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What Eleanor Roosevelt Can Teach Us About Hillary Clinton’s Defeat

The parallels between America’s 32nd and 42nd first ladies are hard to push aside. In 2016, would Roosevelt still believe that America isn’t ready for a female president?

By Lyz Lenz


Eleanor Roosevelt speaks to a war-time audience while Rose Pesotta and others listen, circa 1942. (Photo: Keel Center/Flickr)

During the Bill Clinton administration, one of the first lady’s most powerful advisors was not a member of her staff, or even someone who was alive — it was Eleanor Roosevelt. In this year’s First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, Kate Andersen Brower describes how, as first lady, Hillary Clinton used to hold imaginary conversations with Roosevelt in the White House. Clinton once noted that Roosevelt, the prototype for strong and engaged first ladies, “usually responds by telling me to buck up or at least to grow skin as thick as a rhinoceros.”

One can only imagine that, if Clinton is still carrying on her conversations with Roosevelt’s ghost today, she’s getting an earful.Roosevelt famously refused to run for president or vice president, declaring she’d rather be “chloroformed.” Roosevelt didn’t feel like America was ready for a female president — she encouraged people to elect women to other offices instead, believing “women were insufficiently organized to support women in office and called for a popular movement to support and elect women,” the John Jay College history professor Blanche Wiesen Cook, the author of a newly released third volume in her epic biography of Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and After, 1939–1962, said in a recent interview.

Cook’s new book offers timely parallels to the political outlook America now faces, and not just because, after Clinton’s long 2016 presidential campaign, the country still doesn’t have a female president. The War Years and After describes an America in familiar straits: reeling from recession and unemployment, facing an international refugee crisis, racial tension, and virulent fascism at home and abroad. Like Clinton, Roosevelt’s style, sexuality, and involvement in domestic and international politics were often the source of resentment and controversy. Roosevelt’s “popular movement” didn’t materialize in her lifetime, as it didn’t this year, when Clinton lost not only the white male vote, but the vote of white women as well. Which begs the question, in 2016, would Roosevelt still feel that America isn’t ready for a female president?

The previous two volumes of Cook’s trilogy focus on Roosevelt’s childhood and fraught relationship with her husband and her “intimate friend” Lorena (Hick) Hickok — narratives that, at times, threaten to reduce Roosevelt to a sum of all her relationships. But this volume, which begins in 1939 and ends with Roosevelt’s death in 1962, is the most focused on Roosevelt’s career as an advocate of human rights and a first lady.

The book’s view is both unflinching and apologetic. Cook describes a letter that Roosevelt wrote to her old classmate, a German and a member of the Nazi party: “I realize quite well that there may be a need for curtailing the ascendency of the Jewish people,” she wrote. The anti-Semitism inherent in those lines is complicated: Cook later describes Roosevelt as a staunch defender of Jewish refugees and an outspoken critic of Nazism, yet she allows Roosevelt’s bias to show, allowing that her sentiments could have been the result of lingering structural racism. “There are some very painful letters, painful descriptions about what is going on in Nazi Europe sent to her by her own friends, sent to her by refugees, and she dismisses these things,” Cook noted in a 1999 interview with the New York Times, before addingthat she discovered that Roosevelt’s work for refugees at this time happened mostly behind the scenes.

Roosevelt’s complicated anti-Semitism calls to mind Clinton’s 1996 “superpredator” comments about children in gangs. Her words, in support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that her husband signed into law and whose legacy has been overwhelmingly felt by people of color, have been questioned this year by Black Lives Matters and criticized by Republican rivals. Clinton has apologized for the bill, noting in April of 2016 that she was “sorry for the consequences that were unintended and that have had a very unfortunate impact on people’s lives.” For both first ladies, rhetoric and personal values didn’t always ensure consistent work to end the structures that support racism.

Criticisms of Roosevelt’s positions on national security resonate with Clinton too: In 1940, when Congress passed the Smith Act to make supporting a plot to overthrow the government a criminal act, Roosevelt was condescending in her support of the bill, writing in her column “My Day” that there was nothing to be afraid of — when, in fact, the Smith Act was used to press criminal charges against socialists and suspected Communists. Clinton herself has called for increased surveillance and the cooperation of technology companies in monitoring social media posts.

They worked for similar causes, strongly advocating for the plight of refugees, working for equality in education, and championing birth control (a cause both women have been harshlycriticized for).The health-care plan proposed by Esther Lape, Roosevelt’s great friend and mentor, was the seed that germinated Clinton’s own health-care policy. Both women, too, were subject to criticisms about their appearance. “They attacked her for what she wore, how she looked, how she traveled, and what she believed. Politicians and pundits found an endless array of false and fraudulent personal issues upon which to pillory the most outspoken first lady in U.S. history,” Cook writes of Roosevelt, a summation that could easily apply to Clinton, who has often been the focus of articles lampooning her style and make-up.

Of course, each woman is her own person. Roosevelt’s great-granddaughter told Brower that she didn’t think that her grandmother would have even gotten along with Clinton, because of Clinton’s “hard edge.” Roosevelt was allowed more privacy that any modern woman in the public eye can expect today: She didn’t wear make-up; and, because she wasn’t in an elected office, she didn’t often pay public opinion much mind. Roosevelt also openly criticized her husband, lobbied him, and advised him on policy. While she has backtracked on some of her husband’s policies, most notably the North American Free Trade Agreement, Clinton has not openly criticized her own, famously standing by him even during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

But perhaps their biggest difference is that, while Roosevelt fought for a seat at the table with her husband, Clinton has fought for a seat at the table without her husband. Roosevelt’s ideas were often taken by Franklin Roosevelt and used without credit, Cook writes — though he relied on her heavily, he never publicly acknowledged her contributions.

Clinton, on the other hand, has not hidden her own political ambitions, even when perhaps she might have wanted to, weathering critiques that she is toopowerhungry . As Cook reminds us, Roosevelt used to say that “men hate women with power.” The idea of taking a woman on her own merit, without her husband, seemingly remains so wholly unfathomable that Clinton’s critics base a large swath of objections to her based on her husband’s record — NAFTA, the crime bill, the Lewinsky affair — rather than her own political history.

It is possible that the historical parallels between the two women could be chalked up to a convergence of coincidence and sudden catastrophes in international relations. Or perhaps there will always be refugees to contend with, nationalism will always be volatile, and women will always have to grapple with the insults of fashion and function. But perhaps what is important isn’t the parallels, but the enduring nature of the barriers that women in politics face — and how the country has failed to solve them in the intervening years.

It may not be a matter of the country being ready, but of making it happen. In a 1999 review of the second volume of Cook’s Roosevelt biography, the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd listed Roosevelt’s advice to a woman seeking political office, which included such maxims as: “You cannot take anything personally,” “You cannot bear grudges,” and “Be sure of your facts.” Dowd completed her column with the pointed message, “Are you listening, Hillary?” It is clear that Clinton was listening to Roosevelt, even if Roosevelt’s advice didn’t take her very far.

That situation could be seen as a cause for cynicism — or, as Roosevelt may have believed, a call to action. I spoke with Cook over the phone two days after the election; she insisted that America was ready for a female president (Clinton did, after all, win the popular vote, as Cook was quick to point out).

Roosevelt’s ghost still haunts us, Cook argues, even though it might not be chatting in the White House with Clinton any longer, or going forward. “Eleanor Roosevelt went around the country and spoke to people about what they want and what they need and what troubled them,” Cook said. “This is her legacy, and it’s not just up to Clinton to carry that out, but up to all of us.”

I asked Cook what she thought Roosevelt would tell us to take away from the 2016 election. In her best Roosevelt voice, Cook recited a quote from Walt Whitman’s poem, “Pioneers! O Pioneers”: “We must march my darlings.”