By Dino Galinovic

A complex, multifaceted woman who became one of, if not the, most important woman of the twentieth century, Eleanor Roosevelt worked in a variety of venues to promote a society respectful of political and civil liberties and government supportive of economic security and social justice. As social reformer, party activist, journalist and author, First Lady, diplomat, and humanitarian, Eleanor Roosevelt challenged American nation to foster democracy and not to fall a prey to fear.

Despite Eleanor’s habit of downplaying her influence, she had considerable impact on Democratic politics and wider public opinion from the 1920s onwards. According to Ruby Black, it was thanks to ER’s work in the four most prominent women’s organizations that women began to be taken seriously in the political arena and the Democratic Party. In 1940, when Eleanor would still spend another five years in the White House, Black wrote: “Her prominence broke down the opposition of political leaders to women’s emergence in the party. She gave a leadership which encouraged other women to go into political work”. The office of First Lady is not a very well defined position but because it is an influential one, its occupant often courts controversy. In the twentieth century, the First Lady became increasingly incorporated into the institutional structure of the White House. Eleanor contributed greatly to this development. E. Roosevelt, like other First Ladies, had direct access to the President and therefore potential influence on his policies. According to one study, at least 26 First Ladies put themselves actively in such a crucial situation, starting with some of the earliest Presidents.

This type of admittance to the chief executive, combined with the fact that the First Lady is not elected by the public, has been at the heart of controversies surrounding the office of First Spouse. The society that E. Roosevelt lived in was a world where men dominated political and professional life. Eleanor, however, placed herself in the middle of this masculine realm. The way she shaped her actions as a working individual and a politician reflected the dichotomy between this part of her life and her role as a wife and mother. The impressive list of writings and achievements paint the picture of a woman who functioned fully alongside men and her husband in particular. Eleanor’s own words on the other hand, depict a thoroughly feminine character: modest, family oriented, caring and at the same time committed to reform goals that fitted a women’s agenda. In my opinion, in an approach that was probably partly natural
and partly intentional, Eleanor Roosevelt disguised her work with a feminine veil. This was a clever political strategy that made her more palatable to her setting, a necessary move in relation to her husband’s career.

The First Lady’s internationalist commitment dated from the early 1920s. The crucial meeting was with Carrie Chapman at a scheme to rally a woman’s crusade for peace, and out of this her link would intensify with the social feminist network involved in issues of peace and social justice.  Throughout the 1920s Elanor’s pacifist battle had hinged on the ever-denied demand that the US join the World Court, as well as on the other projects for peaceful settlement of conflict: for instance, the prize offered by Ladies Home Journal editor, Edward Bok, in 1923 for the best peace policy proposal, or the petition for a referendum demanding the United States cooperate with the technical agencies of the League of Nations.

Eleanor and the United Nations

In 1945, Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt as a member of the American delegation to the first session of the United Nations in an effort to send a signal to the many associations who wanted to have a role in the redefinition of the post-war democratic order. Eleanor Roosevelt’s commitment to peace and social justice was an expression of internationalism from below, which was convinced that the challenge to enlarge and make democracy more inclusive, more respectful of gender, racial, and ethnic differences had to be won not only in the domestic political sphere but also in the international one. To some extent Truman’s decision to include Eleanor in the official delegation was an act of public diplomacy, a favour to public and international opinion. Her fame as a liberal, attentive to questions of social and racial justice, her penchant for listening to others, her conviction that American policy must favour the expansion of democracy and rights without imposing a political model, would make her an icon of political democracy, especially in the work she did on the Commission for Human Rights. Truman himself admitted as much: when Eleanor died, and he commented on Eisenhower’s decision to leave her out of future American delegations to the United Nations, Truman said “I made use of her. I told her she was the First Lady of the World”. In a 1954 letter Truman wrote: “She has been one of our most effective forces against Communist propaganda in many vulnerable spots in the world”.

Back in 1945, however, public diplomacy in the broadest description of it – “the whole range of communication, information and propaganda under control of the government”  – was, as many scholars have pointed out, beginning to shape up around a public- private network involving a sizable involvement of civic associations and non-governmental organizations. This foretaste of public diplomacy in action came at the San Francisco Conference in April 1945, which involved 42 “pressure groups” and other invited observers after America’s absence from Dumbarton Oaks had been heavily criticised by religious groups, labour, women’s associations and internationalist movements.

Eleanor Roosevelt responded enthusiastically to Truman’s appointment of her to the UN delegation. The new role enabled her to pursue her ideals of democracy and internationalism, and to go on cultivating relations with the civic associations – the warp and weft of the American democratic model. What is more, her membership of many associations working in a climate of enthusiasm to make the international framework more democratic – with a view to seizing this ‘second chance’ – made her the ideal interlocutor to voice their claims and implement their goals. Although the deepening Cold War gradually made Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vision of a global order recede, Eleanor Roosevelt’s commitment to promoting democracy and human rights never lost sight of the broader canvas, be it Eastern Europe or the post-colonial situation.

Eleanor Roosevelt did not offer a fully developed alternative to the Truman Administration’s foreign policies. Yet as a thoughtful observer and participant in American diplomatic activities during the early cold war years, she did raise some significant questions. Her chief objections arose from her fear that the United Nations would be regarded simply as an instrument of American foreign policy and not as a true forum for the settlement of international problems. Those international problems that grew from economic roots must be eliminated through efforts toward cooperation rather than through antagonism and division. Like a number of her contemporaries, Mrs. Roosevelt accepted some aspects of America’s cold war policies and rejected others. Perhaps the outstanding feature of her world view was her refusal to dehumanize the global struggle. Although the world was never as good as Eleanor Roosevelt would have liked it to be, she maintained her belief in progress and her fundamental respect for her fellow human beings. Large problems, she said, were made up of many smaller ones. Every country was a collection of human beings striving to be happy, and it is the human element which is the most important consideration.