As we approach Election Day, I've been thinking a lot about real superheros from our political history. One name which keeps resonating with me during these times of economic crisis is Eleanor Roosevelt. This month, she would have celebrated her 124th birthday.
Raised in a wealthy family, Eleanor was educated first at home and then at an English finishing school run by an outspoken feminist of the day. Although she always thought of herself as plain or even ugly, Eleanor learned while still a young teenager that "no matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and loyalty are stamped upon her face, all will be attracted to her." And indeed, when she at age 17 met Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he was immediately smitten with her and invited her on an early date: lunch with his uncle--President Theodore Roosevelt--at the White House.
Eleanor then took Franklin to a place that was important to her. She had been working as a social worker in the slums of the East Side in New York. The sheltered young man was profoundly affected with the vision of poverty that Eleanor showed him as they walked through the tenements. His understanding of the world profoundly changed at that moment, and Eleanor continued to make him think in new ways throughout their relationship.
The marriage of Eleanor and Franklin was complicated--at first by a domineering mother-in-law, then by an illness and disability that required Eleanor to act (as FDR's doctor said) like "a rare wife" who carried a "heavy burden most bravely," and finally by romantic affairs and intense relationships had by both Eleanor and Franklin.
Historians often point out that exactly the things that made their marriage imperfect and unconventional made Eleanor into a more independent and outspoken individual, despite her innately introverted nature.
She learned to speak publicly in order to represent her husband, but she also spoke her own mind--even when her beliefs conflicted with those of her husband. Led by ethical commitments she did not always share with her husband, Eleanor was much more outspoken about labor rights, about the government's responsibility to respond to poverty, about civil rights for African Americans. She saw her role as that of mediator between the forces of government bureaucracy and the real lives of Americans suffering through the Great Depression. She also helped start the WWII Victory Garden movement. In the years after Roosevelt's presidency, she became increasingly vocal about women's issues, disability discrimination, and global human rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a product of her world and it would be easy to look back disparagingly at a few of her more dated beliefs and actions. Remembering what the limits of her time and place were, however, allows us to see her as the transformative figure she really was. She led the American government to talk about people who previously had been all but invisible to politicians.
A crucial expression of her power can be seen in her ability to transform Franklin himself. Late in life after he died, Eleanor reflected that her husband "might have been happier with a wife who was completely uncritical. That I was never able to be, and he had to find it in some other people. Nevertheless, I think I sometimes acted as a spur, even though the spurring was not always wanted or welcome."
Although it created tensions--tensions so intense that they forced both of them to find solace in other people--Eleanor's fine intellect and her fierce heart allowed her husband to see a much broader world, a much more inclusive country, than he could imagine alone.