Eleanor Roosevelt’s message will always be relevant. A woman of power, a woman of influence, and a woman of principle, the resonance of Eleanor’s persona only seems to strengthen with time.
Today’s young women appear to be discovering Eleanor anew, and organizations like Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt—a project of Save America’s Treasures—are making certain that her legacy is protected as well as promoted. Founded by Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1998, Save America’s Treasures, a public-private partnership which includes the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service, aims to preserve the documents, structures and inspiring works of art that are a part of our American heritage.
Carol Hillman, chair of Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt, recounts how the organization began. “Hillary Clinton asked Claudine Bacher, our founding chair, to oversee the project. Claudine then spoke to others including my mother, Elsa Resika, to get them on board. Not long before my mother passed away, she urged me to join in.”
The project, as Carol explains, consists of restoring and preserving Eleanor’s Val-Kill home in Hyde Park, NY as well as educating visitors to the historic site about her vast contributions. “Our goal is to ensure that new generations of American’s understand and carry on Mrs. Roosevelt’s legacy.”
Incredibly, the history of that legacy includes both how her mother as well as Carol was affected by Eleanor.
“My mother met Eleanor Roosevelt at a reception in New York City in honor of the play Sunrise at Campobello. Mom had Mrs. Roosevelt autograph a program and then sent it to me at the University of Wisconsin where I was studying. A year or so later, I hosted Mrs. Roosevelt at the university,” Carol relates with a sense of awe. “We invited her to speak and she arrived in a blizzard — the pilot told her she might not land in Madison but in Minneapolis instead. Nonetheless, she took the flight. She told the pilot she had 1300 students waiting for her and she would attempt to get to Madison, which she did. I met her at the airport with Governor Gaylord Nelson. As it turned out, her speech, which I chaired in the Memorial Union Theater, was a rousing success. It was packed to the hilt —standing room only.”
Eleanor Roosevelt, a strong and determined spirit, always did her best to deliver. Inspiring others—especially new generations of young people—to emulate Eleanor’s sense of integrity and her passion for justice drives Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt, an organization of dedicated volunteers, to publicly acclaim Eleanor’s legacy, not only through the preservation of her Val-Kill home but through various media projects and events. In particular, the prestigious Following in Her Footsteps Award, highlights a life of public service, lived in pursuit of social justice, peace, human rights and gender equality – some of the groundswells upon which Eleanor Roosevelt rose to proclaim her ideals.
“Our Following in Her Footsteps Award really honors women who have taken on causes that were also very important to Eleanor Roosevelt such as women’s issues, health care, preservation of the environment, and human rights,” Carol Hillman explains. “In 2009, we bestowed the award to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for all of her work regarding health care reform, helping women and children, as well as her work in international relations.”
Secretary of State Clinton is not only the founder of Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt, but also a formidable political leader. The former First Lady has forged new horizons in the area of gender equality, and like Eleanor, presents a strong and determined presence, one which encourages intelligent and practical solutions.
Women’s issues, including their leadership roles within all areas of human affairs in the U.S. and internationally, has been a central theme for Secretary Clinton. In March of 2009, along with President Obama, Secretary Clinton introduced a new position: ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues, an office at the Department of State which works toward the empowerment of women at all levels – politically, economically and socially. Melanne Verveer is the first to fill this unprecedented seat. Secretary Clinton’s vision, as was Eleanor’s, works toward the empowerment of women and recognizes the importance of their leadership in all walks of life.
Carol Hillman also reflects on this issue, especially regarding how more female leadership can strengthen our chances of really establishing and securing human rights. “I think if you look at Mrs. Roosevelt, who said you must do the thing you think you cannot do, women are willing to do that and to collaborate, to compromise where appropriate and to take personal risks. These qualities, I believe, will help us achieve peace and human rights.” In her years as a businesswoman, Carol has seen this in action. “We tend to allow for more possibilities with regard to solutions. We’re a little more open to things having more than one answer. ”
Yet, women still have a way to go with regard to equality and being more established as leaders—politically, socially and in the business world. Carol offers one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotes as a voice of advice.
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.
Although Eleanor Roosevelt indicates that women must join forces in accomplishing their goals, she also stresses they must remain individuals in the workplace and in the world at large, so they can establish themselves on their own merit wherever they apply their talents.
But still, as we all know, outspoken women such as Eleanor Roosevelt are criticized harshly at times, even threatened. Carol remarks on how Eleanor is an example for women today even in this regard. “As she was being driven through West Virginia toward her speaking engagements, Eleanor knew the Klan was out and about. She rode past KKK rallies determined to reach her destination no matter what. Now that’s courage.”
And Eleanor consistently asserted that bravery and determination in numerous, unconventional ways, blazing a trail for women’s rights. “In the 1920’s, Eleanor joined the League of Women Voter’s,” Carol points out. “She spoke in favor of contraception availability. She advocated for fair wages for women. Her My Day column was unprecedented.”
In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt was the first woman radio commentator as well as the first woman to write a syndicated column. She also proved innovative in how she employed her power to help establish women in what were male-dominated fields. When FDR became president Eleanor made certain women were involved in the process of establishing the New Deal. She ingeniously held countless press conferences which were only open to female journalists. The result: news organizations had to hire female reporters or they would be left out of the loop.
This ability to brilliantly manifest her ideas by acting simply and directly became Eleanor Roosevelt’s trademark. Her advocacy of women’s rights expanding into human rights, Eleanor’s vista grew even wider with what many consider her crowning achievement. As chairperson for the Human Rights Commission, she helped foster the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which sets the highest standard for human dignity and freedom. The commission’s goal was to create a document that would help prevent another world war and establish an international criteria for human rights recognition which would compel abiding nations to protect these rights.
As quoted in a 2009 Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt newsletter, Secretary of State Clinton made the following statement which appears appropriate for America’s present day challenges. “We can all follow in Eleanor’s footsteps . . . The America that inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the America that we love and treasure, is still the shining hope of the world . . .”
Still, with all of our nation’s current difficulties—the financial crisis, the disastrous Gulf oil dilemma—following in Eleanor Roosevelt’s footsteps would certainly be leading us down a different road. Respect for individual rights would be a foundational element with regard to much-needed policy changes.
“Something like the BP situation probably wouldn’t have happened if we were utilizing Eleanor Roosevelt’s vision for a just society,” Carol Hillman states. “More than likely, more government regulations would be in place. If she had anything to do with policy today, she would look after the people and would feel that the companies involved in such a terrible disaster needed to be accountable.”
Keeping Eleanor’s view in mind, it would also appear she would not have been too happy with our current immigration law difficulties. Carol cites Eleanor’s response to “the self-styled crusader” Gerald L.K. Smith in her My Day column back in 1953, where Eleanor took on, one-by-one, several points made by the clergyman and politician regarding his view of an ideal America.
The next point would stop all immigration into our country on the basis that there are only enough jobs for Americans and only enough houses for Americans. We built this country on the labor of immigrants and on the humanitarian principles that the Statue of Liberty personifies. We said we were a haven for the oppressed of the world. We can no longer open our doors as we did in the early days because ours is now a highly developed nation, but we are still able to preserve some of our humanitarianism and to profit by the skills and the strength of a certain amount of immigration. It would be wrong, I think, to say that we should take no one into our country from now on.
Controversial . . . outspoken . . . gutsy. Eleanor Roosevelt embodied what many women today aspire to become. And most of us agree: Eleanor’s message is timeless. In October of 2009, at the 125th anniversary of Eleanor’s birthday, Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt’s Chair Carol Hillman and Founding Chair Claudine Bacher placed a wreath at the former First Lady’s gravesite in Hyde Park — an act not only reflecting their deep respect and esteem but also conveying their promise as guardians of Eleanor’s legacy.
And the “First Lady of the World” deserves such deference. As Carol explains, “She stood for the progression of women’s rights. Eleanor would have also wanted to see more care taken of women and children not only in this country but abroad as well.”
In numbers there is strength, and we in America must help the women of the world. –MY DAY, October 22, 1946
Could our present First Lady set more of an example with regard to upholding that view. Could Michelle Obama use her position, as Eleanor did, to promote women’s issues?
“My hope is that the First Lady expands her horizons a bit more,” Carol asserts. “It would be good if Michelle Obama invested time into looking at issues regarding the women and children of the world, how they are taken care of in crisis situations, as well as health care and education.” Carol also expresses that if would also be beneficial to see the First Lady involved in preservation work as well. No doubt, Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt’s door would always be open and eager for her involvement.
But at the same time, we do not need to be the First Lady or a famous political leader to help make a difference.
Let us remember that international achievement, nevertheless, depends on individual achievement, that what we achieve in our own surroundings will spread out like the ripples when we throw a pebble in an unruffled pool. So no one can say what happens to an individual is unimportant, for no one knows how some individual act may ripple out even into international channels. –Eleanor Roosevelt
Carol also reminds us that no effort is insignificant. “There is no small achievement,” Carol remarks. “Everyone has a part to play and that means each person can contribute. We cannot undervalue what anyone does since it becomes a part of the collective effort.”
Only by moving together can we achieve our greatest vision. Eleanor Roosevelt asserted as much. Even the establishment of human rights begins “in small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: The neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
Calling us to clarity, Eleanor’s words are succinct and unaffected. Today, her voice resounds through those who, like Honoring Eleanor Roosevelt’s Carol Hillman, uphold her ideals and principles. Gracious and deferential, Carol offers her hope and vision for the future. “I think Eleanor’s comment that ‘staying aloof is not a solution, but a cowardly evasion’ says it all. We must get involved and do the things we think we cannot do for the good of humanity, the world, and our country.”
In a world where evasion is a keyword in our Search Engine, as easy to attain as a push of a button, Eleanor’s assertion is a timeless one. “Eleanor Roosevelt was a passionate patriot as well as a world leader,” Carol affirms. “Her message to all is to take action, get involved, take risks . . . and do the right thing.”
Perhaps that’s exactly what we need. A simple directive from a fearless woman who took on the world as her own.