts about the future the morning after FDR was elected president by a landslide in 1932. (But really, a cardboard cut-out of King Kong could’ve won that one.) Her aunt had been First Lady so she understood the pressure and the loss of privacy. But more than that, she knew she was going to have to be a different kind of First Lady.
Because, incredibly, the Roosevelts and their inner circle were hiding a secret: since a bout of polio in 1921, FDR had been confined to a wheelchair. Until his death, through trickery, co-operation, secret service heavy-ing and a Herculean effort from the man himself, most of the world remained oblivious to the fact he was unable to walk unaided.
It seems cruel to say polio turned out to be a blessing in disguise, but in terms of his career – and the things he achieved for his country – it’d be remiss not to acknowledge it was. For starters, it stalled his career and ensured it didn’t die in the political earthquakes of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression.
Perhaps more importantly, and far be it from me to indulge in air-punch sentimentality, it meant he arrived in the White House finally understanding the word ‘hardship’.
And it served him well. He had many detractors for the remainder of his presidency (which was also the remainder of his life) but his popularity among the man on the street was so great he once beat God to the title of America’s most admired man.
But his physical limitations meant that, although he said Eleanor would be his “eyes and ears”, she was going to have to be a lot more. She would have to go places, meet people and listen to their problems. And man, did people have problems in 1932.
If it sounds an impossible task, it’s worth noting the woman facing it was not the same one who discovered her husband’s affair more than a decade earlier. Their marriage was irrevocably changed and so was she. She had, she wrote in her diary, become an individual. She’d thrown herself into activism, joining women’s political groups and becoming a force within the Democratic Party in her own right (she was the first woman to address the Convention in 1932).
She was arrested on a picket line, campaigned to end child labour and lobbied to improve care for soldiers with shell shock after the First World War. She also campaigned (sadly, unsuccessfully) to make lynching a federal crime – which would have ensured minimum prison terms and stopped local judges issuing ‘slap on the wrist’ punishments.
This work widened her social circle, introducing her to people from different backgrounds and races, as well as politically savvy and educated women. Among them prototype lesbian power couple Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, with whom Eleanor lived for many years, and Lorena Hickok, a journalist she had an intense relationship with. Debate still rages as to whether Eleanor was a lesbian but it’s worth pointing out that, regardless, she deserves credit for being the first person to bring openly gay women into the heart of the White House.
It’s one of the great ironies of the Roosevelt marriage, that while convention kept it together, it had become so unconventional it would have many Americans stroking their guns today.
Whatever what was going on with her life, or indeed between FDR and his secretary Missy LeHand, the couple continued to not just trust and respect each other but also each other’s ‘partners’. In fact, one of the first things FDR did when elected was send Hickok on a tour of the country to report on the conditions in which real people lived.
Surrounding her husband with strong, opinionated women may have affected his decision to appoint the country’s first female cabinet minister, Frances Perkins, who was given the tough role of Secretary of Labor, a job she held for his entire administration.
Eleanor also insisted he appoint Mary McLeod Bethune to his new and informal ‘Black Cabinet’. She had met Bethune at a conference and demanded to sit next to her, despite segregation laws. (During the same visit to the South, at a public meeting in Alabama, she moved her chair into the aisle separating whites from the ‘Negroes only’ section to highlight the insanity of the situation.)
But FDR’s wife wasn’t just content to influence. Her first move on arriving in the White House was to announce she would hold her own press conferences, from which male reporters were banned. While it seemed to many to be a tit-for-tat response to the fact women were not permitted into Presidential press conferences, it proved a canny move as news outlets wanting to attend were forced to employ at least one female reporter.
“The FBI were never big fans: they’d been watching her since 1941 and have over 4,000 recorded incidents of spying on her activities on their files.”
From the outset, the First Lady was attacked. For not knowing her place as a woman, for interfering, for not behaving in a feminine fashion. Her voice, her politics and her clothes were regularly ridiculed. Cardinal Francis Spellman called her behaviour “unworthy of an American mother” and politicians of all stripes called her a do-gooder (although some were gracious enough to publicly say that after meeting her they were entirely converted).
But it did little to stop her. It’s almost impossible to do justice to her campaigning spirit or what she achieved for women, for African Americans and for the working poor.
She was central to the New Deal programmes which lifted the US out of the Depression. She sponsored the relocation of Scott’s Run, West Virginia, which Hickok described as the “worst place I’d ever seen”, to a new community, Arthurdale, contributing her entire earned income and regularly visiting. Later, when the project was discussed as a failure, she merely described the improvements in residents’ lives and added: “I don’t know whether you think that is worth half a million dollars. But I do.”
She campaigned for better wages for women and put programmes in place to help them into white-collar work. When America began to gear up for the Second World War she argued women should get their share of the work created and, crucially, that employers should provide childcare for working mothers. She also met with and campaigned behind the scenes for birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger.
But it’s probably her civil rights record that’s most extraordinary. When black workers, angry at being frozen out of the economic recovery by many employers, threatened to march on Washington, she brokered a deal between community leaders and her husband, which resulted in what might have been a pretty toothless statute, but was, nonetheless, the first piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil War.
In 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow African American singer Marian Anderson to perform in Washington’s Constitution Hall – the only large venue in the city – she resigned her membership, invited Anderson to the White House and helped arrange a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
When the US Airforce finally allowed African Americans to train as pilots she went to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and insisted she be taken up in a plane by a black pilot.
She later argued not just for desegregated schools but desegregated housing. In fact, the best indication of what a thorn she continued to be in the side of the segregated South was that when she was in her 70s, the Ku Klux Klan offered a $25,000 reward for anyone who would kidnap her.
If you think the FBI was all over that, you’d be wrong; they merely advised her not to go to the South. (Which she ignored.) Although the FBI were never big fans: they’d been watching her since 1941 and have over 4,000 recorded incidents of spying on her activities on their files.
But it’s important to note that as much as she was hated, she was loved. So much so, that when Japan bombed Pearl Harbour – an event that shook America to its core – FDR didn’t want to address the nation before he’d had a chance to talk to the Senate, so it fell to Eleanor to reassure the nation.
She later called for a halt to retaliation against Japanese Americans – something the Los Angeles Times demanded she “retire from public life” for. And when those citizens were placed in internment camps, she visited and was so horrified by conditions, she called for their closure.
She argued – most unpopularly – that any Jew fleeing Europe should be given sanctuary in the US and when the war was over said the country must resist calls to repatriate them.
In 1943, she went on a five-week tour of American bases in the South Pacific. When she visited hospitals, she spoke to all patients, no matter how horrific their injuries. She then wrote to the family of EVERY SINGLE ONE to report on his condition.
When FDR died in April 1945, there was a final rug pull for Eleanor. He was in the company of Lucy Mercer, the woman he had that first affair with all those years ago. The woman he promised her he would never see again.
Many commentators, including British historian David Reynolds – shame on you, sir – have placed the blame for this on Eleanor. To me, it’s hard to see her performance at the 1940 Democratic National Convention and not think she was already giving her husband everything she had to give. He had decided to stand for an unprecedented third term – something she was dreading – and she was sent to a fractious Convention to secure his nomination and that of his chosen Vice President. And she achieved it.
Whether she blamed herself for his return to Mercer is unknown, but it’s clear it was devastating to her. But, like ever, she went on.
FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, appointed her US representative to the fledgling United Nations and she was instrumental in creating the Declaration of Human Rights. When she addressed the UN assembly upon its ratification, she received a standing ovation, something that had never happened before. And has never happened since.
By the time she died in 1962, she was, according to her New York Times obituary, “the object of almost universal respect”.
For me, nothing sums her up as much as a photograph taken in 1958. She’s at a rally in New York, her entire body covered in a plastic mac, her handbag clutched on her lap. Were it not for the fact she’s sitting next to Moshe Dayan, you’d be forgiven for thinking she was just any old lady.
And, of course, she was. What made her different is that she gave a shit. It makes me wish there were more people who did.
And what about Amy Johnson? Sarah Wilkinson explains why you should give a shit about her too, here.
Meanwhile, follow the latest twists and turns of the US Presidential race in Hannah’s Donkeys and Elephants column here.
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Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.