Ellen Chesler

Eleanor Roosevelt — First Lady of the World

VTR Date: June 8, 2010

GUEST: Dr. Ellen Chesler


GUEST: Dr. Ellen Chesler
AIR DATE: 01/23/10

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And while full disclosure doesn’t require that I speak of a conflict of interests relating to today’s program about Eleanor Roosevelt as First Lady of the World … I certainly proclaim a profound personal interest in and devotion to her – and to President Roosevelt as well.

I’ve served on the Board of Governors of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute for some years now. And the fact is that Mrs. Roosevelt was my very first broadcast guest … on an April, 1953 radio program marking the eighth anniversary of FDR’s death.

Later the day we record this program, the indomitable Sally Minard, CEO of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park here in New York, will host a reception honoring Mrs. Roosevelt with a project to preserve her Val-Kill home at Hyde Park.

So it’s more than time for The Open Mind to pay its respects, too … and I’ve asked scholar/activist Ellen Chesler to join me today to do just that … for Dr. Chesler is Director of the Eleanor Roosevelt Public Policy Initiative at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

And since we Americans notoriously know so little about even our recent past, I want first to ask my guest to tell me quite frankly how well or how poorly she thinks we do remember and honor Eleanor Roosevelt. How do we do in that department?

CHESLER: Well, I think she is certainly preeminent among First Ladies. And Hillary Clinton, our most recent activist First Lady and now our wonderful Secretary of State, did a lot to venerate Eleanor and you know, she used to say about how she channeled her and talked to her.

So I think she raised her profile a bit. But you know, as you just said, Americans don’t really know their history. So that beyond the fact that Eleanor was an activist, a kind of grandmotherly figure, I suppose, in some Americans’ minds, they don’t know much about her at all.

HEFFNER: Is … does your Institute help counter that?

CHESLER: Well, I, I certainly hope so. We are greatly fortunate that under the very inspired leadership of Hunter’s President Jennifer Raab and CUNY’s Chancellor Matt Goldstein, some $20 million dollars was raised to hire the architect, the preeminent architect James Stewart Polshek to renovate the Roosevelt mansion on 65th Street which Eleanor and Franklin essentially gifted to Hunter in the forties after his mother died.

This is the famous house the Sarah Delano Roosevelt built for her son and his new wife in the early part of the twentieth century, 1908, when they were beginning their family. But carefully located herself next door … it’s a kind of side by side, two brownstones that come together and look like one New York City limestone mansion.

This house is … sat in disrepair for many years. For many years it served Hunter as a student center. But then there was simply no money to renovate it.

And the good fortune of the City University in recent years … the good fortune of New York, the renaissance of New York, which in many ways CUNY is leading … allowed for revenues to be raised to do this renovation.

And so this new Institute, named for both Franklin and Eleanor will located there. I will have an office there which is just thrilling to me.

When I was a young girl there were no women in politics essentially. My father was politically active in Ohio and growing up there I wrote my first paper, my first public presentation in a gifted students class in a public school in Cleveland in the 1950’s on, on Eleanor. And so I feel as though I’ve come home.

HEFFNER: I guess … I was just going to say you must feel as though you’ve come home again. But there isn’t that kind of national consciousness. And I was going to ask you … I, I was reading through remarks that you made in 2006 at a CUNY’s Women’s Leadership Conference.

And you said here … in launching the new Initiative, “I am committed to a scholarship and a politics grounded in what Eleanor Roosevelt herself called ‘the moral basis of politics”. What did you … and what did she mean by that?

CHESLER: I think she had a very clear sense that the purpose of, of being in public life is not individual self-aggrandizement. It’s not about … it wasn’t about her.

The purpose of her being there and of her husband’s being there was to leave the world a better place. She saw government as an activist of … well, she saw the potential of, of positive social obligation by government for the welfare of human beings.

She came of age in the early part of the twentieth century when women of her “station”, she was, after all, Teddy Roosevelt’s niece, as you may know, who married her distant cousin, Franklin.

An elite woman with a very sad personal story of a mother who died young. A father who was an alcoholic, but she was lucky enough to get a good education in a girls’ school. And she found herself as a young newly wed without any potential of a professional career, drawn to the social settlement movement of the early part of the twentieth century.

She worked with Lillian Wald on the Lower East Side in University Settlement. And she came to understand that all of the good intentions of private citizens, the sort of sense of social obligation that was felt by elite women, like Wald or Jane Adams or herself … the, the non-professional women; the married women who helped them as volunteers … couldn’t make up for the absence of government obligation for the health, social welfare, protection of citizens.

And she came to realize that a liberal society couldn’t protect the rights of the individual from government’s intrusion, it couldn’t be … as it was in the 19th century about leaving people alone. It had to be about being obliged to, to take care of people.

And she brought so many of the women that she had worked with in the neighborhoods of New York in the 1910s and 20s and then when her husband was Governor in Albany … to Washington with her and for the first time the Department of Labor … which then housed the Women’s Bureau and the Children’s Bureau and did much more than look after working people. But had a sense of obligation for the indigent, the poor, those who retired … Social Security, you know was a program … the entire Social Security Act was invented out of the Department of Labor … famous Secretary Frances Perkins, who was one of Eleanor’s coterie of, of professional colleagues.

And, you know, this is not to, in any way, diminish the role of Franklin Roosevelt, he was the President and he put this all into fact. But, you know, he was as, as Obama is today … you know addressing a tremendous economic meltdown, having to do … having to worry about the economy, the world at large as we turned into a time of war.

Eleanor kept her eye on the social welfare and, and the human rights of individuals. And she moved on them … that’s, that’s a big leap from an awareness of the government’s obligation, you know, to, to take care of the most vulnerable of its citizens to a much, kind of stronger view, that her husband shared and, and talked about in the waning days of his Presidency before he died … about, you know, something more than an obligation to take care, you know, to do good. But, but about the fundamental rights of human beings.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting that you say … in the waning days of his life. How much of an influence was she … it’s often said that she was the one who led him to a greater and greater social consciousness. You think that’s true?

CHESLER: Oh, I think there’s no doubt about that. Let’s remember that Franklin Roosevelt tragically got polio in 1920 … so many Americans forget that. He was a man in a wheelchair. He never left the White House.

I mean imagine Obama today never really being able to leave home. I mean he kept his eye on the tiller there. He worked very, very long hours … I mean I shouldn’t say he never left … he obviously made occasional trips. But by and large, she was his eyes and ears around the country and then during World War II around the world.

There are so many wonderful photographs of Eleanor, you know, with the troops. Eleanor … those wonderful WPA photographs …

HEFFNER: In the coal mines?

CHESLER: Yeah, in the coal mines. And in the fields of the Midwest, you know, doing … in Tennessee with Rural Electrification. Ahmm, she … I mean she was an extraordinarily activist First Lady who was out all the time. I mean as many Americans, you know, know and people are interested in … they had a complicated personal relationship … but their professional relationship was extraordinarily intimate. And she absolutely guided a lot of his, his concern and his point of view about this.

And she wrote books and columns. I mean, you know, she wrote a column every day of her, of her tenure in the White House … called “My Day”, and they’re extraordinary columns. So that she not only had a voice inside, but she had a public voice and he had to … obviously the rest of the world was listening, so he had to as well.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s the balance that interests me. You, as a scholar and as an activist and as one who has immersed herself in Rooseveltiana … one of the side stories was that he was not, certainly not to begin with, as involved as she was in social matters. In this matter of moral judgments.

CHESLER: Well, again, government wasn’t … and certainly not the federal government … you know, government was about maintaining open trade; it was about, running, you know, about basic infrastructure and services. But until the New Deal, the federal government, for sure, but even local and state governments were, you know, much less involved in the social welfare of people. I mean they built the programs … the Roosevelts.

I mean, we, we forget how relatively new in the scheme of things, I means it’s, you know … what … I guess 60 years now since the New Deal … no … it’s 80 years since the New Deal … I’m not counting right … the thirties … so we’re getting on, on an 80th anniversary … we didn’t have programs the way people sort of take for granted, even though who would like to turn, you know, turn the clock back and get rid of them … that we didn’t have the kind of involvement that even in a time when we contest, you know, growth and government’s obligation for health care, for example, that, that the Roosevelts … that no men were involved in social welfare quite like that.

And it was Roosevelt’s willingness to spend pubic dollars to assure a basic, you know, standard of living for people. Our Constitution obligates, you know, the government to provide civil and politic rights.

You know, freedom of assembly. Freedom of expression. Freedom from arbitrary intrusion … in your privacy or in other aspects of life.

But we don’t have any Constitutional obligation in our country for the economic and social rights of people.

And, in fact, in his last speech to the Congress before he died in 194 …


CHESLER: … five … the last State of the Union speech famously … Cass Sunstein is now working in the Obama White … a University of Chicago Professor has a wonderful book on this subject … called The Second Bill of Rights … but famously Roosevelt argued for expanding the Bill of Rights, to include the Four Freedoms … you know … freedom from fear, freedom from want and obligation on the part of our government to the health, welfare and economic well-being of citizens.

Not very well spelled out. Now, he died … Franklin … and sadly … just before the war was over, before he could realize that promise. But, as I wrote in the introduction to a recent book of essays which I published on human rights and particularly the human rights of women … Eleanor took that idea and embodied it in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So, as a party to the United Nations and as a signatory to the Universal Declaration, the United States is, in a sense morally obliged, although not Constitutionally obliged … to think about people’s rights not only in terms of their civil and political liberties, but also Eleanor wrote, very self-consciously, economic and social rights, into the Universal Declaration.

And when I say, Eleanor wrote, I should say that she was the chair of the Committee that crafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is perhaps the most important and well-read document of its kind in the world.

But she, she chaired a multi national group …this was crafted by people all over the world, by no means Western led. In fact, doctrines of universal human rights and a great deal of scholarship about … not only the Western “enlightenment”, tradition of rights, but also the Eastern traditions of human rights were incorporated into the document.

And that’s all the more reason that it has an emphasis … because you remember their was a Communist and Cold War divide and, and, you know, free world divide.

And the Communist very much wanted to stress what it saw as government’s primary obligation, which was an obligation to economic well-being … to equality of opportunity.

And needless to say there was quite a bit of a backlash to Eleanor in the 1950s, when the Eisenhower Administration came in because … in, in the dark days of McCarthyism because of what was seen as too much sympathy to this Communist point of view about economic and social obligations.

But today in the world, it’s a very enduring document. The UN, which I had the good fortune this year of spending several weeks at as a public delegate of the United States government to Commission on the Status of Women meetings at the UN.

The UN, you know, in every aspect of its being promotes not only, you know, the, the social … the, the civil and political rights of people, but their economic and social rights.

I mean millions of dollars of expenditure on children through UNICEF. A new and beefed up Commission on Women, millennium development goals that look to, you know, eliminate illiteracy, eliminate maternal morality by the year 2015 … you know, provide clean water, address the very concerning deterioration in environmental quality and sustain our environment. It’s a noble enterprise over there.

HEFFNER: You know you say “a noble enterprise over there …”


HEFFNER: What about over here? My sense is that you are describing Eleanor Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for the question of human rights and that enthusiasm was infectious. But here at home … maybe I’m too cynical, maybe I’m too negative about this … I don’t feel the same sense that you feel about the involvement of the rest of the world with her platform. I don’t feel that it’s true here, too.

CHESLER: Oh, I think … I think there’s a great divide in this country. I actually think of the election of Barack Obama and his brilliant appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, a kind of , you know, emissary to the world is emblematic of the fact that the majority of this country very much believes in this tradition, even if they don’t know Eleanor Roosevelt’s formative role in it.

I don’t know if you listened carefully, but President Obama went to the UN, to the General Assembly, the beginning of September and he gave a speech for which the Nobel Prize Committee gave him a Nobel Prize.

An extraordinary speech about America’s obligation to be a part of a multilateral, you know, governance of the world.

To address these kinds of concerns. To recognize our obligation to improve the lot of so many of the downtrodden of the world, so many who live on, you know, a dollar a day.

I think he called attention to that development aspect … you know, everybody talks about the “3Ds” of foreign policy … defense, diplomacy and development. And I think he, he really put an emphasis on that and he also added very much a right spaced construct for our development policies … one that would talk not just about economic assistance, but also about protecting people’s rights in the process of economic change and social development in their country.

So, I mean obviously after a dark winter of eight years of, of a Bush Administration that condemned the UN, that was highly nationalistic, that preferred to engage with the world bilaterally, not to, to do the hard work of, of being part of a complex multilateral body that tries to not, you know, to, to listen to the voices of small countries and of countries without our kind of wealth or power. You know this is just getting going, but Obama put one of his most trusted advisors at the UN … Susan Rice … and Mrs. Clinton is still amazing in her ability to engage with the world … and not just as a state actor … she doesn’t just go around the world and talk to other heads of state.

I mean she has … you know, whatever … she schlepped around Africa (laughter) for 11 days, talking with citizen groups and women’s groups and, you know, people in post conflict situations and members of the UN military forces that are on the ground and, I mean, you know, she saw more environmental projects and health centers and, you know, women in the most horrifying circumstances in post conflict situations like Rwanda. I mean it’s an extraordinary Eleanor Roosevelt-like kind of thing.

HEFFNER: You do see her as the linear descendant of Eleanor Roosevelt?

CHESLER: Well, and I know Hillary Clinton well enough … I mean one of the great gifts in my life is to know her and her husband and to know that it’s a very self-conscious carrying forward of that banner.

She is as knowledgeable … and probably more knowledgeable as I am about Eleanor and Franklin. And I certainly think that President Obama … and remember he is, after all, as I always say … Ann Dunham son and Ann Dunham was a woman who was very much in the tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a pioneer in the field of micro-enterprise for women in Indonesia. He grew up in that country. I don’t … I think …you know, you never lose those sorts of roots.

And I, I hope that the prescience of the Nobelists … their, you know, their desire to, to put him on notice that the world is watching and hoping on, on the basis of his early behavior … you know, we’ll, we’ll … in fact work out just at that, that the policies will follow the rhetoric.

HEFFNER: So you’re not one of those many people who look upon the Nobel Prize as not quite a curse, but as something he could have better done with at the end of his administration than at the beginning.

CHESLER: Well, I can understand his diffidence in accepting it. Because he, you know, he is now seen so much as, you know, the guy who five years ago was a State Senator who suddenly, on the basis of a … many, many good speeches and, and some very good appointments, I think … in, you know, was given this award.

But I hope it will also, you know, for him, be a reminder and a kind of benchmark, you know, of, of what he feels he ought to do.

And I … I think his commitments are very, very clear and, and that, you know, throughout the Administration on the foreign policy side, the appointments at all levels reflect that commitment.

And, again, I’m not sure all of them were as conscious as Hillary of, of Eleanor’s legacy. But it is very much in the legacy of the Roosevelts.

And after all, Obama … in … on the domestic side, you know, was famously reading a book about the first hundred days, you know, and in modeling some of his behavior after the Roosevelt Presidency.

So after, you know, a generation in which there was, you know, a Reagan led backlash against the welfare state and some of its incoherences and some of its inadequacies, actually, I think we’re back, you know, in that sort of way that American history, generally, moves through dialectics, as they say in the university or, you know, arcs of movement forward on the Liberal side, push back on the Conservative to a synthesis. I think Obama is very much back in the Roosevelt tradition of wanting an activist state, but one that very, very much devotes itself to protecting the rights of individuals as it engages with them.

HEFFNER: In the two minutes that remain … how do you respond to those who said that it was the Feminist Movement that, in part, derived from Mrs. Roosevelt’s basic concerns? That led to … it was the opposition to feminism that led to a … an opposition to this progress … the economic, political progress we had made in other areas; the fear generated by feminism?

CHESLER: Well, I think race and gender and the tremendous changes in women’s lives since the 1960s as well as in another area to which Eleanor was very devoted … civil rights … clearly generated a backlash, there’s no doubt about that. There has been an appearance that somehow as men … as women, you know, gained, men were the losers. And, or as African Americans gained that White men were the losers.

I think we have to see that in a very different way. I like to quote Kofi Anan who always says that, you know, that when you give women their rights you liberate not only women, but also their children, their families … ultimately you improve their communities and eventually whole nation’s benefit.

There are no, you know, there are no losers in the gain of women’s advancement. That women are growing our economy, they are healing, you know, the sick; serving … they’re the caregivers, they’re, they’re certainly involved in, I think, very much the process of environmental sustainability as both controllers of consumption and also as … in the developing world … as … so very much women are involved in agriculture and production and farming.

So, I mean, we need women … you can basically look at societies and see how well they’re doing by how they treat their women. I mean in, in almost every country, there’s a direct correlation between the well-being of women and the well-being the country. And I think Americans will come to see that, you know, and also as the benefits of the last three or four years of the, of the expansion of rights to women grow and are see and as we institutionalize this, people will relax and become more comfortable with it. But you know, there are always … there’s … it’s always hard to deal … there’s been some profound changes in our social structure.

HEFFNER: And it’s at that point, a positive point, that I have to thank you, Ellen Chesler for joining me today on The Open Mind.

CHESLER: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.