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Reading 3: A Complex Woman
Eleanor Roosevelt genuinely cared for people and tried to do whatever she could to help those who were less fortunate than herself. Sometimes, however, this got her into trouble. Her visit to Communist Russia was particularly controversial. Simply because she was willing to travel to the USSR, and even though she made it clear that she hoped to encourage the Soviet people to back the United Nations, she was accused of being involved with communist organizations and in a plot against Christianity. She was to write of this episode:
We in America seem to have almost forgotten what it means to do a selling job for Democracy. Not so in Russia. They plan on a complete coverage of everything they do. We seem to forget we educate our young people for a different purpose. The Soviets want completely disciplined people while we want good citizens for a Democracy. I am constantly impressed with how much we need to learn....We seem to have lost respect for learning as learning and we are not fond of new thinking (Hershan, 188-89).
Roosevelt was also questioned about how she could support John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, for president of the United States. Her reply was that:
As a Democrat I am supporting Mr. Kennedy because I think he will make a good and liberal president. Our constitution grants freedom of religion and equality of opportunity to all. After all, a candidate should be judged on his abilities to fill the highest office of our country and not on his religious affiliations (Hershan, 191).
She reported that she had "learned that the only way to cope with unfair critics is to ignore them and not to lower oneself by answering back" (Hershan, 193). It seemed nothing stood in the way of Roosevelt's convictions and her belief in the American right to free expression.
When she died in November 1962, newspapers in big cities and small towns across the nation and throughout the world wrote of her great accomplishments. An example of the accolades paid to Roosevelt appears in an editorial Hope Strong wrote for a Lima, Ohio, newspaper:
A great lady is to be laid to rest today. Eleanor Roosevelt was perhaps our most famous First Lady; but she was more. To much of the world she became a symbol of American Humanitarianism. To much of America she became an example of the increasingly important role of women in our nation. She was an outstanding woman even at a time when many women were rising to new heights of acclaim never before achieved by her sex. Mrs. Roosevelt was controversial. But she was respected by everyone. Even by those...who disliked her (Hershan, 189-90).
1. Why might some people have thought that Eleanor Roosevelt was a Communist? How did this notion reflect the political climate of the time?
2. How did Roosevelt respond to her critics?
3. Do you think Roosevelt is as controversial a figure today as she was in her own time? Why or why not?
Reading 4 was compiled from Stella K. Hershan, Eleanor Roosevelt--A Woman of Quality (Hyde Park, New York: Hyde Park Gift Shop, Inc., 1970).