One of the last bastions of male domination in America is our paper currency. Each of the eleven denominations in circulation, from the one-dollar bill to the ten-thousand-dollar bill, features the picture of a male. Two women, Barbara Ortiz Howard and Susan Ades Stone, recently decided to mount a campaign, Women on 20s, to put a woman’s face on the $20 bill by 2020, the centennial of women’s suffrage. Andrew Jackson, they decided, was expendable.
Earlier this year, people cast ballots in an unofficial “Women on 20s” campaign. More than 350,000 people voted, and those receiving the most ballots to unseat Andrew Jackson were Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, in that order.
Consequently, the Treasury Department announced in June that they will be unveiling the face of a woman on a redesigned $10 bill by the 2020 anniversary, replacing Alexander Hamilton. They also said that the bill should feature one “who was a champion for our inclusive democracy.” There are lots of great options for women on our currency, and, like many others, among those at the top of my list is Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most admired and influential women in American history.
Eleanor was only nineteen years old when she became engaged to her twenty-two year old fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor’s childhood was sad, with her father battling addictions to alcohol and morphine and both parents dying young. She was not interested in normal things wealthy families did, such as attending debutante balls or wearing fine clothing. Eleanor had a very sensitive, strong moral character, was compelled to make a difference and use her position as a catalyst for positive change.
From the beginning of FDR’s political involvement, Eleanor was a great advocate and help for Franklin, especially after he contracted polio. When FDR was elected President in 1932, Eleanor realized that she was not destined to be a typical President’s wife, remaining behind to take care of the White House and host events. Rather, she was determined to find a role where she could make a difference for ordinary Americans.
Together, Eleanor and Franklin decided that it was critical for the president to know what was going on around the country. Because of FDR’s physical challenges, Eleanor was the one who could best do that for him. Feeling irrelevant in the face of the impending Nazi threat and knowing that FDR’s primary attention was directed toward the war, Eleanor decided that her gifts would best be used to focus on the needs of the home front and champion inclusive democracy. Little did anyone know in 1932 that in a few short years Eleanor would become the most famous woman in America.
At the beginning of her political life as FDR’s wife, Eleanor inspected New Deal programs and became involved in the abolition of child labor, raising the minimum wage and seeking protections for women workers. As World War 2 approached, Eleanor focused her passions in four areas: Jewish refugees from Europe, Japanese internment camps, the role of women in the war effort and equal rights for African-Americans.
At the beginning of the war, the full extent of Jewish atrocities was not well known, nor did U.S. newspapers print much about mass Jewish killings in Europe. However, early on, Eleanor lobbied on behalf of child victims and was intent on opening the United States to refugee children from Europe. She established the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children, finding homes and attempting to eliminate red tape by calling them temporary visitors. Unfortunately, Eleanor’s efforts were thwarted by the isolationist stance of the U.S. in the early 1940’s and the reluctance of Americans to assist Jewish refugees in practical ways, partly because of anti-Semitism.
The clergy were silent, and Congress did not seem concerned. FDR had heard that the Germans were intent on exterminating all Jews in Europe, but he felt that the best way to help the Jews was to win the war as soon as possible. In her later years, Eleanor, who so much wanted to champion inclusive democracy, acknowledged that the failure to admit more Jewish refugees was the greatest regret of her life.
Japanese Internment Camps
The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor not only occasioned America’s entrance into the war, it marked the beginning of one of the worst human rights violations in American history. In the hysteria following Pearl Harbor, many Americans thought that U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry must be spies for the Japanese government. Over 127,000 Japanese-American citizens were displaced and forced into incarceration camps in the interior of the country during World War 2 because of anti-Japanese paranoia.
As the champion of inclusive democracy, Eleanor listened to Japanese doctors, engineers and farmers who said, “We’re on your side! Why are you doing this?” Horrified by this overt display of racism, she wondered how the United States could teach principles of democracy to people whose rights were being taken away. Eleanor’s pleas to FDR and Congress fell mostly on deaf ears. However, by the end of 1943, one third of the evacuees were allowed to leave the internment camps.
Eleanor was tireless in her advocacy for women entering the work force during World War 2 and receiving fair compensation. Because millions of American young men were fighting in the war, it was necessary for women to work in traditionally male jobs. Rosie the Riveter became the cultural icon for women’s economic power, as women earned much more money as riveters, welders, blue print readers and inspectors than they would in traditionally female jobs such as maids.
Eleanor, the champion of inclusive democracy, was especially concerned about the lack of day care for the three million women who were added to the work force between 1940 and 1942, 33% of whom had children under the age of fourteen. She called on private industry to consider day care centers as important as having a cafeteria in a factory. As a result, President Roosevelt approved the first government-sponsored child care center in the summer of 1942.
Equal Rights for Africa-Americans (check out next week’s blog)
No one disputes the fact that President Roosevelt’s success and popularity during World War 2 was possible only because of Eleanor’s ability to be the face of his presidency and personally connect with the American people. Why did Eleanor become a highly respected leader in her own right and the most admired woman in America?
Steadiness of Purpose
- Eleanor demonstrated her innate sense of integrity, compassion and justice for all people by her presence as well as her words. Eleanor traveled the country incessantly and was rarely home at the White House. Because she was an American mother with four sons in the military herself, Eleanor made a positive impact on everyone she met.
- As the hands and voice of FDR, Eleanor said the right things, always expressed gratitude and was good-natured about trying new experiences. She visited assembly lines, child care centers and army bases. She personally encouraged the troops in England and the South Pacific and even climbed into every position in the B-52 bomber so that she knew what it felt like to be in combat.
- Eleanor was most widely known for her syndicated daily column, My Day, which appeared in 135 newspapers. “Every soldier I see is a friend from home,” she wrote in her folksy and immensely popular column, similar to a blog today. By 1941 Eleanor was among the highest paid lecturers in the country at $1,000 a day.
- Eleanor insisted that only women reporters could attend her press conferences, which meant that the newspapers were forced to hire women reporters.
Work Ethic and Organization
- Eleanor believed in surrounding herself with people who complemented her gifts.
- Eleanor periodically reinvented herself, with FDR’s approval, to various positions that were perfectly suited to her skills and interests.
- Eleanor had a serious personality. Unlike her husband, she did not like cocktail party conversation, never quit working and was often taking care of correspondence far into the night.
Despite their differences, Eleanor always supported FDR’s decisions. In truth, they complemented and strengthened each other. US News gave Eleanor a high compliment in 1941 by writing, “She backs the President’s most courageous self.”
Eleanor Roosevelt never held an elected office. Still, she was subject to more praise and criticism than any other woman in American history. By leading from the “second chair,” Eleanor’s insistence on being a champion of inclusive democracy changed the course of our country and world. Eleanor on a $10 bill? What do you think?