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Eleanor Roosevelt

There have been arguments over the years about whether Eleanor Roosevelt was a feminist because she opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. That argument and discussion is for another post. Today I want to remember a small amount about who she was and to address a couple of questions she posted in Good Housekeeping back in 1940 in a piece she wrote called “Women in Politics.”

There is so much amazing history about her and if I went through it all, I’d never get to the questions in the piece she wrote. But a few things about her:

Eleanor Roosevelt became active in the social reform movement of the Progressive Era (which included fighting government corruption, capitalism based corruption, and a push for women’s suffrage). Her participation in this movement taught her the power of organized political reform and the process necessary to legally effect fair labor practices. She was greatly influenced by the incumbent president FDR and was paid attention to more than some women activists because of their relationship and then marriage.

Eleanor was a huge support of working women and she was committed to women’s participation as voters, party leaders, and department heads. She worked to oppose child labor, to limit the number of hours an employer could force a woman to work, and to remedy the unsafe and exploitative conditions of many women-dominated workplaces. After working with women labor activists, she supported women’s full inclusion in unions, the living wage, birth control, and the right to strike and bargain collectively.

When some Americans blamed working women for displacing male “breadwinners” during the depression, Eleanor Roosevelt defended women workers at her press conferences, in articles and speeches, and on the radio.

Her activism and radical thinking was continuously criticized and in her role of First Lady, all of her behavior was scrutinized, but she continued in the fight.

Check out her entire piece from Good Housekeeping January 1940, but here are a few of the points and questions here from what she wrote. I respond to them after each one.

Eleanor Roosevelt Point 1. We are about to have a collective coming of age! The women in the United States have been participants in government for nearly twenty years. I think it behooves us to look back on this period in which we have been serving our apprenticeship and decide what our accomplishments have been, how much good our education has done us, and whether we really are able to consider ourselves full-fledged citizens.

Addressing this in 2012:

Yes! We are about to have a collective coming of age! Women are about to have a collective coming of age.

Feminism is a movement that is continuously moving. Yes there are goals, but there is also ever-changing opposition to women being equally valued, respected, heard, and present as men. We absolutely must look back and see that we are out of the apprenticeship and full on in the game and though we have had a lot of accomplishments, the society in which we live does not allow for women’s presence. This has of course been clear to many of us for years, but some people who couldn’t previously see the oppression of women or were able to blow it off as no big deal are seeing things at least a little bit more clearly as recently right wing leaders held a committee on contraception and told women they could not participate under the guise of religious freedom. Many women are saying: ‘but what about my religious freedom? I want a voice!’

If that didn’t do it, Rush Limbaugh called a woman speaking about contraception as a medical necessity for many women a slut and a prostitute, further establishing and reinforcing the belief that women who want access to contraception are sluts. And of course, demonstrating to women that if they speak up for their rights and what they believe, they will be shamed into silence. All this craziness is not new.

Eleanor, you saw these attitudes in your day. It is a programming of the society on women. Women are bad. Women are dirty. Women are objects to be looked at. Women are second class. Same ol’- same ol.

Yes it was horrible to call a nice woman like Sandra Fluke a slut, but that’s not the worst part of it. The worst part was that he  programmed that into everyone’s minds that women are sluts and will be called out for speaking up.

72 years later Eleanor, and no, we have not made a lot of progress. Women and our awesome men allies around the country have stood up in protest to show their outrage, but the committee, the name-calling, the programming of America about women- it’s all being rationalized and is at risk of being blown off and remembered as: ‘Oh yeah remember what that guy said? Well, she was talking about birth control. He was just kidding. You know how men are.’

It needs to be remembered in the following way: The men fighting for Patriarchy, which oppresses women in every area of life to the degree that it promotes violence against women in order to maintain it’s hierarchical structure, have taken drastic public measures to exclude women in talks about their own bodies and to silence them when they objected.

This is not something to remember lightly or to forget. It must be at the tips of our tongues and the edges of our brains at every moment, ready to pounce.

Back to your question Eleanor:

Yes, our education has helped us, but we are still paid less than men, even if we have more education than them. Often it happens that we are more aware of our oppression and yet must continue to live under the system which oppresses us and be subject to offensive and degrading attitudes that drive and are driven by that system, fighting against it, but discouraged by the slow progress and backlash.

E. R. Point 2. Where did we start and how far have we come?

The answer to this could be a book, it has been, quite a few in fact. But the short sweet answer. We have come a long way. I said we hadn’t gotten very far, but we have, it’s just a slow process. You know where we were before. We used to be property, like livestock. We weren’t able to work outside of our homes. We weren’t allowed to vote. We weren’t allowed in government. Okay, so yes, things have changed, but women are still not equally in government positions and in general, we’re sexualized, objectified, and regularly hurt or killed by violence. There’s a long way to go in every arena of life.

E.R. Point 3. Twenty years ago, when we were granted the right of suffrage, some people thought that women were going to revolutionize the conduct of government. Yet all we were given was the right to vote. Men had had the vote on a fairly universal basis ever since the country was established—without achieving Utopia. Everyone knew that corruption still existed, and that the gentlemen did not always devote themselves to their civic duties in the unselfish and ardent manner that might be expected in a democracy. In 1919, however, this fact did not seem to prevent the belief that all desirable reforms would come about by the granting of suffrage to women. Alas and alas, the reforms just did not happen.

We are still fighting Eleanor. The reforms have still not completely happened. But we continue to demand our rights and that we not be treated as second class citizens.

E.R. Point 20. In the old days men always said that politics was too rough-and-tumble a business for women; but that idea is gradually wearing away. There is more truth in the statement that men have a different attitude toward politics than women. They play politics a little more like a game. With the men, it becomes a serious occupation for a few weeks before election; whereas women look upon it as a serious matter year in and year out. It is associated with their patriotism and their duty to their country.”

Men are making it too “rough-and-tumble” for women by excluding us when it is our right to participate. For women, the political is personal. The laws are written all over our bodies, our voices, our healthcare, our access to resources, our families, the money we make (or don’t), and whether we are protected or not from violence. Now more than ever, it is vital that women are full participants in the society.

Are we full fledged citizens in the society? Still trying to be.

-Liza Wolff-Francis