[6 February 2006]
PBS’s American Experience documentary, Eleanor Roosevelt, highlights the “World’s First Lady” in all her guts and glory. Narrated by Alfre Woodard, the episode offers a lively account of this iconoclastic, independent woman who bucked social conventions and found ways not only to live her own life but also to affect world politics. Using an effective mix of talking head interviews, historical film footage, photographs, and reenactments, the show moves beyond the “great woman behind the great man” narrative, instead embracing Roosevelt’s own vision of herself, as someone with a responsibility to make a difference.
Roosevelt’s story thus becomes one of changing gender roles and the limited opportunities open to talented women political leaders in the early- to mid-20th century. We see footage of her as a child playing at the feet of her famous uncle, rowdy President Teddy Roosevelt. We see her as a young woman falling in love with her distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her future husband and the future four-term President who guided the country through the Great Depression and his New Deal. The documentary gives the impression that Eleanor never got sidelined by the famous men around her. That achievement seems particularly impressive, given resistance—then and now—to non-traditional First Ladies and progressive women activists.
The voiceover claims she was “one of the best politicians of the 20th century” and notes how many times her husband called on her to push Democratic measures forward. While he dealt with his health problems, including polio and heart disease, she often conducted her own political organizing and social activism, claiming she was doing it on his behalf, but also working on her own objectives.
The documentary is sprightly and engaging when it recounts some of her greatest successes. After FDR’s death, Truman sent her as a delegate to the first U.N. meeting. As the only woman, she was condescended to by male ambassadors. But she went toe to toe with Soviet politicians as the Cold War skirmishes began. She chaired the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and stood up to curmudgeons who tried to stop her.
In the U.S., she fought for racial equality and civil rights, which earned her the enmity of J. Edgar Hoover and the KKK. One adventure in the late ‘50s found her headed to Tennessee to hold a workshop on non-violent civil disobedience. When the KKK threatened her life and put a bounty on her head, the FBI told her not to go, that they couldn’t protect her. She went anyway, though she was in her 70s. Another woman of the same age picked her up at the airport and they rode through the woods with a loaded pistol in their car to get Roosevelt to the hall for her talk. Don’t mess with the grandmamas on a mission.
Her progressive efforts on all manner of causes earned her an FBI file a mile long. But she wouldn’t back down. From tours to impoverished areas around the world, to her work with FDR, to her speeches on everything from The Ed Sullivan Show to Frank Sinatra specials, Eleanor made herself heard, as demonstrated in sound recordings including in the documentary.
The psychological narratives here are less compelling than tales of her public life. We learn that her mother did not give her unconditional love because she didn’t live up to her New York high society standards of beauty and behavior. Her father was an alcoholic whom she loved dearly but who failed her. She also loved FDR deeply, but he also failed her, through repeated affairs with secretaries. She offered to divorce but they stayed together, living independent lives while remaining fond political partners. He built her her own house, which gave her freedom and a place to form a community.
The documentary suggests that she didn’t give her five children enough unconditional love, and they buckled under the pressure of two world-famous parents. She was closer to her friends than her children, she had close friendships with both women and younger men throughout her life, and we’re not sure if she was bisexual. She was a control freak because of all the alcoholics in her family but loosened up later in life. Her dad always promised they’d go to the Taj Mahal but they didn’t, and when she finally got there when she was in her 70s, it was a revelation. The psychobabble is reductive and muddled.
When the documentary interviews friends and associates, you get a clear sense of how she galvanized others and made common cause for women’s rights and civil rights in particular. Her willingness to be a symbol for the abilities of women made it easier for those who came after her. It’s fascinating to hear Sinatra citing a Gallup poll naming her the most popular woman in the world for all of the ‘50s. Instead of being turned into just a stereotype or punch-line (horsy, buck-toothed busy-body), she gets the last laugh on her detractors who couldn’t handle social change. Uncompromising uppity women. Rock on.