Thursday, October 11, 2007

First Lady of firsts: Eleanor Roosevelt

A hat tip to The Writer's Almanac for reminding us that today is the birthday of Eleanor Roosevelt, born Anna Eleanor Roosevelt in 1884 and shown here in a school portrait taken in 1898, at age 14. She was shy, insecure and thought to be unattractive. Pushed into public speaking when her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was elected President,she took great pains with writing her speeches and delivering them -- and, as a result, became one of the foremost voices of the 20th century. From the FDR Library and Archive comes this note about her public speaking:
Eleanor Roosevelt was in real demand as a speaker and lecturer, both in person and through the media of radio and television. She was a prolific writer with many articles and books to her credit including a multi-volume autobiography. In late 1935, she began a syndicated column, "My Day," which she continued until shortly before her death. She also wrote monthly question and answer columns for the Ladies Home Journal (1941-49) and McCalls (1949-62).
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's essay about Roosevelt in The "TIME 100" list of the most important people of the 20th century puts a finer point on her accomplishments in public speaking:
She gave a voice to people who did not have access to power. She was the first woman to speak in front of a national convention, to write a syndicated column, to earn money as a lecturer, to be a radio commentator and to hold regular press conferences.
Goodwin notes that when Eleanor came outside to tell reporters of her husband's death, she told them "the story is over," as if she could never give them anything else to cover on her own. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. It was in this era that she led the United Nations efforts to develop a human rights declaration, and published, wrote and spoke most prolifically. (Here, she's seen on the set of Meet the Press in 1956.) Her face and voice could not have been better known, and today she is seen as the most influential First Lady the United States has ever seen, changing the role completely.

The new book Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphoristsincludes several "essential aphorisms" of Eleanor Roosevelt's, with phrases so eloquent most of us have appropriated them for everyday use, such as:
Do what you feel in your heart to be right -- for you'll be criticized anyway. You'll be damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, "I have lived through this before. I can take the next thing that comes along." You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

A woman is like a tea bag -- only in hot water do you realize how strong she is.
Photos courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum