‘America’s Greatest First Lady’: Blanche Wiesen Cook on Eleanor Roosevelt

In November, Distinguished Professor Blanche Wiesen Cook (History) will publish the third and final volume of her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt.

The coming volume takes readers through World War II, FDR’s death, the founding of the United Nations, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s death in 1962.
 
Cook, whose work has been described as “irresistibly readable” and “definitive” by The Washington Post, spoke recently to 365 Fifth about Roosevelt’s legacy — and how “America’s greatest First Lady” might have viewed the current state of affairs.

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GC: You argue that Eleanor Roosevelt’s greatest legacy was her active work in support of the UN and the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the postwar years. Why?  
 
WC: Without question one of Roosevelt’s most important legacies is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the General Assembly as a result of her splendid vision and adroit diplomacy in l948. The UDHR remains the world’s promissory note for freedom and equality in dignity and rights. 

While the United States has still not ratified the economic and social covenant, Roosevelt insisted that economic rights — to employment, health, education, food and housing — were as important as civil and political rights. As she said: You cannot talk political rights to people who are hungry. 
 
To achieve these rights is to confront her other legacies: the struggle to end segregation, discrimination and poverty. As early as l943, she argued that college education and professional job training should be free and available to everybody. And as early as l924, when she was the chair of the women’s platform committee of the Democratic Party, she called for equal pay for equal work, full employment, free excellent public education and health care for all.
 

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” What do you think Roosevelt would think of the criticism — from the public, the press, and her political rivals — that Hillary Clinton has faced since she emerged on the national scene in the ’90s?
 
As the women’s political “boss” of the l920s, and as a life-long radio journalist and columnist with vigorous and controversial views, Roosevelt was routinely attacked by enemy politicians, private citizens and critical commentators. She was well aware that “men hate women in a position of real power,” as she put it, but she counseled courage and steadfast determination. While she often ignored criticism and declined to respond to specific attacks, she would not be silenced or defeated. Courage, she repeatedly said, is as “contagious as fear.”  
 
Clearly, Hillary Clinton, who sought to channel Roosevelt during the ’90s, learned from Roosevelt’s tribulations and continues to follow her advice — above all, that every political woman needs to develop skin as tough as rhinoceros hide!

 
How did Roosevelt pave the way for Clinton and other women in government?
 
During the l920s, Roosevelt urged women to organize, to go door to door, block by block, trooping for democracy and equality: Demand respect! Learn to play the game as men do! Study history, economics, politics! Become informed, seek leadership responsibilities. Select women “bosses” who will agitate for justice and achieve their goals.
 
All of these changes, Roosevelt understood by l934, depended on an end to the country’s commitment to segregation, racial discrimination and race violence.

Some changes have been heartening; in other cases, we now face backlash and horror. The movements are recharged. The school-to-prison pipeline and the prison industrial complex must end. 

 
This third volume deals with the war and postwar years, a time during which Roosevelt continued to fight for issues important to her, despite some resistance by her husband and the public. Do you see a parallel here with Clinton’s fight for health-care reform during her husband’s presidency?  
 
The United States remains the only industrial nation without a national health care program — which Esther Lape, Eleanor Roosevelt’s great friend and mentor, fought for until her death at the age of l00 in l982.  What we now call “single payer health care” was supposed to be in the l935 Social Security Act. It was then supposed to be in Eisenhower’s l957 Medicaid/Medicare legislation.

But the AMA lobbied it to death. Then the medical corps and pharmaceuticals lobbied against Hillary Clinton’s ’90s efforts into the compromise we have now. Clearly insufficient, we must continue the struggle for single payer quality health care for all. 
 
Roosevelt long ago believed we must limit the power of the truly greedy, so that the truly needy be accorded a just measure of respect, hope and dignity. The fight for justice goes on. 
 
 
 
 
 

Submitted on: OCT 4, 2016

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