Sunday, August 24, 2008

Eleanor and John in 1959

Eleanor Roosevelt, political powerhouse, spent her life championing the plight of the disadvantaged. Hoover had her followed everywhere and had an enormous FBI file on her activities. The media and public believed her to be (at different stages in her life) a dilettante, communist, hypocrite; naive, manipulative; a shrill, pushy woman. Through it all she got a great deal done. As wife of the president she pushed her agenda relentlessly. As his widow she served on the board of the NAACP, spoke out against McCarthy, and chaired the UN committee that wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (among many things). By the time she was elderly the criticism had turned to praise and she was widely admired. Throughout it all she adhered to the principle that she had to succeed or her failure would be a failure for all women.

John Kennedy, young senator, was a populist candidate for president with very little experience.

Hmmm... anyone else see any similarities in modern day players?

Of course, in 1959 a woman couldn't have made a serious campaign for president; it was groundbreaking that Eleanor was appointed as representative to the UN. In 2008 a woman could be a contender - but perhaps only if she had the public profile and political machine that comes from being related to a powerful man (just as FDR was Eleanor's ticket to power). And historians may judge that even in 2008 a woman couldn't make a serious run for president - that inherent sexism made it impossible, ultimately, for her to be taken seriously. "Divisive" has become code for "not the male, paternalistic model we're used to."

Something that Eleanor Roosevelt said during the 1950s really resonates with me today. Speaking about the cold war, she said that racism in the US was so bad that there were two categories of citizen with two sets of rights, and that when the rest of the world saw that situation they couldn't take the US alternative seriously and would be more inclined to look to communism.

The treatment of African-Americans in 1959 was far worse than the treatment of women in 2008, and in making the comparison I don't want to suggest otherwise. But one of the connections is this: in an international community where women are strong, with female heads of state even in Islamic countries, the US drive for democracy and human rights seems empty and hypocritical.


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