Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: Franklin Roosevelt’s women

Editor’s note: This is the 65th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Franklin Roosevelt delighted in the company of women, and when he died suddenly on April 12, 1945, he was surrounded by them. His wife Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was not among them. She was out and about attending to her own affairs. Although she took her duties as first lady very seriously and performed them with efficiency and grace, and never failed to give her husband constant support and wise counsel, she had other pots to boil beside presidential ones, and, by her own efforts, she rose to international prominence, indeed greatness. 
Her husband’s philandering, which she painfully discovered early in their marriage, was a principal cause of her independence. But the sources of her greatness lay in herself alone. She was another Abagail Adams, but freer and more productive. She was a person of the highest moral seriousness and integrity, an intellectual, a prolific author, a leading feminist, and she strode upon the world stage with unquestioned authority. Among her intellectual friends was the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and she paid visits to Union Theological Seminary in New York to consult with him. I saw her there several times, and heard her speak, and I cherish those memories.
But Franklin Roosevelt not only enjoyed the company of women, he also depended on them. Chief among them was his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt (1854–1941). Eleanor, with whom he fell in love and married, was another. Still another was Lucy Mercer (1894–1948). In 1914, she became Eleanor’s social secretary and a member of the household. From all accounts, she was “lovely to look at, delightful to know, and heaven to kiss,” and she was conveniently close. 
After the birth of their fifth child, Eleanor and Franklin moved to a larger house with separate bedrooms. The stage was set.
There is no record of when Franklin and Lucy became lovers. Eleanor discovered it while unpacking Franklin’s suitcase, after his return from a trip from Europe in 1918. She found a packet of letters, love letters between Franklin and Lucy. Confronted with the damaging evidence, Franklin admitted his wrongdoing. Eleanor destroyed the letters. Lucy was dismissed. 
Franklin offered Eleanor a divorce. She was willing. She had no taste for erotic living, and she blamed herself for not providing her husband with all that he needed. Sara forbad it and told Franklin that if he divorced Eleanor she would cut him off without a cent. In the end, Franklin promised never to see Lucy again. It was a promise he would not keep. Lucy was with him when he died and there were other meetings in between.
By offering her a divorce, Franklin must have been aware that he would also have to resign his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy or be dismissed, and that this would end his political career. Like Edward Windsor, he may for a while have been willing to sacrifice high office for the woman he loved. But he relented. Besides, greatness would have eluded him without Eleanor. Perhaps he realized this, for she was his better self, his conscience. And no person without a conscience can ever aspire to greatness. It follows that Eleanor Roosevelt was a major source of her husband’s greatness. It lay in her moral seriousness and intellectual daring, which, joined with Franklin’s mastery of the art of politics became an irresistible force. 
Nature also played its part. In 1921 Franklin contracted poliomyelitis, which left him a paraplegic. Eleanor nursed him, and for a while their intimacy was restored. Those close to him observed that his affliction caused a change in his personality: he became a more caring person. Sara preferred that Franklin should abandon political ambition and live out his days in Hyde Park, guarded by women. But Franklin remained “master of his fate,” and planned his career. In 1928 he was elected governor of New York, and he was reelected in 1930. In 1932, he was elected president of the United States.
Eleanor Roosevelt achieved, or perhaps, declared her independence by becoming a writer. In 1933, she published her first book entitled “It’s up to the Women.” The title is reminiscent of Abagail Adams’ playful counsel to her husband during the constitutional convention, “I desire that you would remember the ladies.” Mindful of the effects of the Great Depression, she wrote it to offer counsel to women, and to men also — any who would dare to read it. She stated her theme in words that seem relevant today:
“The present crisis [the Great Depression] is different from all the others, but it is, after all a kind of warfare against an intangible enemy of want and depression rather than a physical force. And I hold it equally true that in this present crisis it is going to be the women who will tip the scales and bring us safely out of it.”
There follows an extended discourse giving advice and counsel on how to live in hard times. It is timely. There are echoes in it of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Solitude of Self.”
In 1935, Eleanor became a syndicated newspaper columnist, and wrote a daily column entitled “My Day.” She continued writing until 1962, the year she died. Reading her columns today provides insight into the great crises of the middle of the century: depression, war, segregation, civil rights.
It is in the field of human rights that Eleanor Roosevelt has established her most lasting legacy. In 1945 President Truman appointed her a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, and she became a member of its newly formed Civil Rights Commission, and its members elected her its Chair. Under her leadership, the committee crafted “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. It declared that all persons possess the right to life, liberty, and person (i.e., the right to be oneself), and the right of equal protection under law; it condemned slavery, cruel and unusual punishment, and sanctioned revolution against tyranny and oppression. It was a universal declaration of independence. The member nations pledged “to secure universal recognition and observance” of these rights within their particular domains, and throughout the world. This was Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy; she belongs to the ages.
But my story is not ended. There is another woman who figured importantly in Franklin Roosevelt’s career. To be continued.
Postscript: There is a convenient collection of “My Day” columns edited by David Emblidge: “My Day,” MJF Books. Also see “The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt,” Harper Perennial Paperback, and “A World Made New,” by Mary Ann Glendon, which is tells the story of the making of “The Declaration of Human Rights.”

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