Julia Baird: Eleanor Roosevelt was not just an idealistic First Lady, as a new collection of her papers reveals

Roundup: Talking About History

... The recently published first volume of her papers, "The Human Rights Years, 1945–48," with a foreword by Hillary Clinton, provides important clues. It begins when Franklin Roosevelt died, and ends with the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which Eleanor played a crucial part. In allowing us to study her own words, in letters, speeches, columns and diary entries, a different portrait of the much-lionized woman emerges—one of a pragmatic, savvy politician. While she is remembered as a saintly, long-suffering figure, we can forget she was an indefatigable, disciplined activist—as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote, a "tough and salty old lady"—who resisted stereotyping when she was alive, and constantly protested she was not interested in power while vigorously pursuing it.

The comparisons to Hillary Clinton are obvious—both had unfaithful husbands, and both were smart, unconventional First Ladies. To consider Eleanor simply prologue to Hillary, however, is to accept one of the too-easy images of ER. Mrs. Roosevelt eludes straightforward categorization; contrary to conventional interpretation, she shared some of her husband's emotional and political complexity. FDR could be charming (to meet him was like "opening a bottle of champagne," as Churchill said) or coolly difficult ("the coldest man I ever met," as Truman said). Like him, Eleanor had her own layers in life, and now there are layers in death. We think we know her, but we do not, and the myths we choose to believe may tell us more about ourselves than they do about her.

The dominant myth, according to the editor of the papers, Allida Black, is that Eleanor was "a meek, mushy-headed liberal." "We did the book because everybody thinks of Eleanor as this great, bleeding liberal conscience who had no experience in crafting hard-nosed realistic policy," she says. "That's not true. She hid behind her traditional image to shape policy."

These papers—the first of five volumes intended to document her years alone—deepen our understanding of Eleanor, a prodigious woman with a needle-sharp intellect who has been quoted widely by those who wish to ape her—or own her....

comments powered by Disqus