Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Untraditional First Lady

Eleanor Roosevelt invented a role no successor has quite matched

WHEN her husband entered the presidential campaign, newspapers editorialized against her liberal causes. Republicans cast her as a radical who threatened American values. Critics painted her as a negligent mother.

She violated every kind of social and political expectation. While her husband was governor, she pursued a professional career and stumped the nation in behalf of women's and children's rights. Big business hated her because she championed the cause of the worker. Even the FBI kept a secret file on her activities.

About these ads

Though she and her husband maintained separate private lives, theirs was a close political partnership. He learned to trust her political advice. He agreed to bring female leaders into his inner circle. And he adopted her civil rights stance as his own.

Her name was Eleanor Roosevelt, the most influential First Lady in American history. Columnist, teacher, activist, editor, she entered Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first presidential campaign as a well-known political activist. During his presidency, Republicans red-baited her as a Bolshevik who threatened the nation's security. Magazines ridiculed the barbecues she substituted for formal presidential dinners. Still, she outlasted her critics. After FDR's death, she championed the United Nation's Universa l Declaration of Human Rights and gained the status of elder stateswoman. In her last years, she chaired JFK's Committee on the Status on Women, helping spark the revival of feminism.

Hillary Clinton has said that Eleanor Roosevelt is her idea of a model first lady. It's hard to imagine a better choice. Before FDR's presidency, Eleanor Roosevelt championed all kinds of causes many considered un-American: child labor protection, social security, consumer rights, equal pay for equal work, and civil rights legislation. According to Blanche Wiesen Cook's new biography, Eleanor Roosevelt gently nudged FDR in ever more progressive directions.

Like Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton has been demonized by the right-wing as a backstage usurper scheming to take over the White House. They have done a rather persuasive job. When a friend invited me to attend a luncheon to honor Hillary Clinton, I was prepared to respect but not to like her. A veteran Washington correspondent assured me she was a "smart, but pushy and humorless broad." To my shame, I believed him.

Was I surprised! When she entered the room, her smile lit up the hall. As she greeted friends, she joked, she charmed, she teased. Her command over the audience was amazing. She told stories with vivid details. She shared her vision of a more just society in crisp language. The audience fell silent and rapt.

Then I understood why the right needed to discredit her: Hillary Clinton is too great an asset not to be turned into a threat.

Like Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton represents a new generation of woman at the edge of social change. FDR's wife came of age with female activists who tried to curb the casualties created by unbridled capitalism. Historians credit this generation of female pioneers with laying the foundations of the modern welfare state.

About these ads

Like her predecessor, Hillary Clinton also belongs to a vanguard generation inspired by opportunities for social change and public service. Throughout her professional life, she, too, has devoted herself to protecting children and improving women's lives. As wife, mother, lawyer, activist, and Arkansas' first lady, she has juggled it all, reassuring millions of working mothers that someone in the White House will comprehend the needs of working parents and their children.

To be sure, Bill Clinton, not Hillary, is running for president. It is his policies and experience that voters should judge. But there is strong precedent for the political partnership these talented people have forged. Together, the Roosevelts arguably created the most imaginative and compassionate presidency in our nation's history. FDR was a far better president because of his wife. Perhaps the same may someday be said of Mr. Clinton.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.