The First Career Woman to Be First Lady -- 60 Years Ago

GARRY WILLS

September 01, 1992|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO. — Chicago -- It has frequently been said that Hillary Clinton, if her husband is elected, would be the first president's wife who had a full-time career before going to the White House. That is not true.

Eleanor Roosevelt, whose children were grown by the time Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, and whose marriage had become a hollow formality, was a full-time professional before moving into the White House.

She taught at the high school level in a private school (the Todhunter School), concentrating on history and literature. She taught drama, beginning with Aeschylus and the other Greek tragic poets -- she always had a desire to write plays. Her history students, from socially prominent families, she took on tours of the New York slums.

But teaching was not enough to take up all of her extraordinary energy. She edited a magazine called Babies -- just Babies. Right-to-lifers, who do not generally honor the memory of Eleanor, would probably have approved of her magazine.

By the time of her husband's election, she had also begun her newspaper column and was working on books. She had something more like two or three careers when she left New York for Washington.

In the White House, she kept up her professional writing, and added broadcasting to her activities. Cole Porter immortalized her in one of his lyrics for her sponsorship by Simmons mattresses. A beauty soap was one of her other sponsors.

Rival products, of course, complained that the president's wife was endorsing commercial items. But this deterred neither Eleanor nor Franklin, who had to give her leeway.

While loyally supporting Franklin even when she disagreed with him -- as she did, for instance, over running for a third term as president -- Eleanor also prodded him toward social programs he would gladly have put off (not wanting to anger the chairmen of congressional committees, who were mainly conservative Southerners).

The most famous of Eleanor's protests was her resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution when that body refused to let the great African American singer Marian Anderson perform in their hall.

But she was always the master of telling gestures. No wonder she was interested in drama.

Invited to an interracial conference in a segregated Southern city, where blacks and whites were kept apart by local law, she tried to sit on the black delegates' side of the auditorium. When policemen prevented her, saying she could not break the law, she calmly picked up a seat, placed it in the exact middle of the aisle, and sat down there.

When youth organizers were called before a congressional committee to be denounced for their ''socialistic'' ideas, Eleanor, who had worked with some of them, showed up in the audience, intimidating the committee members.

During the break, she took six of the young people to the White House for lunch. That went so well that she invited them back to dinner, where they met and argued with the president.

Her activities were not mere gestures. She started homesteading and other jobs programs. She did not use a ghostwriter for her columns. When separated from her stenographer during a World War II tour of the Pacific theater, she taught herself to type again.

When asked to name the greatest woman in American history, Mrs. Roosevelt said Anne Hutchinson, the 17th-century spiritual leader condemned by the Puritans as a heretic. That's a good choice. But some of us would more promptly put her own name in that place.

Hillary Clinton, as the refrain now goes, is no Eleanor Roosevelt, anymore than her husband is a Franklin Roosevelt. But if Ms. Clinton brings even a fraction of Eleanor Roosevelt's troublemaking capacity to the White House, the nation will benefit.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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