Wednesday’s Wonder Women: Eleanor Roosevelt
A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water. – Eleanor Roosevelt
Every time I go to work, I feel my heart rip out of my chest.
No, not really. But the thundering thump-thump-thump of my girls feet on the stairs, racing to give me a goodbye hug as I head out the door, always makes me feel conflicted.
I love my job. I love how much it connects to what I do at home: at work, I help women become mothers; at home, I try not to lose it with my own children.
Some days are more successful than others. Some days, I’m relieved to head out the door and deal with something else’s issues rather than my own. Other days, I wish I could curl up on the couch and read Biscuit books with my kids.
Some of my stay-at-home-mom friends tell me how they can’t believe I work outside the home. Others wish they had that outlet. Others (genuinely) wonder if I’m doing the right thing by working.
Sometimes I wonder the same thing.
And, other times, often only five minutes after I wonder if I should still be doing this, I’m so glad I do what I do.
I don’t think I’m alone in all this bi-polar attitude to the collision of home and work. With more opportunity than ever, the choices available to us have created a conundrum for nearly all women: do we work, do we have kids, do we do both?
And really, the right answer to that is different for everyone.
No one else can make that decision for us. It would be ridiculous if we tried to nail down what was right for every single person one of these issues that just doesn’t seem to have a win-win-win on it.
So I want you to know that, no matter what you choose to do, someone else knows what its like to feel schizophrenic about this whole thing.
And, that someone is not just me. In fact, there’s a very famous woman who also felt this divide, nearly eighty years ago.
When I search for inspiring women to write about each week, I try to avoid the really famous ones, which is why I avoided this woman until now.
We’ve all heard of Eleanor Roosevelt, right? She’s one of the most quoted women of all time. And, there’s a reason for that. This woman was fiesty, smart, and proud of it. She did not let anyone else tell her what she could and could not do. As her husband once told her, her back had no bend.
She didn’t seem to mind that he thought that.
In fact, she said she just did what (she) had to do as things came along.
And things sure came along.
Eleanor lost her mother to diphtheria when she was eight years old. Her father died two years later of alcoholism. She married her fifth cousin once removed at the age of nineteen. Connected by another famous cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR and Eleanor had six children in nearly the same number of years. They moved into her mother-in-law’s house, and they lived with said mother-in-law until 1941.
Eleanor did not get along with her headstrong, opinionated, and meddling mother-in-law. It might have been because her husband’s mother vehemently opposed the marriage, claiming that Eleanor was not a suitable mate for Franklin. Once they were married, Franklin’s mother claimed her persistent interference on a desire to make up for Eleanor’s lack of maternal presence in childhood.
Though her involvement was likely more than necessary, Mrs. Roosevelt, Sr. might have had a point about her son and daughter-in-law’s compatibility.
FDR was charismatic, handsome, and socially active. His wife disliked social life. In the early years of their marriage, she stayed home to raise their six children.
And, Eleanor’s charismatic husband quickly fell in love with her own social secretary, Lucy Mercer.
Once Eleanor discovered the affair, she offered Franklin a divorce, but again, Mrs. Roosevelt, Sr. intervened.
No one wanted a divorced politician, after all. At least, not in the 1920s and 30s.
So, they stayed together. At least, ahem, in a matter of speaking.
Even the slightest research into this insanely productive couple shows that one of the top-three-rated presidents of all time had one of the earliest, or at least widely-known, open marriage.
No, I’m really not kidding. And yes, I’m still a little shocked about that.
As one bystander put it, the Roosevelts were both strong willed people who cared greatly for each other’s happiness, but realized their own inability to provide for it.
And though the marriage technically survived Eleanor’s discovery of her husband’s decades-long affair with her secretary, Mrs. Roosevelt Jr. emerged a different woman. She realized she would not find fulfillment at home.
She would, however, find it through her own influence.
I don’t know if I would have made the decision she did. I’m not sure its necessarily the best. But I deeply respect her decision to say, hey, I’m going to figure out a way to be happy in all of this.
That’s an attitude we could all use a bit more of.
As fate would have it, a large dose of irony paved the way for Mrs. Roosevelt’s transformation from shy housewife to vocal activist.
In 1921, Mr. Roosevelt contracted a fever while vacationing in Canada. The fever left him paralyzed and put his political future at least partially in his wife’s unlikely but willing hands.
That’s right. Mrs. too-shy-to-be-out-in-public gave speeches, hugged children, shook hands, and won the public over for her ailing, cheating, charismatic husband.
I’m convinced that without her efforts, FDR might not have won four presidential elections.
He – or should we say, they – took the country through the Great Depression and to within a month of the end of World War II.
A lot happened in those tumultuous years. Wars, famine, great hardship peppered Franklin’s more than twelve years in office. But he and his wife pushed on for the good of the country. He was instrumental in ending the war in Europe, even if he didn’t live to see it. She was instrumental in developing the United Nations at the end of the war, and was appointed as one of the UN’s first American delegates.
No wonder Franklin’s successor, his VP Harry Truman, dubbed Eleanor the ‘First Lady of the World.’
And, no wonder that she was asked to serve in the next democratic president’s administration, chairing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights committee, developing the term second-wave feminism, and heading the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.
And fitting that she did it all for another politically progressive but less-than-faithful man in the Oval Office.
You know, the one that was shot in public in 1963?
Eleanor didn’t live to see that. She passed away a year before – almost to the day.
However, that was not before she discovered that her own daughter had been arranging meetings for Franklin and his mistresses, mere months before his death.
Yeah. Real swell.
Mrs. Roosevelt likely had every right to feel betrayed by her home life. She certainly was dissatisfied with it.
But – to the extreme gratefulness of many, including myself – she put her dissatisfaction to work. She spent years improving the political climate and conditions for working women.
In case there were any other women not happy at home, she made sure they had an out.
And she didn’t play a victim. She knew herself. She knew what she was good at. She also knew she wasn’t everything she should be.
After discovering Franklin’s longest mistress, the one he had promised to give up back in the early years of his marriage, was with Franklin on the day he died (in a meeting orchestrated by Franklin and Eleanor’s daughter, Anna), she wrote:
All human beings have failures, all human beings have needs and temptations and stresses. Men and women who live together through long years get to know one another’s failings; but they also come to know what is worthy of respect and admiration…. He might have been happier with a wife who was completely uncritical. That I was never able to be, and he had to find it in some other people. Nonetheless, I think I sometimes acted as a spur, even though the spurring was not always wanted or welcome.
Talk about a strong woman.
She wasn’t strong enough to just speak up at things she thought were wrong; she was strong enough to realize her own failings.
She realized that her problems at home were largely her own fault. And, she allowed her husband to be cared for elsewhere. Though I don’t think I’d choose the same, I respect her ability to still want the best for someone who had hurt her.
That takes gumption.
So what do we learn from Mrs. Roosevelt? Other than her fantastic quotes – and believe me, there’s lots to choose from – we realize that behind one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century was a real, live, flawed woman, who understood the confusion many of us have about family, work, and ambition, and who paved the way for many of us to have that choice about whether we should work or not, and ensured the groundwork was laid for us to be fairly paid for that work, should we choose to do it.
I think JFK knew exactly what he was doing when he appointed her to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.
Because once, not too long ago, we were considered property. Then assistants. Then child-quieters and house-tidiers.
Now, we can be writers, doctors, lawyers, professors, politicians, CEO’s, and astronauts, to name a few.
We can also be wives, mothers, cooks, decorators, and cleaners.
If we want to. Because now we have a choice.
And though it comes fraught with emotional upheaval, it’s still a choice.
And for that, we all owe a lot to Eleanor Roosevelt.
So, no matter what you choose, domestic or mechanical engineer, whether you scrounge together Chef Boyardee or prepare Filet Mignon for hoity-toit customers, and whether the biggest excitement of your day is cleaning up potty-training-bottoms or saving someone’s life, or whether you do all of these things…I hope you hang on to my favorite Eleanor-isms of all time:
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
Don’t let ’em. Do your thing.
And make the world better for it.