- Although militant feminists have
long criticized Eleanor Roosevelt for her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment,
her views regarding equality of men and women were far more complex than partisans
in those old arguments would have us believe. In the same letter in which
she outlined strategies to "fight the amendment," for example, Roosevelt also
argued that women "should, in all but certain very specific cases which are
justified by their physical and functional differences, have the same rights
as men [ 1]." While she opposed treating
women as a special group with its rights specifically guaranteed, as First
Lady, Roosevelt held press conferences exclusively for women reporters to
help ensure their jobs during the Depression. Certainly, Roosevelt herself
was a model of capable woman exercising decision-making power in the public
sphere. How, then, can the long-standing, bitter animosity between Roosevelt
and militant feminist members of the National and World Woman's Parties (NWP
and WWP), who supported legally mandated equal rights, be explained? The answer
lies both in the differences in their fundamental approaches and the personal
antipathy that precluded both sides from working together for the benefit
of all women. The NWP and WWP advocated an abstract legal equality for women,
while Roosevelt operated on the principle of pragmatic but paternalistic protection.
- As political scientist Jean Bethke
Elshtain has pointed out, Roosevelt was a Victorian "lady," and while she
was restricted by upper-class notions of propriety, her Victorian concepts
of duty and service paradoxically became her means of liberation. Although
she advocated a domestic role for the average woman, stating that "...the
greatest number of women, must subordinate themselves to the life of the family
[ 2]." Roosevelt also believed it
was appropriate for women of her social standing to have careers outside the
home, and she used her social status as an entrance to public service and
politics. while she argued publicly that calling special attention to gender
hurt women politically, privately Roosevelt continued to favor women's patronage
networks. Perhaps because of this dichotomous view of a woman's role, Roosevelt
never aspired to lead the movement to gain equal rights for American women.
Instead, she helped make contacts with influential people and gain positions
for women she either knew personally or who were recommended by intimates;
women who, like herself, made social welfare reform their first priority.
Roosevelt and other reformers worked hard for protective legislation for women
in industry. Ironically, the patronage politics they promoted proved more
beneficial to upper-middle-class women reformers, who had the credentials
to take advantage of the newly opened opportunities, than to the working masses.
Rather than true equality across the class chasm, Roosevelt and her cohorts
maintained a condescending attitude toward their working-class sisters. While
reluctant to pass laws protecting male workers, between the 1890s and the
early 1920s the state legislatures and courts alike gave the green light to
safety regulations for working women, reasoning that as the future mothers
of the nation, they needed special protection. Upper-middle-class reformers
and their organizations, including the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) and
the National Consumer's League (NCL), fought long and hard to pass a variety
of laws designed to protect working-class women by prohibiting them from working
at night, in certain unsafe occupations or conditions, or beyond a specific
number of hours. They achieved such "materialist" legislation as Mothers'
Pension laws, the creation of the children's and Women's Bureaus in the Department
of Labor, and the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act that provided
federal grants-in-aid to states for pre- and post-natal care for mothers and
- Roosevelt's ideals were shaped
by these Progressive-era reforms. Although she was not an active suffragist,
Roosevelt became involved in politics in the 1920s as a result of her husband's
illness. Her initial participation came through legislative work with the
League of Women Voters (LVW) in New York. Later she worked with the New York
State Democratic committee. At the same time, she continued her humanitarian
reform work with Rose Schneiderman and Mary Anderson in the WTUL, and Frances
Perkins in the NCL, women who later benefited from her patronage as First
Lady. These organizations sought to improve the quality of life for all citizens
in a variety of ways. By improving society as a while, their reforms ultimately
would benefit women as well. Until suffrage was attained in 1920, women reformers
were not wed to any particular political party but instead supported the political
candidate they considered most likely to back their causes. Once enfranchised,
however, women found they needed to work through political parties to achieve
their goals . For Roosevelt,
the Democratic party became the means not only of desired social reforms but
of political patronage for women as well.
- The leaders of the NWP, on the
other hand, sought more direct decision-making power for women. After passage
of the 19th Amendment, Alice Paul, head of the NWP, used the Party to press
for full and equal rights, reasoning that without legal equality with men,
women could not realize social equality. while other women's organizations
worked in other areas, Paul argued, "no organization concentrated on raising
the position of women as women ."
NWP members believed that adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution
would end, with one stroke, legal distinctions between men and women in matters
pertaining to marriage and divorce, employment, and the possession of property.
The NWP rejected any coalition with other groups, and pursued the adoption
of the ERA with single-minded, almost religious zeal.
- Because of its narrow focus, the
NWP remained a small minority group composed largely of highly educated middle-class
professional women in the post-suffrage era. As egalitarian feminists, NWP
members objected to the protective legislation for women in industry advocated
by humanitarian reformers because, they believed, it was based on the supposed
biological inferiority of women. Laws that provided for minimum wage, maximum
hours, and elimination of night work for women were see as restricting women's
opportunities by NWP members, who were willing to give up protection in order
to compete with men on as equal basis. In contrast, humanitarian reform groups
saw protective laws for women as the first steps extended to all workers,
male and female. In the conservative political climate following World War
I, often characterized as the nadir of the labor movement, reformers found
themselves fighting to maintain gains already made for women in industry with
little likelihood of extending them to include men .
- Social reformers in the LWV, the
NCL, and the WTUL thus became violently opposed to the NWP because they feared
the ERA would invalidate the gender-based protective legislation for which
they had fought so hard. Their hostility extended to the publicity-seeking
tactics employed by NWP feminists as well; "ladies" did not picket international
conventions the way NWP members did to promote their cause. Personal antipathies
became so pronounced that social reformers came to perceive the equal rights
feminists as their arch enemies. The quarrel soon degenerated into name-calling,
with the NWP insisting it alone embodies the tenets of feminism and derisively
labeling women working on behalf of other causes "humanitarians," to them
a derogatory term implying weakness on women's issues .
The reformers, on the other hand, accused the militants of exhibiting outrageous,
"unladylike" behavior. Once the stigma became firmly attached, the NWP leadership
had little reason to curb the radical methods they had honed in the suffrage
struggle. From the period following the First World War until after the Second
World War, the American women's movement was rent asunder by these ideological
and personal clashes. The antagonism between Eleanor Roosevelt and the NWP
can be understood only in the context of the background. By the early 1930s,
the entire world was suffering from the effects of depression. In the United
States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to power in 1933 on the strength of
his pledge to end the Depression and aid the common people. Roosevelt's victory
brought together two women closely associated with the drive for protective
legislation for women workers, Eleanor Roosevelt and the first female cabinet
member, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, with whom the First Lady had worked
in the NCL. When she accompanied her husband to the White House in 1933, Eleanor
Roosevelt was already a personality in her own right. In addition to her work
with reform organizations and the Women' Division of the Democratic party,
Roosevelt had managed the Democratic National Committee headquarters for the
Al Smith campaign in 1928. She had also taught at the Todhunter school, lectured
extensively and published articles in national magazines. Although she gave
up teaching after assuming her duties as First Lady, Roosevelt expanded her
other activities to include holding weekly press conferences for women reporters,
constant traveling to act as her crippled husband's eyes and ears, writing
a daily newspaper column entitled "My Day," lecturing, and publishing several
books. In her autobiography, Roosevelt confessed, "My own work had to go on
regardless of anything else ."
- Through her access to the media
and persons in high government and business circles, Roosevelt wielded more
power than any other woman of her time; indeed, she had power that few men
possessed, which she used to obtain appointments to government and Democratic
party posts for women who came highly recommended or whom she had come to
know personally through her earlier reform activities. Roosevelt maintained
that she merely passed along names that were sent to her, together with information
she might have about the person. In her autobiography, however, Roosevelt
admitted she soon discovered "that a great many government people to whom
I referred letters regarded them as a mandate requiring prompt attention ."
It is difficult to believe that she did not realize the weight a note from
the First Lady would carry. Historian June Sochen has called Roosevelt a "Right-Wing"
feminist, although Roosevelt herself and her cohorts applied the term "feminist"
derogatorily to members of the NWP and recommended only those activists who
behaved in proper "lady-like" fashion.
- Unlike women of "moderate" reform
organizations, members of the NWP were wary about the ascension of Roosevelt
and Perkins to positions of power, fearing they would fight for adoption of
restrictive labor legislation to the detriment of women as a class. Their
fears appeared to be realized in the Roosevelt Administration's New Deal measures,
which they believed constituted an assault on women's "right to earn a living."
Even before Roosevelt took office, Section 213 of the Economy Act of 1932,
the "marital status clause," stipulated that in any reduction of personnel
in government service, married persons whose spouses also worked for the government
were to be dismissed first .
Unwritten custom ensured that the male half of the couple was the one retained.
- The effort to repeal Section 213
provided an opportunity for women's groups across the philosophical spectrum
to unite, since virtually all of them opposed discrimination against married
women workers. Roosevelt, however, was unable to bury her antipathy to the
NWP in order to work together toward to desired end. When invited to appear
at an NWP-sponsored conference on Section 213, Roosevelt replied that although
she might agree with the Party on individual matters, she was opposed to "their
politics" and doubted they would care to entertain her any more than she would
care to entertain them. In addition, Roosevelt declined to work for repeal
of Section 213 on the grounds that she could not influence pending legislation.
while Roosevelt and the feminists might have breathed a collective sigh of
relief when the Act was finally repealed in 1937, the action did not result
from any cooperative effort. Supported by findings of the Women's Bureau,
legislators surrendered to the argument that women should work because their
income was necessary to support the family; they did not back women who wanted
a career for personal fulfillment .
- At the behest of the Administration,
Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 as a further
attempt at economic reform. No sooner was the NIRA passed and its mandated
industrial codes drawn up than observers pointed out that many of the codes
sanctioned lower pay for women performing the same jobs as men. Roosevelt
and Perkins excused the inequities with the explanation that to rush the legislation
through, arrangements "based on present practices" were permitted .
Explaining that such discrepancies were only a temporary expedient in order
to get people back to work as quickly as possible, Roosevelt and Perkins insisted
that "no such differences will appear in the permanent codes," since the "government
stands for and will insist upon" the principle of equality .
NWP members, however, opposed even temporary discriminatory codes, arguing
that wage differentials should "be based on the nature of the work and not
the sex of the worker .
Despite the assurances, many inequities were written into the finalized codes,
adding to NWP distrust of Roosevelt and Perkins. Antipathy between Roosevelt
and the NWP transcended domestic politics and reached into the international
arena. The NWP had begun working for worldwide equality for women as early
as 1923. When the Party's application for membership in the International
Women's Suffrage Alliance was rejected in 1926 because of opposition by the
LWB, the NWP turned its attention to the Sixth Pan-American Conference held
in Havana, Cuba in 1928. Alice Paul formulated an Equal Rights Treaty, in
essence the Equal Rights Amendment in international dress: "The contracting
states agree that upon the ratification of this treaty, men and women shall
have equal rights throughout the territory subject to their respective jurisdictions
." NWP members saw the
treaty as the quickest means of abolishing all existing legal inequities throughout
the world that related to the status of women. They also hoped it would prevent
additional inequities from being written into law .
- The Pan-American Union obliged
the NWP feminists by creating the Inter-American Commission of Women (IACW)
and instructing it to gather information on the civil and political status
of women. Doris Stevens was appointed chair, while Paul and other NWP members
served on the Nationality Committee. Because many nations required a woman
to change her nationality to that of her husband upon marriage to an alien,
the nationality issue seemed the embodiment of second-class citizenship, and
as such held particular significance for NWP members. As modern women began
to travel more and marry foreigners, it became possible for a married woman
to possess several legal nationalities, or none at all, depending upon the
law of the country in which she resided. After extensive research into the
nationality laws of other countries, the feminists sought to prevent gender
inequality in the 1930 Hague Conference for the Codification of International
Law. Both humanitarians and egalitarians agreed a woman should have the right
to citizenship status independent of her husband. The NWP, however, preferred
to gain independent nationality status for women by treaty. Reformers objected
to the treaty method, just as they objected to blanket measures for equal
civil rights, for fear it might overturn protective legislation for women.
While ultimately unsuccessful in preventing an inequitable convention from
being adopted, feminist opposition did prevent the United States from signing
the concluded document .
- The NWP leaders then directed
their efforts toward the Seventh Pan-American Conference scheduled for Montevideo,
Uruguay in December 1933, with the objective of convincing the delegates to
adopt both an equal nationality treaty, which would prevent women from becoming
stateless upon marriage to an alien, and the Equal Rights Treaty. In view
of the support the United States had shown for equal nationality at The Hague,
Stevens and her associates on the IACW did not anticipate obstacles. Trouble
developed, however, when the U.S. delegation refused to sign the Nationality
Treaty because President Roosevelt had not initially instructed them to do
so, although as governor of New York, he had praised the American stand at
The Hague. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, whom the NWP had considered a
friend and supporter, had—whether purposely or accidentally—incorrectly telegraphed
the President that the Latin American delegates, whom Roosevelt did not wish
to offend, opposed the Nationality and Equal Rights Treaties being promoted
by Stevens and warned him to expect protests from the NWP .
NWP leaders assumed that Eleanor Roosevelt had influenced the American position
because of her relationship with the leaders of those women's reform organizations
who feared that the Nationality Treaty would abrogate protective labor laws.
Grace Abbott, head of the Children's Bureau, had advised Roosevelt that the
treaty "would go directly counter to beneficent provisions of recent codes
in favor of women in industry and would be opposed to our own national policy
. The LWV considered
the treaty to be "a fundamental change in out legal philosophy."
Rather than following custom, the Nationality Treaty attempted "to impose
something that should be won ."
Roosevelt categorically denied any responsibility for the State Department's
stand against the treaty. The controversy became public when both the New
York Times and the New Republic highlighted the problem as another
manifestation of the quarrel between women's organizations in the United States
- After a two-pronged assault in
which Stevens lobbied at Montevideo and Paul besieged the State Department,
president Roosevelt finally capitulated and instructed the delegates to sign
the Nationality Treaty. Both the equality of nationality principle and the
IACW were safe, at least until the next Pan-American Congress. In addition,
the IACW appeared to be making progress when four other countries, Cuba, Ecuador,
Paraguay, and Uruguay, signed the Equal Rights Treaty, and the Nationality
Treaty was ratified by Congress and signed by the President in May 1934. Moderate
reformers, however, remained bitter over what they described as their "humiliating"
defeat at Montevideo .
- Following the Montevideo meeting,
the First Lady, Perkins and her allies in the Women's Bureau, and the anti-ERA
women's organizations began working for the removal of Steven's a chair of
the IACW. A "plan for action" by American delegates to the Eighth Pan-American
Congress in 1938 at Lima, Peru was drawn up by Mary Winslow, a protege of
Mary Anderson, Roosevelt's old colleague in the WTUL. The reformers had specific
objectives. First, they hoped to "[b]ring out into the open" the fact that
the Equal Rights Treaty "would mean giving up special industrial legislation
for women," which they thought had not been understood in Latin America because
treaty proponents had successfully confused the issue of equal rights with
suffrage . Second,
they wanted to "[g]et rid" of the IACW, "politely, but definitely .
Social reformers argued that the IACW was an unofficial body and that Stevens
was "not an officially appointed representative." They intended to replace
her with a woman "who really represents women's interests." Anderson presented
Winslow's plan to the State Department and it was approved by the President.
According to Winslow, even the few groups that knew of it "did not have copies
of the plan and gave their endorsements quite informally." Despite the reformists'
efforts at the secrecy, the New York Herald-Tribune carried a complete
description of the plan the day the Conference opened, and the NWP began public
- In accordance with the plan, the
State Department presented a three-part proposal to the Lima Conference: firs,
to include protection for women in industry in legislation giving women civil
and political rights; second, to extend a vote of appreciation to the IACW
for past services; and last, to grant the Commission "an official and permanent
status . NWP
leaders saw these resolutions as a "deliberate attempt" on the party of American
opponents of the ERA to redirect the IACW from its equal rights activity to
a position advocating social welfare reforms, especially protective legislation
for women in industry .
- Feminists were particularly upset
when they learned of the proposed appointment of Mary Winslow as the American
delegate to the IACW. Stevens would automatically be removed as chair because
IACW rules stated that a participating nation could not have more than one
delegate. NWP stalwart Florence Bayard Hilles referred to Winslow as "that
awful appointment" of "our arch enemy ."
Recalling that Winslow had led the fight against the ERA before the Senate
Judiciary Committee earlier in 1938, Hilles said, "Imagine her as a representative
in the Inter-American Com [sic] for women—Its [sic] simply unthinkable—one
sees the hand of Perkins Roosevelt & Co & [sic] all that Consumer's League
Crowd ." Winslow's anti-ERA
stance and the "lady-like" demeanor that so upset Hilles were precisely the
attributes that made her an ideal protege in the eyes of her patrons in the
- Rumor at the time identified Eleanor
Roosevelt as the influence behind Stevens' removal and her replacement by
Winslow, and one syndicated columnist even printed the accusation in the national
press. Roosevelt denied the charge, although she admitted belonging "to a
group which was not in sympathy with the ideas advocated by the National Woman's
Party, particularly as regards protective legislation for women," and to being
"very glad to have Miss Winslow appointed ."
Roosevelt went even further, presenting Winslow and Anderson at one of her
weekly press conferences for women reporters, thereby giving credence to the
detractors' charges. NWP members would have been even more angry had they
known that Winslow authored the resolutions that resulted in Stevens' removal.
They were unaware of the true extent to which Roosevelt facilitated the complicity
between the reformist women's organizations and the Administration. With the
acceptance by the Pan-American Congress at Lima of the altered role for the
IACE, after ten years of dominance the NWP lost its preeminent position as
women's representative in the hemispheric forum .
- The ERA gradually gained more
adherents through the years, but the process was greatly accelerated by the
extension of ungendered protective legislation with passage of the Federal
Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938. Since the Act regulated hours and
wages of men and women alike in some industries, the primary objection to
the ERA appeared to have been removed. Even Roosevelt stated, "I think we
are getting nearer to the time when the stand of the National Woman's Party—which
I agree is the ideal—may become a practical position. I do not think that
time has come as yet." Winslow admitted to "great anxieties" because of the
new law. In 1940, NWP feminists persuaded the Republicans to support the ERA
in their platform. Despite her earlier tentative support for the ERA, Roosevelt
made a statement delineating the "damaging effect" of the amendment to head
off a similar drive before the Platform Committee of the Democratic National
- If Roosevelt's only concern had
been to safeguard working women, she most likely would have withdrawn her
opposition to the ERA, as did other organizations less personally involved
in the conflict such as the American Association of University Women (AAUW)
and the Business and Professional Women's Clubs. Roosevelt, however, maintained
her anti-ERA position and sent what was to become her standard public statement
on the issue to the Convention: “...until women are unionized to a far greater
extent than they are at present, an equal rights amendment will work great
hardship on the industrial group, which is after all, the largest group of
wage-earning women .
Roosevelt's efforts were rewarded; the Democratic platform favored “equality
of opportunity for men and women, without impairing the social legislation
which promotes true equality by safeguarding the health, safety, and economic
welfare of women workers ."
- With the United States' entry
into the Second World War, women's groups temporarily set aside their bickering.
Women were employed in unprecedented numbers during the war; because of the
need for their labor, industrial conditions were nearly equalized, and even
the unions began to look favorably upon women as members. Since unionization
was the condition she had set for her support of the ERA, Roosevelt might
have been expected to change her position on the Amendment, but she continued
to oppose it ."
- By the 1944 presidential election,
so many former opponents had switched to support of the ERA that Roosevelt
was feeling great pressure to alter her own stance. To Mary E. Woolley, former
president of the AAUW and a prominent opponent-turned-supporter, Roosevelt
argued that protective legislation was still needed “because of the inherent
difference between men and women. The functions for which women are equipped
by nature, which are different from the functions of men, make those protective
laws necessary ."
It was, Roosevelt continued, “foolish to think that an Equal Rights amendment
to the Constitution would be any better in giving women equality than an amendment
has been in giving the Negroes equality of citizenship ."
- After a meeting with representatives
of women in industry both in favor of an opposed to the ERA at her New York
apartment in February 1944, Roosevelt admitted to her WTUL colleague, Rose
Schneiderman, that she did not think it would matter even if both political
parties endorsed the Amendment because it would take a long time to get it
through. “However,” she added, “I feel we must do a lot more than just be
opposed to an amendment,” and suggested a state-by-state survey of laws that
both discriminated against and protected women [
39]. If some of the protective laws had become obsolete they should be
rescinded. “If we do not do this, we are not in a good position to fight the
amendment,” Roosevelt maintained .
- With the founding of the United
Nations in April 1945, the conflict between Eleanor Roosevelt and the NWP
moved back to the international arena. Franklin Roosevelt's' successor, Harry
Truman, appointed Eleanor Roosevelt as a delegate to the new world body. The
stage was set for further discord when both the NWP and the World Woman's
Party (WWP) actively lobbied on behalf of equal rights for women at the founding
of the U.N. at San Francisco. Alice Paul had founded the WWP in 1938 as an
international organization “to secure for women of the world an equal status
with men” and to serve as counterweight to the European totalitarianism that
she feared would eliminate many feminist gains. The goal of the WWP was to
“work for equality for women in all international agreements” and to “strive
to defeat any proposed world treaties that would impose special restrictions
on women . Their U.N.
delegation had two objectives: equality provisions for women in the Charter
and “consultant” statues for the WWP, based on their previous leadership of
the equal rights movement. They were unsuccessful in their quest for consultant
statues, although the WWP was allowed to participate in many consultant meetings.
The principle of equal rights was included in the U.N. Charter, but only after
the WWP had successfully overcome opposition from its adversaries, the LWV
and Virginia Gildersleeve, a member of the United States' delegation. Gildersleeve
was deeply hostile to the ERA and supported equality in the Charter only under
pressure from the NWP and its allies in foreign delegations .
- After their victory in the Charter,
feminists pressed for the creation of a special committee on the status of
women to ensure that the equality principles would actually be implemented.
This proposal aroused the humanitarian reformers, including Roosevelt, who
was expected to become the chair of the Human Rights Commission. She maintained
that women's rights could not be considered apart from human rights. Objecting
to the treatment of women as a distinct group, Roosevelt argued that a special
article would imply “a silent recognition of the idea that women are to be
regarded on a different level and that rights are to be given to them out
of charity.”  Despite
her disapproval, the U.N. Economic and Social Council created a Sub-commission
on the Status of Women, under the jurisdiction of the Human Rights commission,
at the First Assembly in London in early 1946. When the Sub-commission issued
its report calling for equality regardless of sex, Emma Guffey Miller, on
of the few activists who belonged to both the NWP and the Women's Division
of the Democratic party, congratulated Roosevelt on the step forward for women.
Clearly displeased about the growing feminist influence in the U.N., Roosevelt
responded that if Miller studied the report carefully she would see that it
recognized the need for protection of women .
- Next, Alice Paul drafted a report
advocating the elevation of the Sub-Commission to a full Commission. Roosevelt,
by this time chair of the Human Rights Commission, resisted this move as too
ambitious, suggesting instead that the report be returned to the Sub-Commission
for further study. WWP feminists believed this to be a stalling tactic to
delay their work indefinitely. Nora Stanton Barney, granddaughter of suffragist
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, chastised Roosevelt for supporting equality before
the law for the “Negro race” while opposing it for women. At the very least,
Barney urged, Roosevelt should not allow her “personal feelings on these matters
to influence the stand of the American Delegation ."
The Sub-commission chair subsequently appealed directly to the Economic and
Social Council to urge their acceptance of full commission status. Under pressure
from the WWP, the Council assented, and the new Commission promptly lobbied
for equality at the second session of the General Assembly in New York. There,
they secured a resolution calling on all member nations to establish equal
political rights for women. Thus, the same equal rights provisions that Alice
Paul had fought to have adopted by the international community since the Equal
Rights Treaty was first proposed at Havana in 1928 were finally adopted by
a unanimous Resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations in late
1946 . While even the
feminists realized that the resolution would not automatically bring equality,
it provided a basis on which to fight for improved status for women throughout
- The feminists joined in still
another battle with Roosevelt over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Roosevelt wanted all special references to women omitted from the Declaration,
while the egalitarians wanted the Declaration to specifically include equal
rights for women .
Once again the WWP feminists carried the day and the Declaration, passed in
December 1948, incorporated equality for women. The Declaration was not binding,
however, so the feminists continued to press for equality in the Draft Convention
on Human Rights that, as a treaty would have the power to bind member nations.
- Unable to transcend old antipathies,
feminists and social reformers thus continued their rivalry. Roosevelt's'
biographer, Joseph Lash, states that Roosevelt abandoned her opposition to
the ERA in the spring of 1961 .
Yet when President John F. Kennedy appointed a Commission on the Status of
Women later that year, largely at Roosevelt's behest and headed by her until
her death in 1962, the commission report recommended against the ERA on the
grounds it was not needed. This conclusion, if not dictated by Roosevelt,
certainly concurred with opinions she had held for 40 years .
- Roosevelt and the social reformers
shared ambivalence about the position of women. It was all right for exceptional
women like themselves to lead independent lives of public service, but at
the same time they recommended domesticity for blue-collar women. Thus, while
leading public lives themselves, they denied the same privilege to women of
lower status. this discrepancy between their public pronouncements and the
lives Roosevelt and Perkins led was not lost on other women, some of whom
found it galling. One woman wrote Roosevelt that she thought it “particularly
appalling... that women like yourself and Frances Perkins should urge laws
which place women in a class with children,” “You seem to enjoy doing as you
please,” the writer continued, adding that she could see “no difference” between
women working long hours or doing night work “and you and Miss Perkins dashing
around the country making speeches.” Indeed, such behavior amounted to urging
“laws which you have no intention of obeying ."
Other women thought it unfair for Roosevelt “to deny other women the right
you seem to enjoy so much yourself—that is, absolute freedom to go or come,
to work or not—as you and you alone see fit ."
- Both humanitarian reformers and
feminists were bound by shared backgrounds and their attitudes toward the
working classes; it was behavior that separated them. Although Roosevelt accused
the NWP of being composed of “a very limited, high type group of women,” both
groups came from the upper and upper-middle classes and had difficulty accepting
true equality across the class divide. Both groups consequently acted in a
paternalistic fashion toward working women even as they claimed to speak for
their interests. Perkins, for example, accused the NWP of taking “this doctrinaire
position which makes more difficult the passage and maintenance of legislation
aimed to improve the condition of their working sisters... "
Although both humanitarians and feminists claimed to represent equality for
women, neither faction believed in equality that transcended social class.
- In a reflection of their common
Victorian upbringing, neither feminists nor social reformers discussed women's
oppression by existing sexual mores, nor did they acknowledge the social and
cultural changes necessary for women to achieve true emancipation. the feminists
were not able to see that legal equality won through constitutional change
alone would not realistically alter the position of women. By the same token,
the humanitarians failed to understand that social reform that did not specify
gender equality would not bring permanent change in the status of women. Neither
camp wished to revolutionize the gender status quo; the feminists simply wanted
to compete on an equal basis within it while the reformers took advantage
of existing social mores to push through their humanitarian reforms while
using their own privileged positions to benefit confreres.
- Roosevelt and her reformer colleagues,
and feminists in the NWP wasted much energy on their internecine quarrels.
The cause of equal rights would have been better served had the two factions
endeavored to minimize their differences and work together for the common
good. The intransigence of the NWP has often been blamed for the failure to
cooperate, yet close examination of her activities shows that Roosevelt was
no more ready to abandon acrimony for conciliation than were the more militant
feminists. NWP members realized that Roosevelt's' support was crucial for
the ERA, and though the years many of them tried to obtain her help, but to
no avail . By the
same token, programs desired by Roosevelt and other humanitarian reformers,
such as continuation of the Sheppard-Towner Act, would have stood a better
chance of success with the support of a united woman's movement.
- Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the
outstanding women in American history, was an emancipated woman whose work
on behalf of civil rights and peace alone was sufficient to earn her reverence.
Yet there is a sense of lost opportunity when one contemplates the central
role that Roosevelt might have played in the development of a post-suffrage
women's movement in this country. As First Lady, Roosevelt was able to advocate
many measures to ease women's responsibilities at home and facilitate their
functioning in the public sphere. Fore example, Roosevelt suggested more accessible
shopping and laundry facilities, supervised day care, and a hot lunch program
for school children .
But while she had ready access to publicity, she lacked the strong political
movement necessary to implement these programs. The NWP was well organized
and its members were skilled lobbyists, but as Roosevelt approved of neither
their philosophy nor their tactics, the two factions continued to work at
- The primary difference between
the groups lay in their conception of power. Because their political position
was based on their Democratic ties, Roosevelt and Perkins thought as Democrats
and social reformers first and women second, and refused to exercise their
authority on behalf of women as a class. Instead, they used their personal
influence to secure leadership positions for women of their choice .
While their patronage benefited capable, elite women, such tactics made it
difficult for the humanitarians to institutionalize their innovations. Consequently,
at the end of decades of struggle, despite temporary victories the reformers
had accomplished little permanence. The FLSA obviated much of the need for
protective legislation, and even the women's Division of the Democratic party
lost its autonomy in 1953. Eleanor Roosevelt believed the primary contribution
of women in politics had been to make the government take cognizance of humanitarian
issues, and certainly the New Deal accomplished many of the reformers' goals.
But reliance on humanitarian platform without formal political organization
meant that when interest in social reform waned, as it did during the Second
world War and subsequent Cold War, the fortunes of women in government and
public life also ebbed .
A reactivated women's movement in the 1960s, like its NWP predecessor, again
sought lasting change through legislated equality of opportunity for women.
Roosevelt (hereafter cited as ER to Rose Schneiderman, copy to Frances Perkins,
11 February 1944, Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
(hereafter cited as ER/FDRL); Frances Perkins Papers, Columbia University
Rare Book and Manuscript Libraries (hereafter cited as Perkins Papers, Columbia).
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Bethke Elshtain, "Eleanor Roosevelt As Activist and Thinker: The Lady, The
Life of Duty," Halcyon 8 (1986): 96-97; Eleanor Roosevelt, If You Ask Me
(New York, 1946), 142; see also Joseph P. Lash, Love Eleanor: Eleanor Roosevelt
and Her Friends (Garden City, N.Y., 1982), 307.
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Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social
Policy in the United States (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), 373-74, 34.
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P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (New York, 1971), 352-410; Robyn Muncy, Creating
a Female Dominion in American Reform 1890-1935 (New York, 1991) 155-56.
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Paul's Speech Seconding Mrs. Belmont's Resolution," n.d. [17 November 1923],
National Woman's party Papers (hereafter cited as NWP Papers), ser. 1 (microfilm,
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Burnita Shelton Matthews, "Women Should Have Equal Rights With Men: A Reply,:
Equal Rights, 29 May 1926, 125-27, NWP Papers, ser. 5; Ronald L. Filippelli,
Labor in the USA: A History (New York, 1984), 152-54.
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Paula F. Pfeffer, "A Whisper in the Assembly of Nations:' United States'
Participation in the International Movement for Women's Rights from the
League of Nations to the United Nations," Women's Studies International
Forum 8(November 1985): 469-71; Mary Anderson to Mary Van Kleeck, 26 January
1926, Mary Anderson Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College; Josephine
Goldmark, "Mrs. Kelley Opposes the Woman's Party," chap. 15 in Impatient
Crusader; Florence Kelley's Life Story (Urbana, Ill., 1953); Crystal Eastman,
"Equality or Protection?" Equal Rights, March 1924, 37, NWP Papers, ser.
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letters written by ER to NWP members on behalf of Smith, August 1928, NWP
Papers, ser. 1; Lash, Eleanor and Franklin; Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor
Roosevelt, vol. 1, 1884-1933 (New York, 1992); Eleanor Roosevlet, The Autobiography
of Eleanor Roosevelt (New York, 1961), 197.
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Sochen, Movers and Shakers: American Women Thinkers and Activitst 1900-1970
(New York, 1973), 161; Susan Ware, Beyond Suffrage, Women in the New Deal
(Cambridge, Mass., 1981), 16; ER to My Dear Mrs. Winter, 28 February 1939,
ER/FDRL; ER, Autobiography, 133.
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Norman Smith to Dear Miss Paul, 26 March 1933, NWP Papers, ser. 1; Helena
Hill Weed, "The New Deal That Women Want," Current History 41 (November
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See E.H. Swenson to Dear Madame, and penciled not thereon, 2 April 1935,
ER/FDRL; Lillian Dame Morey to My dear Mrs. Roosevlet and penciled note
thereon, 20 January 1934, ER/FDRL; Lois Scharf, To Work and To Wed: Female
Employment, Feminism, and the Great Depression (Westport, Conn., 1980),
x, 38, 134; Lois Scharf, "The Forgotten Woman': Working Women, The New Deal,
and Women's Organizations," in Decades of Discontent: The Women's Movement,
1920-1940, ed. Lois Scharf and Joan M. Jensen (Westport, Conn., 1983), 243-59;
ER, "Should Wives Work?" Good Housekeeping, December 1937, 211-12; Maurine
Beasley, ed., The White House Press Conferences of Eleanor Roosevlet (New
York, 1983), 52-54; ER, My Days (New York, 1938), 163-64.
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New York Times (hereafter cited as NYT), 11 August 1933; Frances Perkins
to Mrs. Florence Bayard Hilles, 17 August 1933, NWP Papers, ser. 1.
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NYT, 12 August 1933; NYT, 17 August 1933.
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Florence Bayard Hilles to Honorable Frances Perkins, 15 August 1933, NWP
Papers, ser. 1.
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Statement of the National League of Women Voters of the United States by
Miss Belle Sherwin, 27 May 1926, NWP Papers, ser. 1; Jane Norman Smith to
Alice Paul, 27 May 1926, NWP Papers, ser. 1; see also Crystal Eastman, "The
Great Rejection: Pary I," Equal Rights, 19 June 1926, 149-50, NWP Papers,
ser. 5; Alice Paul, "Women Demand Equality in World Code of Law," Congressional
Digest 9 (November 1930): 279.
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Doris Stevens, "Feminist History Was Made at Havana," Equal Rights, 3 March
1928, 29, NWP Papers, ser. 5.
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"Doris Stevens Heads Pan-American Women's Committee," Equal Rights, 14 April
1928, 77, NWP Papers, ser.5; Report of Work Done by Committee on International
Action of the National Woman's party, USA, as Pan-American Conference on
Behalf of Rights of Women, 21 February 1928, NWP Papers, ser. 1; see also
Pfeffer, "A Whisper in the Assembly of Nations,'" 459-71; Muna Lee, "The
Inter-American Commission of Women—A New International Venture," Pan-American
Magazine 42 (October 1929): 105-14; "How Laws of Foreign Countries Effected
Nationality of Married women," Congressional Digest 9 November 1930): 283087;
Dr. James Brown Scott, "Work of The Hague Conference Analyzed," Congressional
Digest 9 (November 1930): 275-78; David Hunter Miller, "America's Participation
in the First Conference," American Journal of International Law 24 (October
1930): 681; "Progressive Codification of International Law. Observations
of Governments on the Recommendations of The Hague Conference March—April,
1930," League of Nations Documents, Official Journal, reel 24, September
1931, 1766-73 (microfilm, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago); Richard
W. Flournoy, Jr., "Codification and the Nationality of Married Women and
children," Congressional Digest 9 (November 1930): 273.
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James Brown Scott, "Conflict and Victory," Equal Rights, 13 January 1934,
387-90; Equal Rights, 20 January 1934, 398-400; see AKW [Anna Kelton Wiley]
to Alice Paul, 22 September 1930, NWP Papers, ser. 1; Paraphrase of telegram
from Hull, 9 December 1933, FDRL, Official File (hereafter cited as OF)
567; Under Secretary of State to My Dear Mr. President, 12 December 1933,
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Memorandum [sic] to: The Secretary From" Miss Abbott, 19 December 1933,
FDRL, OF 66; Memorandum For" Mrs. Roosevelt From: Grace Abbott, 27 December
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NYT, 27 December 1933; Press Release, National League of Women Voters, 14
December 1933, ER/FDRL.
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Press Release, National League of Women Voters, 14 December 1933, ER/FDRL.
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"Equal Nationality Rights For Women," New Republic, 21 December 1933 and
27 December 1933.
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Unsigned and undated [12/20/33 handwritten], FDRL, OF 567; Scott, "Conflict
and Victory," Equal Rights, 13 January 1934, 389-90, and 20 January 1934,
398-400, NWP Papers, ser. 5; SPB [Sophinisba P. Breckinridge] to Judge Florence
Allen, 9 April 1934, Breckinridge Family Papers, box #751, Library of Congress
Memorandum for Mrs. Roosevelt From Mary N. Winslow, 13 December 1938, ER/FDRL.
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"Civil and Political Rights of Women," n.d. [December 1938], ER/FDRL.
Unsigned to Sheila Murrell, 17 March 1939.
G.B.H. [Florence Bayard Hilles] to Dear Helen [Hunt West], 6 February 1939,
NWP Papers, ser. 1; Mary N. Winslow to My dear Mrs. Roosevelt, 14 February
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Frank R. Kent, "the Great Game of Politics," Los Angeles Times, 22 February
1939, ER/FDRL; ER to My dear Mrs. Winter, 28 February 1939, ER/FDRL.
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Beasley, ed., Press Conferences, 88.
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Memorandum for Mrs. Roosevelt From Mary N. Winslow, 13 December 1938; Dorothy
S. McAllister to Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, telegram, 9 July 1940, ER/FDRL'
"The Dangers of The Equal Rights Amendment," WTUL flyer, February 1944,
ER/FDRL; "Mrs. Roosevelt's statement regarding the position of the National
Woman's Party on Equality," emphasis in original, n.d. , in NWP Papers,
See Mary E. Woolley to Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, 7 February 1944, ER/FDRL;' Statement
found in ER/FDRL; ER to dear Mrs. Newman, 11 October 1943, copy in NWP Papers,
ser. 1; ER to Mill Helen Alfred, 15 June 1944; ER to Mr. Frank McKnight,
30 December 1944, ER/FDRL; "Mrs. Roosevelt's statement regarding the position
of the National Woman's Party on Equality," all from NWP Papers, ser. 1.
Ruby Black, Eleanor Roosevelt, A Biography (New York, 1940), 149.
ER to Dear Mrs. Miller, 29 January 1944, NWP Papers, ser. 1; ER, "Women
Have Come A Long Way," Harper's Magazine, October 1950, reprinted in Marie
B. Hecht, Joan D. Berbrich, Sally A. Healey, and Clare M. Cooper, The Women,
Yes! (New York, 1973), 179.
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ER to Miss Mary E. Woolley, 10 February 1944, ER/FDRL.
Anita Pollitzer to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, telegram 18 January 1944; ER
to Mrs. Anity Pollitzer, 20 January 1944; Malvina Thompson to Rose Schneiderman,
29 January 1944; Rose Schneiderman to Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, telegram
1 February 1944; Anita Pollitzer to Miss Malvina C. Thompson, 3 February
1944; Rose Schneiderman to Dearest Eleanor, 10 February 1944; ER to Miss
Rose Schneiderman, copy to the Secretary of Labor, 11 February 1944; "Friends,
Foes of Equal Rights for Women Get Hearing in First Lady's Apartment," clipping;
rose Schneiderman to Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, 17 February 1944, all in
ER to Miss Rose Schneiderman, copy to the Secretary of Labor, 11 February
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Tamara K. Hareven, Eleanor Roosevelt; An American conscience Chicago, 1968),
190; Resolution found in Minutes from Biennial convention National woman's
Party, 9 October 1938, NWP Paper, ser. 1; form letter to "Dear Friend,"
signed by Alice Paul, et al., 20 December 1938, NWP Papers, ser. 1.
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Unsigned to Mildred Seydell, 28 October 1938; Form letter to Dear Friend,
signed by Alice Paul et al., 20 December 1938, NWP Papers, ser. 1; see also
Pfeffer, "'A Whisper in the Assembly of Nations,'" 459-71; Alice Morgan
Wright and Edith J. Goode to Hon. Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., 28 April 1945;
Edith Goode to Alice Paul, 28 May 1945; Edith Goode to Alice Paul, 2 May
1945; Edith Goode to Alice Paul, 4 May 1945, all in NWP Papers, ser. 7.
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Quoted in Hareven, An American Conscience, 234.
Amelia Himes Walker, Mission to First Assembly of the United Nations London-
January, February 1946, NWP Papers, ser. 7 Emma Guffey Miller to Mrs. Eleanor
Roosevelt, 16 May 1946; ER to My Dear Mrs. Miller, copy 20 May 1946, both
in NWP Papers.
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Equal Rights, July-August 1946, 3, NWP Papers, ser. 5; Nora Stanton Barney
to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, 11 November 1946, NWP Papers, ser. 1.
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Equal Rights, July-August, 1946, 3, NWP Papers, ser. 5; "Equal Political
Rights For Women; Resolution Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly,"
United Nations Weekly Bulletin 1(24 December 1946): 63 NYT, 12 December
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Virginia Freedom, "Equality Sought In The International Bill of Rights,"
Equal Rights, May-June 1947, 5-6; Virginia Starr, "Equality of Sexes Demanded
of UN," Equal Rights, May-June 1947; Mamie Sidney Mizen, "An International
Bill of Rights," Equal Rights, September-December 1947, both in NWP Papers,
Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone (New York, 1972), 317; Sochen,
Movers and Shakers, 231-36; "Woman's Bureau Withdraws Opposition,"Equal
Rights, October 1954, 4-5, NWP Papers, ser. 5.
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ER, "Women Have Come a Long Way," 180; Unsigned to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevlet,
copy, 3 January 1937, NWP Papers, ser. 1; Ruth G. Williams to Mrs. Eleanor
Roosevlet, 8 February 1944, ER/FDRL; see "An Open Letter to Mrs. Eleanor
Roosevelt from Lillian Scot, President, Albuquerque Equal Rights," NWP,
6 August 1940, NWP Papers, ser. 1.
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NYT, 7 July 1933.
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Frances Perkins to Florence A. Armstrong, 10 July 1944, Frances Perkins
Papers, Record Grp. No. 174, National Archives.
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William L. O'Neill, Everyone Was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism in
America (Chicago, 1969), 281-90; Nancy F. Cott, "Feminist Politics in the
1920s: The National Women's Party," Journal of American History 71 (June
1984): 43-68; Unsigned to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, copy 3 January 1937, NWP
Papers, ser. 1; Mrs. Cecil Norton Broy to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, 7 August
1943, NWP Papers, ser.1.
ER, If You Ask Me, 110-11, 144.
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Muncy, Crating a Female Dominion, 88-92; see Ware, Beyond Suffrage, 130,
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Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Women in Politics," Good Housekeeping, March
1940, 45-476, and April 1940, 45; War, Beyond Suffrage, 130, 134-35.
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