Eleanor, secular saint
When I was growing up, I heard the name Eleanor Roosevelt spoken with loathing. I didn’t know the reason for my dad’s animus toward her, but his prejudice disposed me against her through my early adulthood. Then I read about Eleanor Roosevelt’s tireless advocacy for social causes, her efforts to help poor and marginalized people, her visits to GI’s around the world during World War II, her exceptional achievement at the U.N. Paeans to her competed with my earlier conditioned attitude.
Now I call Eleanor a saint because, as much as any, she models the process of transformation through a dark night of the soul to resurrection. She overcame excruciating suffering. As a child she heard her mother worrying about her homeliness. The only unconditional love she got came from her father, a drunk. Her husband betrayed her in an affair, and at the end of his life another betrayal came from her daughter, who conspired to have his paramour there when he was dying.
Eleanor was not able to give Franklin what he needed—the kind of unconditional affirmation he got from his mother Sarah and from other women. Eleanor was Franklin’s conscience, always prodding him to do more for Blacks and everybody else in American society with needs.
Not until I viewed the Ken Burns documentary, The Roosevelts, did I learn to characterize my earlier views of Eleanor as prejudice. The magnificent series finished its second airing this week, and the final segment devoted to Eleanor leaves me with unadulterated admiration for the woman.
When Harry Truman appointed her as delegate to the U.N. she was at the height of her powers, free to shine her own light, no longer muted by Franklin’s political need to move with caution.
John Foster Dulles and Republican Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, also appointed to the delegation, thought her an unrealistic idealogue, an impractical do-gooder. I suspect Vandenburg, Dulles, and my dad were influenced by sexism.
Eleanor was assigned to Committee 3, which dealt with humanitarian, educational, and cultural issues. She imagined gentlemen in the delegation putting her there where her spitfire opinions couldn’t do much harm. They would change their minds about the committee and Eleanor Roosevelt.
World War II had left many displaced war refugees. The U.S. and other Western nations opposed the Soviet position that they should return to their country of origin or they were traitors. Eleanor and the Americans argued they should have the right to choose where they wanted to live, not be forced to take whatever conditions awaited them in their former home—a view the U.S. should honor today.
Eleanor Roosevelt turned out to be realistic and cunning at the U.N. She was elected chair of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and skillfully steered the drafting of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Russian delegate pressed for inclusion in the draft of race relations, which would have embarrassed the U.S. She craftily proposed that the Russians could send a team to observe racial problems in the U.S. if the U.S. could do the same in the Soviet Union. The New York Times observed,
The Russians seem to have met their match in Mrs. Roosevelt.[The Universal Declaration of Human Rights] stands to this day as the most widely recognized statement of the rights to which every person on our planet is entitled.Determined to press the Declaration to completion, Mrs. Roosevelt drove her colleagues mercilessly.There were fourteen sixteen hour days and some delegates may have secretly whispered the prayer ascribed to President Roosevelt: ''O Lord, make Eleanor tired!''A delegate from Panama begged Mrs. Roosevelt to remember that United Nations delegates have human rights, too.
Eleanor’s triumph as UN negotiator—unflagging, crafty, able to spar with global opponents—was recognized. After delegates unanimously adopted it at the General Assembly in Paris, they did something that has never before or since happened at the U.N. They rose to give a standing ovation to a single delegate—Eleanor Roosevelt.
Franklin and Eleanor had mutual respect; each recognized the greatness in the other, but Eleanor, being his conscience, was a thorn in the side of Franklin.
I call her a secular saint because her sanctity had nothing to do with religion. She modeled the sanctity Andrew Harvey describes in Unity Magazine (May/June 2015). He repudiates “the fake vision of Jesus” and states,
Jesus did not do it for us. He showed us the path by revealing what it is and what it costs to become divinized. He says, “Take up the cross, and do your own resurrection.”
Early photos of Eleanor with Franklin remind me of early photos of Diana with Prince Charles. Each women has head bowed, with shy eyes looking out; each seems overpowered by her husband whom she has just married. From a shy, diffident person when Eleanor married Franklin, she evolved into a tireless, world-renowned champion of persons in need.
Eleanor Roosevelt exemplifies the nobility wrought in the human person by suffering. Her dying and resurrection led to a life of compassionate assistance to others. I will try to remember her counsel:
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
June 25, Eleanor, Secular Saint 2
In last week’s post I hope I spurred others to love and admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt. Readers so inclined will revel in the accounts at this website where we find E.R.’s own account of her work for the U.N. plus observations of her work by others. Fascinating reading. Here some highlights:
Drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights took arduous work as members of Committee 3 debated “every single word” of it, wrote Eleanor, before sending it to the General Assembly.
Toward the end of her intense work, around 1:00 as she wearily walked the stairs to her room, Dulles and Vandenberg were waiting to tell her that they did all they could to keep her off the delegation. They confessed they begged Truman not to nominate her. Now they wanted her to know that they were glad to have worked with her and would do so gladly again.
The Communist member on the Human Rights Commission, Dr. Pavlov, “delivered long propaganda harangues,” wrote Eleanor, more aimed at promoting Communism than contributing to the work of the Committee.
He was an orator of great power; the words rolled out of his black beard like a river, and stopping him was difficult.
His "rash" accusations against the United States and Great Britain were deterring the Committee’s work, and members were tired of listening to him. On one occasion they were ready to recess when he began speaking again. Eleanor watched him closely, and when he paused for breath, she banged the gavel so hard that delegates jumped in surprise.
. . . before he could continue, I got in a few words of my own.“We are here," I said, “to devise ways of safeguarding human rights. We are here not to attack each other’s governments and I hope when we return on Monday the delegate of the Soviet Union will remember that!”I banged the gavel again. “Meeting adjourned.”
She wrote she could still see Dr. Pavlov staring at her in surprise. His orations were brief for about a week after that.
“Moslem” nations were planning to abstain because they believed the article on religious freedom was contrary to “the Koran.” But the foreign minister of Pakistan courageously rose to say that was a misinterpretation and he defended the Declaration. The final vote contained no nays but a few abstentions.
Elizabeth Janeway writes that Eleanor Roosevelt is a symbol of hope for progress throughout the world. She gives this physical description of Eleanor!
She looks like your favorite aunt. Her clothes and her coiffure both express the truth that it is a great nuisance to be fashionable, and also a nuisance to be at odds with fashion.Her mannerisms are those of a younger and much less important woman. They are endearing because they betray that she is shy and that she is determined to pay as little attention as possible to the distraction of her shyness.
In addition to her heavy load at the U.N., Eleanor gave daily radio broadcasts, determined to educate the American public about the U.N. , and she went to every speaking engagement she could squeeze in.
Perhaps there were people asking, ''O Lord, does Eleanor ever get tired?''
Perhaps there were people asking, ''O Lord, does Eleanor ever get tired?''
Thanks for the E Roosevelt piece—well done. I also did some reading about her several years ago and read Jonathan Alter's Roosevelt book, The Defining Moment, and learned about Lorena Hickock, the first woman to work for the New York Times. I want Kathy Bates to play her, with Streep as Eleanor, of course—she's already played her voice in that series we both enjoyed— and Susan Sarandon, or any of several other possibilities, playing Frances Perkins. The three women write every word of the New Deal and just send it down the hall for Franklin—Warren Beaty—to deliver it. Lorena seduces Eleanor in a sleeper car on the train coming from New York to Washington. They spend several nights together at a hotel before it's time to move into the White House. Eleanor takes her new friend to see a favorite statue in a nearby cemetery. All the while, Franklin is on a long boat party with all his best friends coming into Florida and someone tries to assassinate him when he debarks.
I see the opening scene in the fog, in Central Park, where the two women first meet. Lorena is on assignment to interview the incoming first lady. It's prearranged that she will accompany her to Washington. They get acquainted in conversation in the afternoon fog. Eventually they descend the stairs to the subway on their way to Pennsylvania Station (now gone). I'm waiting to see this movie. Maybe if she makes it onto the money.
p.s. toward the end of your article, look for a mistake with the words: woman/women. Great writing.