Eleanor Roosevelt is an American icon. In her time, she was a progressive, but as Mary Jo Binker points out in the introduction to her new book, “If You Ask Me,” the term “progressive” has changed with the times.
The book is a compilation of Roosevelt’s advice columns, ranging topics from etiquette to war and peace. It’s a delightful look back at a pivotal chapter in American history, and much of the timeless advice is just as applicable to our present chapter as it was then.
On politics, Roosevelt believed in positive rights, such as the right to a job, good wages, education, health care, and so on. She chaired the UN drafting committee for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is fundamentally different from the U.S. Constitution, which only secures negative rights, meaning it limits government’s interference in our freedoms.
Her political views would be very different from some of our positions at IWF, but there would also be common ground. I remember one column about universal daycare. While Roosevelt recognized how helpful this might be to working families, she stopped short of endorsing government-run daycare, instead recommending subsidies so that families might choose local options that suited their preferences.
Roosevelt also aptly handled a question aimed at “corruption in the Truman Administration” with this answer:
“…if any government is a ‘cesspool of corruption’ every individual citizen in the country is responsible when the government is a republic. You and I have to correct anything that is wrong – and we can always be heard. If anything is wrong, the blame is ours.”
How’s that for personal responsibility?
Beyond political issues, two values of Eleanor Roosevelt’s ring out clearly in every page: courage and civility. Of all of her words, perhaps the most famous are in the quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” She mentions fear as the enemy often and recommends to her readers that they choose truthfulness and courage over doubt and fear.
In addition to fear, another of Roosevelt’s dislikes was “tolerance.” She did not think that Americans of different points of view should simply tolerate each other, but that we should strive for better, even aiming to love one another. She was a woman of faith and believed in putting kindness first.
When asked about how to handle political disputes within the family, Roosevelt answered of her own family:
“They can argue passionately… and anyone who did not know them would think they were about to kill one another. But I find a little laughter and teasing and, if necessary, arbitrarily changing the subject make our family gatherings rather entertaining.”
This stands in sharp contrast to today’s left wing, which recommends using family gatherings to lecture conservative family members about social justice, etc.
As I read “If You Ask Me,” I found myself wishing that we had more leaders like Eleanor Roosevelt today. I disagree with some of her political positions, but I appreciate that she approached politics with civility, class, and tact. The book is a good read for both men and women across the political spectrum, and as an added bonus, it’s chock full of good practical advice too.