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Eleanor Roosevelt and the Women’s Movement
Editor’s Note: This entry was prepared by The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers with funding from the GE Fund through Save America’s Treasures.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s (ER) evolution as a feminist forms an interesting parallel to the development of the woman’s movement in the twentieth century. ER died the year before Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique discussed “the problem that has no name.” By reviewing how both ER and other leaders supported women’s inclusion in American society as full political and economic partners in the years before 1963, teachers and students can appreciate the various forms and strategies supporters of women’s rights used before the modern feminist movement captured America’s attention.
Like most women who became leaders of the women’s movement, ER became aware of the barriers women faced while working with other women on other social justice issues. Although she did work in a settlement house and joined the National Consumers League before she married, ER’s great introduction to the women’s network occurred in the immediate post World War I period when she worked with the International Congress of Working Women and the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF) to address the causes of poverty and war. ER, who only supported woman suffrage after FDR endorsed it and who had never worked in a suffrage campaign, joined the League of Women Voters in 1920, the Woman’s Trade Union League in 1922, and the Women’s Division of the New York Democratic Party in 1923. The friendships she made from the International Congress (Rose Schneiderman), WILPF (Carrie Chapman Catt), the League (Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read), and the Women’s Division (Molly Dewson, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook) shaped not only ER’s understanding of feminism, but had a huge impact on how ER lived her life. As she recalled in her autobiography, being “drawn together through the work . . . is . . . one of the most satisfying ways of making and keeping friends.”
ER’s commitment to women’s full recognition by and participation in American politics and business was intense and she worked with women’s groups around the nation to build their political base. In 1924, the Democratic National Committee asked ER to chair its platform committee on women’s issues. ER agreed and solicited recommendations for “all women’s organizations in the country” on what the platform should state. Although the male committee refused to adopt any of the women’s recommendations and forced ER to sit outside the room while it deliberated, ER and other women leaders forced the convention to let women appoint women delegates and alternates. She took their rebuke to heart, recalling that she saw “for the first time where the women stood when it came to a national convention. I shortly discovered that they were of little importance. They stood outside the door of all important meetings and waited.” Determined to be heard, ER redoubled her efforts. By 1928, she not only organized one of the most successful get- out-the-vote campaigns in state history but had also called for women political bosses. “Women must learn to play the game as men do,” she wrote for Redbook magazine. By 1936, ER and Molly Dewson’s organizing and internal lobbying produced 219 women delegates and 302 women alternates.
In her first year as First Lady, ER worked hard to keep women involved in establishing and evaluating the New Deal. As Susan Ware proved, ER assembled a list of women qualified for executive level appointments, urged the Roosevelt administration to hire them, and, when their suggestions did not get a fair hearing, did not hesitate to take their ideas to FDR. She decided to hold press conferences (covered by women reporters only) to keep information before women voters and to urge that women speak their minds on politics, policy, and their individual hopes and dreams. ER believed this so strongly that she titled the first book she published while First Lady It’s Up To The Women. When she left the White House, she continued to press Truman and Kennedy to appoint more women and to address women’s issues with more concern and diligence.
ER’s support of working women almost surpassed her commitment to women’s participation as voters, party leaders, and department heads. From the time that she returned from Allenswood in 1903 and began volunteering at the Rivington Street settlement, ER worked to oppose child labor, to limit the number of hours an employer could force a woman to work, and to remedy the unsafe and exploitative conditions of many women-dominated workplaces. After working with women labor activists, she supported women’s full inclusion in unions, the living wage, birth control, and the right to strike and bargain collectively. When some Americans blamed working women for displacing male “breadwinners” during the depression, ER defended women workers at her press conferences, in articles and speeches, and on the radio. Aware that the New Deal did not reach as many unemployed women as it did men, she worked with other women within the administration to create the She-She-She camps and to make sure that women were included in the National Youth Administration and Federal Arts programs. When the nation retooled for war, she championed women’s employment in the defense industries, urged them to volunteer for civil defense assignments, encouraged women to enter the military, and defended those women in military service who wanted to do more than type, file, and clean. When women defense workers asked for help looking after their children while they worked, ER lent her very active support to legislation establishing on-site day care for defense workers. Her insistence that President Kennedy appoint more women to his administration led JFK to create the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and appoint ER as its chair.
After she left the White House in 1945, ER continued to promote women’s equality. Using a variety of different venues–the United Nations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Council of Negro Women, Americans for Democratic Action, her “My Day” column, and various labor organizations–ER argued that women must “become more conscious of themselves as women and of their ability to function as a group. At the same time they must try to wipe from men’s consciousness the need to consider them as a group or as women in their everyday activities, especially as workers in industry or the professions.” ER believed women had special qualities that made them peacemakers, conferees and mothers, but she also believed these qualities made them fine politicians, reformers, advocates and professionals.
Historians often debate whether or not ER should be called a feminist. Those who say she was not a feminist base their argument on ER’s opposition to the National Woman’s Party and the Equal Rights Amendment. (1) They, like Lois Scharf, argue that because ER did not “view social problems through the unique lens of gender, discover and define the discriminatory features of society, examine the underlying causes for female inferiority, and concentrate on their alleviation,” that the answer to this question is “a qualified no.” (2) Others, like Allida Black and Blanche Cook, disagree. They say her firm belief in women’s equality and her forty-year campaign to advance women politically, economically, and socially is proof of ER’s commitment to gender equality. While they agree that ER opposed the Equal Rights Amendment throughout the twenties, thirties, and forties, they point to ER dropping her opposition in the late fifties. To them, ER is a feminist because their definition of feminism is broader than supporting the ERA and dedication to gender-based analysis.
Note: Eleanor Roosevelt, like so many of the women labor leaders with whom she had worked, opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. She and they thought it would undercut the legislative gains they had devoted their lives to achieve.
Source: This entry was prepared by The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers with funding from the GE Fund through Save America’s Treasures. Published with permission.