Eleanor Roosevelt, Women’s Politics, and Human Rights
Throughout her long career in politics, Eleanor Roosevelt (ER) championed both women’s rights and women’s activism. ER believed that women were entitled to equal rights. But she also believed that women’s differences from men made them uniquely qualified to engage in political activism. As she put it in her 1933 call to action, It’s Up to the Women, “Women are different from men. They are equals in many ways, but they cannot refuse to acknowledge the differences.”1 To ER’s way of thinking, women’s differences were the basis for women’s activism. As she explained in an interview with Good Housekeeping: “Women must become more conscious of themselves as women and of their ability to function as a group.”2 In addition, ER believed that women’s distinctive approach to politics would benefit society as a whole. As she told the New York Times: “Women are by nature progressives.”3 ER exemplified what scholars have described as the “domestication of politics,” engaging in a distinctive “women’s political culture” that placed women at the vanguard of progressive movements for human rights both at home and abroad.4
“The fundamental purpose of feminism
is that women should have equal opportunity
and equal rights with every other citizen.”
ER was a latecomer to feminist politics. She did not participate in the woman suffrage movement — although she also did not publicly oppose woman suffrage. When a member of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage attempted to gain her support, she demurred. Until the 1920s, ER “considered any stand at that time quite outside my field of work” as the mother of young children and the wife of a rising politician.5
It was not until later in life that ER described herself as a feminist. In 1935, in an interview for Equal Rights, she asserted: “The fundamental purpose of feminism is that women should have equal opportunity and equal rights with every other citizen.”6 But although ER did not engage in the suffrage movement and only belatedly claimed a feminist identity, her activities in the first two decades of the twentieth century laid the groundwork for a lifetime of feminist activism.
ER’s activities in these years exemplified social feminism, an understanding of women’s role that encouraged a broad cross-section of American women to engage in public life. In addition, ER’s commitment to the settlement house movement and her participation in social reform introduced her to suffrage activists who saw the vote as a vital tool to improve American society, especially for working women and their families. In the coming decades, these associations would become stronger still, transforming the former debutante into a political powerhouse.
Like most Americans, ER and her fellow female reformers believed in innate gender distinctions; that is, they believed that women and men were inherently different. Traditionalists believed that gender differences dictated that women should confine their activities to the home. But ER and her activist friends instead believed that women had a distinctive role to play in American society.
At the time that ER came of age, growing numbers of clubwomen, reformers, and suffragists used women’s traditional role in the private sphere of the home to justify their expanding role in the public sphere of politics. Women were the housekeepers of the world, they argued; therefore, they were ideally suited to clean up corrupt politics. Women were the mothers of the world, they pointed out; who better to ensure that the government responded to the needs of its citizens?
As urbanization necessitated that cities provide essential services — such as health care, education, and recreation — previously provided by housewives and mothers in their own homes, the concepts of social housekeeping and municipal motherhood drew many women, including ER, into public life. As one clubwoman explained in 1906:
[Women] began to realize that the one calling in which they were, as a body, proficient, that of housekeeping and homemaking, had its outdoor as well as its indoor application. . . . It was this knowledge, the extension of the homemaking instinct of women and the broadening out of the mother instinct . . . that led them out into paths of civic usefulness.7
“Woman’s sphere,” previously narrowly defined, expanded to encompass virtually all aspects of daily life — or “wherever she makes good,” as a 1917 pro-suffrage drawing in Puck put it (see illustration above). Thus, while for the vast majority of nineteenth-century Americans, gender differences excluded women from the exercise of power, for a growing proportion of twentieth-century Americans, these differences necessitated women’s engagement in politics. The domestication of politics empowered women to become political activists. As ER put it, modifying her earlier views of politics: “In the old days men always said that politics was too rough-and-tumble a business for women, but that idea is gradually wearing away.”8
For ER, the brief hiatus between school and marriage provided a powerful introduction to a distinctive women’s political culture. Educated in France, ER returned home to New York to make her formal debut in 1902. At age nineteen, she was “still haunted by my upbringing,” she later recalled, “and believed that what was known as New York Society was really important.”9
At the same time that she navigated her first social season and agreed to a secret engagement to her cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), ER also sought other outlets. Some of her fellow New York debutantes founded the Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements. In 1903, ER joined this “group of girls anxious to do something helpful in the city where we lived,” teaching calisthenics and dance to youngsters at the College Settlement in the Lower East Side. She confided to her fiancé that her time at the settlement was “the nicest part of the day.”10
That same year, ER joined the National Consumers’ League, a women’s organization dedicated to investigating and improving working conditions for wage-earning women. Assigned to investigate working conditions in garment factories and department stores, ER acquired what she called a “great deal of knowledge of some of the less attractive and less agreeable sides of life.” Increasingly, she became convinced that “one must do something” meaningful, rather than spend one’s time in “idleness and recreation.”11 Although the demands of marriage to an aspiring politician and mothering five children would consume most of ER’s time and energy for the next several years, her early involvement in social reform paved the way for her future political leadership.
Preoccupied with family demands, ER had not been actively engaged in the suffrage movement. Instead, she described 1920, the year that the 19th Amendment was ratified, as the beginning of her education in politics. In the 1920s, New York was a vital center for women’s activism, the home of the national headquarters for important social reform organizations. Among these, the National Consumers’ League (NCL) and the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) were especially important for ER’s development as an activist. These organizations’ shared emphasis on bringing working-class women and middle-class women together to improve the lives of wage-earning women were consistent with ER’s patrician upbringing. She worked with women much like herself, who would become major figures in the New Deal, including NCL president Florence Kelley and future Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. But work in these organizations also introduced her to women with very different backgrounds, such as WTUL president Margaret Dreier Robins and the fiery Jewish labor organizer Rose Schneiderman. ER also joined the New York Women’s City Club, which she described as a “clearing house for civic ideals.”12
ER’s activism in the 1920s also acquainted her with prominent pacifist feminists, such as Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, and Caroline O’Day. In the aftermath of the destruction of World War I, ER and her fellow pacifists urged the United States to join the fledgling League of Nations and the World Court to advance international cooperation and prevent future global conflicts.
After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, new organizations such as the League of Women Voters (LWV) and the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee also encouraged women’s political engagement. Building on her understanding of women’s political culture and insisting that women’s political participation was a patriotic duty, ER worked with these and other groups to mobilize women voters. In 1924, she told the New York Times that “the whole point in women’s suffrage is that the Government needs the point of view of all its citizens and the women have a point of view which is of value to the Government.”13 Although she rejected the notion of establishing a separate women’s party, she insisted that women should organize politically. Only by choosing “women bosses” with “the power of unified women voters behind them,” she explained, could women become “a real force” in politics.14
ER’s work with the League of Women Voters and the Democratic Party introduced her to a remarkable group of women reformers centered in Greenwich Village. Initially, her most important contacts were lawyer Elizabeth Read, who became ER’s political tutor as well as her personal attorney, and her partner, journalist Esther Lape. Through Lape and Read, ER became acquainted with Mary W. Dewson and her partner, Polly Porter. In the 1930s, Dewson, a major player in the women’s division of the Democratic Party, would become one of ER’s most powerful political allies.
“There is nothing more exciting
than building a new social order.”
ER’s immersion in New York’s reform milieu also introduced her to Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook. Cook, a talented artist who was active in the Democratic party, and Dickerman, an educator with a social conscience, became ER’s closest companions in the mid-1920s. Together with Caroline O’Day, they formed the Val-Kill partnership, which grew to include the Women’s Democratic News, edited by ER, the Todhunter School, where Dickerman was principal and ER taught, and the Val-Kill furniture factory, managed by Cook. ER, Cook, and Dickerman also built a cottage for themselves on the Roosevelts’ upstate New York estate.
In the 1930s, ER built on the foundations of her New York feminist political community to facilitate the creation of a network of female politicos who helped shape domestic policy during the New Deal. This group included Mary W. Dewson, head of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee; Frances Perkins, who became FDR’s Secretary of Labor; and Grace Abbott, Chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau. For this group, the 1930s offered an unprecedented opportunity to translate women’s priorities into federal policy. As ER put it in December 1933, “there is nothing more exciting than building a new social order.”15
From the beginning of FDR’s first term, ER and FDR had different ideas about how to address the Great Depression. In competing columns in the Women’s Democratic News, FDR supported the cost-cutting Economy Act. By contrast, ER argued that what was needed was more, not less, spending, in order to “adequately help other human beings.”16
ER rejoiced when FDR’s administration began to adopt what she viewed as “constructive” programs.17 The 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, which set standards for working conditions and wages and established workers’ right to unionize, followed the lead established long before by the National Consumers’ League, replacing the League’s white label with the National Recovery Administration’s blue eagle. ER enthusiastically supported the program, urging women to use their power as consumers to encourage merchants’ compliance with standards set by the National Recovery Administration (NRA). “No matter what we can afford to buy,” she pronounced, “we cannot afford to buy at the expense of the health and strength of our fellow human beings.”18
ER also rejoiced at the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), although she regretted the program’s focus on men — a problem shared by the Public Works Administration and the Civil Works Administration work-relief programs established under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). Likewise, she regretted the NRA policy of establishing differential wages for male and female workers. Disappointed in the early New Deal’s neglect of women, in November 1933 she sponsored a White House Conference on the Emergency Needs of Women, a gathering of social workers, clubwomen, and representatives of women’s groups such as the WTUL, the NCL, and the LWV.
Subsequently, Ellen Sullivan Woodward, the head of FERA’s Women’s Division, worked with ER to serve as a watchdog for women’s interests in job-creation projects. These efforts provided employment for women — and services for communities — by hiring women as teachers, librarians, and nurses, but the majority of women in such programs worked as seamstresses.
Similarly, while the CCC ultimately employed 3 million men to improve camping and hiking facilities in national parks, the program ignored women. ER campaigned vigorously for a parallel program for women — ridiculed as She-She-She camps — but while ultimately 8,500 women participated, the program lagged far behind the CCC. Nonetheless, ER’s commitment to this project introduced her to one of her first Black friends, Pauli Murray, who believed that Camp Jane Addams saved her life. In the years to come, ER’s relationship with Murray would strengthen her commitment to African American civil rights.
Throughout the 1930s, ER relied heavily on former journalist Lorena Hickok to serve as her eyes and ears. Assigned to cover ER during FDR’s presidential campaign, “Hick” became ER’s closest companion for many years. Her reports on rural poverty gave ER evidence to encourage FDR to expand anti-poverty programs, such as the experimental homesteading program near Morgantown, West Virginia, known as Arthurdale. Although Arthurdale was one of ER’s pet projects, it excluded African Americans, highlighting the shortcomings of the New Deal where racial equality was concerned.
ER also passionately advocated programs to support the arts, such as the Federal Theater Project, and to benefit young people, such as the National Youth Administration (NYA). The latter agency became a power base for the only Black woman in the New Deal network, educator and clubwoman Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune’s friendship with ER desegregated the White House and strengthened ER’s commitment to civil rights.
The centerpiece of the New Deal was the 1935 Social Security Act, which laid the groundwork for a federal welfare state. With input from ER and other members of the women’s network, FDR proposed programs for federal aid to dependent children and federal support for public health agencies. Both programs were modeled on ones long championed by female reformers: state-level financial support for single women and their children, known as mothers’ pensions, and a pioneering maternal and child health care program, established under the Sheppard-Towner Act (1921-1929). The Social Security Act also included unemployment compensation and old age benefits.
FDR initially envisioned an even more comprehensive package that included universal health care and a federal public employment program, but opposition from the American Medical Association doomed the first, while the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established separately from the Social Security Administration. ER considered the WPA a stop-gap measure. Like the programs designed for women and children under the Social Security Act, the WPA was means-tested, or based on income. This meant that rather than being universal, these benefits were limited to the desperately poor — who in turn were subject to supervision by social workers. No such limitations applied to the programs that primarily benefited men: unemployment insurance and old age pensions. Thus, while offering federal support for both women and men, the Social Security Act established a two-tier system of support in which programs intended primarily for male workers were regarded as entitlements, while programs intended primarily for women and children were stigmatized as welfare.
In addition, while unemployment insurance and old age pensions were federally administered, Aid to Dependent Children was locally administered, leading to significant racial bias. Moreover, the contributory nature of both unemployment insurance and old age pensions — and the exclusion of seasonal and part-time employees, workers in service industries, and employees of nonprofit organizations — meant that 80 percent of Black women, 60 percent of Black men, and 60 percent of white women were excluded from the Social Security Act’s entitlement programs. Ultimately, only half of the American workforce was eligible for unemployment insurance and old age pensions.
ER told reporters that the Social Security Act was merely a start. She hoped for “a permanent ban on child labor, better unemployment insurance, better health care for the country as a whole, better care for mothers and children,” and a New Deal for youth and workers.19
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 — which replaced and strengthened the labor provisions under the NRA, which the Supreme Court invalidated in 1935 — partially addressed ER’s concerns. Strongly supported by the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee, the act established a federal ban on child labor and both maximum hours and minimum wages for both women and men. However, to appease white southerners, the act excluded domestic laborers, agricultural workers, and seasonal employees; thus, it benefited primarily white employees. In the decades to come, ER continued to advocate on behalf of African American welfare, as well as Black civil rights.
“We are the leading democracy of the world
and as such must prove to the world
that democracy is possible and capable
of living up to the principles upon which it was founded.
The eyes of the world are upon us.”
As the New Deal waned at home and war loomed abroad, ER advocated civil rights on two fronts, domestic and international. ER believed that civil rights and international relations were closely linked. Equating American racism with European fascism, she insisted that racial equality was essential to democracy. In a 1934 speech, she explained:
To deny any part of a population the opportunities for more enjoyment in life, for higher aspirations is a menace to the nation as a whole. . . . We must wipe out any feeling . . . of intolerance, of belief that any one group can go ahead alone. We all go ahead together, or we go down together.”20
In keeping with these beliefs, throughout the 1930s, ER worked on behalf of African American rights and welfare. Working closely with Aubrey Williams and Mary McLeod Bethune in the National Youth Administration (NYA), she advocated expanding New Deal programs and insisted that Black Americans be included in them. She also collaborated with civil rights leaders in the American Youth Congress, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Southern Conference for Human Welfare to combat the poll tax, support a federal anti-lynching bill, and promote racial equality.
Leading by example, in 1938, when the Southern Conference for Human Welfare met in Birmingham, Alabama, ER refused to comply with local authorities’ insistence that she abide by local segregation statutes. When a police officer threatened to remove her from the seat she had selected alongside African American delegates, she moved her chair to the aisle between the white and Black sections. For the remainder of the four-day conference, she placed a folding chair in the middle of the room, refusing to sanction racial segregation. She also gave a stirring speech at the conference — which occurred just weeks after Kristallnacht, a night of unprecedented government-sanctioned violence against Jews in Germany — that highlighted the importance of the U.S. living up to the highest ideals of democracy at a time when human rights were endangered in Europe:
We are the leading democracy of the world and as such must prove to the world that democracy is possible and capable of living up to the principles upon which it was founded. The eyes of the world are upon us.21
ER believed that a successful democracy was essential to counter the threat of fascism, and she regarded economic security as essential to national security. “If democracy is to survive,” she wrote in her “My Day” column in May 1940, “it must be because it meets the needs of the people.”22 In her 1940 book, The Moral Basis of Democracy, she declared that “adequate education and adequate material security” were necessary to ensure citizens’ support for democratic government.23
While ER advocated for African Americans at home, she also worked on behalf of European refugees. As a member of the Emergency Rescue Committee and the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children, she worked tirelessly — if often unsuccessfully — to combat both bureaucratic red tape and widespread American hostility to refugees in order to provide a safe harbor for Jewish children, antifascist activists, and political dissidents.
Until Pearl Harbor and the official U.S. entry into the war, ER was true to her pacifist principles, resisting militarism and remaining active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. But even as the atrocities committed against Jews increasingly inclined her toward supporting military intervention, she insisted that the ultimate goal was to “aid humanity and civil populations everywhere” in order to ensure “a more permanent way of peace.”24 As she confided to her daughter in 1939, “I feel sick about the war & want so much to do something that looks toward building a better peace. We can’t go on with ever recurring wars in a modern world.”25
As the U.S. contemplated imposing a military draft in Summer 1940, ER insisted that war was the “worst of all ways” to resolve conflicts.26 Instead of selective service, she proposed a universal draft for community service — in effect, a vast expansion of existing New Deal programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and National Youth Administration, that would provide full employment and universal education. When the nation adopted a military draft instead, she demanded an end to discrimination and segregation in the armed forces, although with limited success.
Indeed, ER’s efforts on behalf of African Americans often failed to achieve their objectives. For instance, in 1942, she joined civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Pauli Murray in a last-ditch effort to prevent the execution of Odell Waller, a Black sharecropper sentenced to death for killing his white landlord in self-defense. FDR rejected her repeated appeals to pardon Waller, who died in the electric chair. But ER remained determined to extend the promises of American democracy to all and optimistic about ultimate success. She reflected:
We have to live up to the traditions of our country as expressed in the Bill of Rights, in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence even though I know in many cases we have fallen short. . . . I am far from giving up the problems of the Negro situation or any other. I am too old not to realize that lost causes usually are won in the end.27
ER insisted that the best way to challenge fascism abroad was by strengthening democracy at home. In a “My Day” column published in November 1941—shortly before Pearl Harbor—she wrote:
If we cannot meet the challenge of fairness to our citizens of every nationality, of really believing in the Bill of Rights and making it a reality for all loyal American citizens, regardless of race, creed or color; if we cannot keep in check anti-semitism, anti-racial feelings as well as anti-religious feelings, then we will have removed from the world, the one real hope for the future on which all humanity must now rely.28
After the U.S. entered the war, ER continued to press this point. “If we play our part with courage and clear-sightedness,” she predicted in her 1942 book, This Is America, “we may become the hope of the world.”29
At the end of the devastating war, ER’s work with the new United Nations was decisive in redefining human rights for the modern era. As Chair of the Human Rights Commission, she helped ensure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would include not only political and civil rights, but also social and economic rights. As she put it, “You cannot talk civil rights to people who are hungry.”30 After eight-five meetings, on December 10, 1948, the UN General Assembly approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ER had succeeded in bringing her cherished commitment to comprehensive social welfare and universal civil rights to the international stage.
Back in the United States, ER continued to regard racial equality as an essential component of human rights. Civil rights were not merely a domestic issue, she argued, but “the question which may decide whether democracy or communism wins out in the world.” In 1950, she told Congress: “Our great struggle today is to prove to the world that democracy has more to offer than communism.”31 In the 1950s, ER gave workshops for civil rights activists, encouraging boycotts and sit-ins and critiquing police repression of public protests.
Throughout her long career, ER insisted that women’s rights were essential to a successful democracy at home and to lasting peace abroad. In 1945, she used her “My Day” column to support the Fair Employment Practices Committee, intended to combat both racial and gender discrimination. As before and during the war, she appealed to the idea that the U.S. needed to remain true to its democratic principles in order to remain viable:
If we do not see that equal opportunity, equal justice and equal treatment are [granted] to every citizen, the very basis on which this country can hope to survive with liberty and justice for all will be wiped away.32
ER believed not only that the U.S. should be at the forefront of global efforts to promote democracy and protect human rights, but also that American women should lead the charge. Reflecting her longstanding support for both women’s rights and women’s activism, in 1962, the year of her death, ER chaired the Commission on the Status of Women, which called for women’s full participation in American life. Although ER was a latecomer to feminism, she fully embraced its commitment to protecting women’s interests, advancing women’s equality, and empowering women to promote social justice.
Anya Jabour, Ph.D.
Regents Professor of History
Director, Public History Program
Department of History
University of Montana.
This essay and web feature is made possible with funding provided by The Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Partnership, Inc.
4 Paula Baker, “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920,” American Historical Review, Vol. 89, No. 3 (June 1984), 620-647; and Kathryn Kish Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work: The Rise of Women’s Political Culture, 1830-1900 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).
5 Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume One, 240.
6 Ware, Beyond Suffrage, 17.
7 Anne Firor Scott, Natural Allies: Women’s Associations in American History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 146.
8 Kristi Anderson, After Suffrage: Women in Partisan and Electoral Politics before the New Deal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 164.