For the purposes of my PhD research, I tend to think of Eleanor Roosevelt as one of Franklin Roosevelt’s central attributes. Not a very feminist perspective. Eleanor Roosevelt was a great woman and politician in her own right. Especially after FDR’s death, as US delegate to the United Nations, and as chair of the Human Rights committee, she was an important political figure, not primarily because of who she was, but because of what she did.
But if, like me, you wonder how FDR has evolved as an icon in American memory, and secondly what he did to manage that (future) image, it makes sense to think of Eleanor as a theme in that memory, and a prop in FDR’s image management. Many biographies of both ER and FDR and monographs about the Roosevelts together suggest that they themselves did so too. Or even, that they saw each other and their marriage as instrumental in building each of their public lives and careers.
Being married to the president obviously gave Eleanor a great deal of agency – she had access to the president, and probably more importantly, as activist First Lady she could reach a far larger audience than she would have otherwise, regardless of the content of her activism or her own charisma. She wrote in many magazines, had a daily newspaper column, held her own press conferences, etc. Moreover biographers mostly agree that ER only became publicly active when this became a logical step within the progress of FDR’s career.
Eleanor’s public presence and renown was also very helpful for FDR. She was in some ways more radically left-wing than his administrations were. A well-known example of this, is the way they together dealt with the problem that FDR was very popular with African Americans on the one hand, but also in electoral term needed to keep the voters in the traditionally democratic states in the South of the US in the fold. In such dilemmas, Eleanor would speak out in defence of civil rights, so that Franklin did not have to openly condemn lynching. As such, you might argue she was in charge of symbol politics, but the symbols were often very important. She created, for instance, the possibility for black opera star Marian Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, after she had been denied the opportunity to perform at the Daughter’s of the American Revolution club, because of her skin-color (and she resigned her club membership).
Thus, Eleanor had an informal yet important political role, that helped Franklin, and simultaneously, she could become the important public icon because of her position. In the next few days, I’m going to try and discuss some anecdotes about aspects of her life and career here. The aim of doing so, is to find a central tenet that can be the central tenet of my Eleanor chapter. So if you discover a continuity in the upcoming posts I may not yet have spotted, please let me know!