10 Leadership-Lessons We Can Learn from Eleanor

Before there was Hillary or Michelle, there was Eleanor. To cap off Women’s History Month we asked Eleanor Roosevelt’s biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook to share with us some of the ways in which this activist, First Lady and UN delegate can inspire us today. 

by Sue Tomchin

In 1958, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt accepts a Doll for Democracy from Anita Perlman, president of B’nai B’rith Women which later became JWI. The doll was part of the organization’s nationwide program for schoolchildren to promote tolerance and understanding between individuals of different backgrounds.

In 1958, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt accepts a Doll for Democracy from Anita Perlman, president of B’nai B’rith Women which later became JWI. The doll was part of the organization’s nationwide program for schoolchildren to promote tolerance and understanding between individuals of different backgrounds.

Even at age eight, I could sense my mother’s excitement as she dressed on a breezy October day in 1960, not in her usual slacks, cotton blouse and cardigan, but in her best navy blue suit, pearls, pumps, hat and white gloves. Then she drove to the small airport in our town in rural southern West Virginia to welcome former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The occasion was the former first lady’s visit to the state to campaign for John F. Kennedy in the pivotal West Virginia Democratic primary. Two thousand five hundred residents, 10 percent of the town’s population—my mom among them—gathered that day to welcome the great lady. 

Before there was Hillary or Michelle, there was Eleanor Roosevelt, the heroine whom women like my mom who had lived through the Depression and the difficult years of World War II, admired for her warmth, decency and empathy for ordinary Americans.

When I spoke recently to Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After, the third volume of her monumental biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, I saw that ER’s life and work can serve as an inspiration, not only to women of my mom’s era, but any woman who cares about leadership and human rights. 

Cook, a distinguished professor of history at John Jay College and Graduate Center, City University of New York, told me she began the biography in 1982. She thought it would be done by 1984, the centenary of ER’s birth, but so much material surfaced that the final volume of the biography wasn’t published until November of last year. 

“I spent over 30 years working on this amazing woman who really is infinite,” Cook told me. “Researching ER has been extraordinary because she too was an activist who cared about everything we care about.” 

Here are some of the things we can all learn from this woman who was called the “First Lady of the world.”

1. She refused to let her childhood misfortunes turn her into a victim. 

Eleanor Roosevelt became an orphan at 10 when her beloved father died of alcoholism at age 34. “How much do you have to drink to die at age 34,” Cook asked. ER’s mother had died two years earlier, at age 29. The latter, a great beauty, had never appreciated her daughter, calling her “granny” because of her plain looks and serious nature. 

“The tragedy of her childhood is really the impetus for her vision and for her life,” Cook said. “Her ability to perceive need and to understand and empathize was the ability that was created in her childhood. She went around the country and the world wanting to make it better for people in want, in need, in trouble.”

“Rising above tragedy, surviving and moving on,” were messages we can take from her. 

2. She understood that to advance causes you need to build a movement.

“She is truly an amazing visionary who understood what we need to do is build movements,” Cook said, noting that ER was a community organizer who joined with the women’s club movement, with women in the Democratic Party and other groups to push programs and further women’s issues. Among those groups whom ER spoke to, Cook notes in her book, was the Washington chapter of B’nai B’rith Women, which later became JWI.  

“She went door to door, block by block, community by community to build movements with her allies. She called it ‘trooping for democracy,’” Cook explains. “It’s what she did from the 1920s on.”

Cook includes a section in the biography about a book ER wrote called the Moral Basis of Democracy.  She wrote that “We have to turn our backs on the greed that is going on in this world and realize we must rise above selfish interests and take responsibility for each other,” Cook said. “Democracy necessarily involves the spirit of social cooperation.” 

3. She understood that equal pay, economic security and opportunities for women were essential.

In the late 1930s there were still many state and local efforts to throw married women out of jobs. During the war years, nurses in the Women’s Army Corps were not allowed to marry and married nurses were barred from the military. ER believed—and had no problem stating openly in the newspaper column that she wrote—that more sensible policies were needed and that both women and men needed to be fully educated and employed, Cook noted. “She understood that women needed to organize for equality and respect and work and training and jobs and economic security. Women needed everything that men needed. And also power.”

“When she was asked to run for office, she said she would rather be chloroformed than run,” Cook said. Not only did men not like women with power but “women weren’t ready to support other women in office.” 

Interestingly, Cook noted, health care for all was part of her agenda. “It was supposed to be in the 1935 Social Security act and the AMA lobbied it to death,” she said. Then, in 1957, President Eisenhower asked ER and her friend Esther Lape to help him get the Health Reinsurance Act passed. It was again watered down by lobbying, but what passed “was really the first stage of what is now the Affordable Care Act,” Cook said.

4. She derived strength from the friendships of other women.

“ER had a group of women she could absolutely rely on. Her friends, Esther Lape and her partner, Elizabeth Reed, who became ER’s attorney and business consultant, were the closest two political women in her life. And of course there is Lorena Hickok who had so many different moments in ER’s life but becomes very important in the Democratic Party. Tommie [Malvina Thompson], her secretary and assistant, was also really important to her. You really need a support group. You really need a gang. I always say, never go anywhere without your gang. Life is about the struggle and you need a gang.”

5. She rose above prevailing prejudice to advocate against injustices. 

“You have to fight,” is her message. “ER really couldn’t believe FDR wouldn’t integrate the military,” Cook told me. “She asked, ‘How can you say we are leader of the democratic forces, when we have a segregated society and when the military is segregated?’” Cook describes how ER advocated for the successful training and deployment of the Tuskegee Airmen, a squadron of 990 black fighter pilots, and worked to get women, including black women, into the military. 

“When she visited military bases, both white and what was then called ‘colored,’ she tried to bring people together. She protested segregated seating in auditoriums for concerts and that was finally changed, due to her protests. She did endless work to make it better and worked for the NAACP throughout her life." 

“In 1961, ER came to Hunter College when I was president of the student council,” Cook recalled. “She said, ‘wonderful things are happening in North Carolina. All of you should go south for freedom. We immediately took two buses and joined the North Carolina sit-ins. This is the year before her death and she was still inspiring young people to stand up for justice and end segregation.”

6. She listened to all points of view, creating opportunities for discussion and possibly changing minds.

“She really believed that even when we disagree, we have to be able to speak with each other,” Cook explained. This quality made her a superb diplomat both when she was the First Lady and later when she served as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations. Though a vigorous anti-Communist who was well aware of Stalin’s repressive tactics, she would host dinner parties and concerts for members of the Soviet delegation in her home. “So, while they disagreed at the UN,” Cook said, “they spoke with each other,” thereby avoiding confrontation.

Her belief in speaking with those with whom she disagreed, also was true domestically, Cook noted. She went to the South even though she was hated there for promoting desegregation. Yet, “She would speak with everybody in the South and hope that she might influence people who were not yet moved,” Cook said.

7. She did everything within her power to save the lives of refugees. 

Cook writes that a “1939 poll showed that 94 percent of Americans disapproved of Nazi policies concerning Jews and 97 percent disapproved of policies concerning Catholics, yet 83 percent wanted nothing done to assist them.”

FDR was always aware of public opinion and Congress’s attitudes opposed to helping refugees and was loath to defy them. Yet ER refused to give up. Not only did she openly encourage a welcoming attitude toward refugees in her newspaper columns (for which she was “blasted,” Cook writes) and become involved in émigré organizations, she repeatedly pressed FDR until he finally approved an emergency visitor’s visa program. That made it possible for the Emergency Rescue Committee, which ER had helped found (and which her friend Trude Pratt, a German émigré who had opposed Hitler, played a major role), to launch an operation aiding prominent refugees and “enemies of the Reich” trapped in Vichy France. American Varian Fry left for France and was able to rescue nearly 2,000 political and labor leaders, artists, writers, academics and intellectuals, despite being harassed by the U.S. State Department. 

ER also became involved in efforts to win admission to the U.S. of the refugee passengers of the SS Quanza, a ship that had set sail from Lisbon for the U.S. The passengers of an earlier ship, the SS St. Louis, had been refused entry and sent back to Europe where many were murdered. ER said, “This will never happen again,” Cook explained. She incurred the wrath of Secretary of State Breckinridge Long by intervening to help the Quanza passengers. “He went to FDR and asked, ‘Who is running the show, your wife or me?’”

8. She remained physically active her entire life.

“She woke up every morning and did calisthenics to the radio,” Cook said. “She rode her horse and then she swam. Think of what good shape she was in, until she got really sick [near the end].”

9. She made each person she met feel valued.

“When you met her personally she just electrified the room,” Cook said. “She looked right at you when she spoke, so you felt like she was talking just to you. She was truly amazing and generous and heartwarming. So people did love her and enemies hated her. “

And her caring extended to everyone. As Cook recounts in her book, ER was in California to inspect the poor working and living conditions of migrant workers from the dust bowls of Texas, Oklahoma and other states. Spotting some makeshift shacks, she asked her driver to stop, and walked across the field toward them. A worker recognized her at once, saying, without surprise, “Oh Mrs. Roosevelt, you’ve come to see us.” As she walked toward the shack, he warned her that his wife and daughter were sick with a rash, but that didn’t stop ER from going inside. 

10. She refused to give in to pessimism.

According to Cook, ER always said, “’Courage can be as contagious as fear.’ And she said that pessimism is politically incorrect. We must have hope. Life is about the struggle.”