This story is an excerpt from Stone Soup for the World: Life Changing Stories of Everyday People.
In her time, Eleanor Roosevelt became the most trusted woman in the world, and not because she was the president’s wife, or because she was born into one of the country’s leading families. Eleanor Roosevelt earned people’s trust by always keeping her promises.
When she was a very young child, Eleanor’s father promised her that when she was a little older, the two of them would live together again. She lived for that day. After her mother died, she was very lonely, living with her grandmother, who was very old, strict, and old-fashioned. When her father broke his promise, it broke her heart. At ten years old, she realized that she had to become strong in herself if she wanted to go on living, and she vowed that she would never break a promise. For the rest of her life, she could always be counted on to keep her word.
The soldiers in the hospitals in the Pacific islands that she visited during World War II believed her when she said she would telephone their families the moment she got home. Something in her manner made people know they could trust her.
The moment I met her, my life changed. I was married with three children, living a very comfortable life. I didn’t think there was anything I could really con- tribute. “Well, that’s very silly,” she remarked. Since I had a good education, she expected me not only to be a good wife and mother, but to go out and work. She convinced me that I had work to do, so I concentrated on doing what I could do. I started by using my knowledge and my training, and then taking a leadership role and working hard. She always helped people to become stronger. She expected her friends to grow up and grow better, because they owed that to themselves.
In the early days of the United Nations, I was acting secretary to her Human Rights Commission. Later I became executive director of the Citizens’ Committee for Children. I was twenty-four years younger than she was, and worked with her whenever possible. In the beginning I stood in awe of her, but eventually we worked together easily, though my admiration for her never changed.
She visited handicapped war veterans, who expected her to work miracles, to straighten out their cases with the Veterans Administration, to provide a wheelchair or help them find a special job. And she often did. I know of one man, crippled in the war, whom she encouraged when he had given up. She stayed in touch with him, and he became a leader in the veterans’ organizations. Because she believed in him and helped him, both practically and financially, he was able to believe in himself.
“Mrs. Roosevelt, I have lost my job and can’t find another,” some would say. “If you help me think through what kind of job you would like,” she would respond, “we could try and find one.” The strange thing is that of all the impossible things she was asked for, she quite often did the most impossible ones. She was a woman of much influence, and was quite willing to use that influence to help others. She never hesitated to write to the secretary of state or members of Congress if she thought they could do something and she felt that what she was asking for was important. She never tried to force people, or to throw her weight around. She just used
There was no stronger foe of racial discrimination. She would say, “As long as we leave out some large number of people, we are not yet one nation.” When the Daughters of the American Revolution denied the great African-American contralto Marian Anderson the use of their property, Washington’s Constitution Hall, for a concert, Mrs. Roosevelt got Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to arrange for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. And then she resigned from the DAR. During World War II, she fought for equal rights in the armed forces. Once, when she arrived to speak at a meeting in the South, she found that the white audience members sat on one side of the aisle, and blacks on the other. She put her chair in the middle of the aisle and spoke from there. When a leading African-American educator, Mary McLeod Bethune, needed help for her fledgling Bethune College for women, she invited her to the White House. She received an avalanche of hostile reactions for arranging for Bethune to meet people who could help her, yet she carried on.
She also felt that women’s rights had been neglected—that women had fewer rights than men—and she worked for them tirelessly. When she first came to Washington, the president was having press conferences—just for men. She held press conferences just for women. And at her press conferences she gave the women real news. Loath to miss the scoop, the men would come and ask, “What did she say? What did she say?”
She was often called a “do-gooder,” but she found companionship with other do-gooders like Gandhi, who also expected much of himself—and who moved through difficult situations so he could free people. Sometimes officials would say, “Mrs. Roosevelt is a bother.” Sometimes I’m sure she was, the way people who believe in doing things are bothers to others who don’t really feel like it. It’s necessary to be bothersome sometimes. She used to say that if you have power, you can contribute somehow. She felt it was always worth trying, and she would do that very quietly without claiming recognition.
When her husband became president, the expectations for a first lady were very limited. Through her significant contributions to her husband’s administration, she changed all that and became a role model for the rest of this country— and for future presidents’ wives.
She did an invaluable service for the president when he wasn’t able to travel. She would scout things out for him and help people and give them comfort and bring back the important information to him about what was happening in the country. She had started to serve as the president’s “legs” when he was governor of New York, where she inspected state institutions. The president trained her well. “I don’t want any indirect reports,” he would say to her. “You go and see for yourself.” In the beginning he would ask her questions she couldn’t answer after her visits. That didn’t last. She learned quickly to observe carefully, to look behind the door to see where the dirty dishtowels were hidden, and to look for the special staff menu. She was often the one who had to bring the president the bad news when others wanted to please him.
Her heart went out to families who were refugees from Nazi terror. She visited refugee camps in Europe, Israel, and Africa, and raised funds for services to their children. She led the fight for legislation that would have admitted thousands of children from beleaguered Great Britain to the U.S. The desperate political refugees often said that Mrs. Roosevelt was the one person who gave them the feeling that life was worth living. She believed in them—and she believed that the fight against Hitler was the absolute fight at that time. She arranged for an endless number of affidavits for people to come to this country.
She considered the United Nations her husband’s greatest achievement. After his death, she became his surrogate, the most powerful advocate for the UN. As chairman of the Human Rights Commission, she labored ceaselessly to develop the Human Rights Declaration and to bring the underdeveloped and Western nations together. When she first became a member of the U.S. delegation, the men shrugged her off and gave her the unimportant assignments. But they came to respect her as the most thoughtful, hard-working, admired member of the delegation, the one most concerned about the inclusion of all—not only the powerful nations—in planning for the future.
Over time, she became a leader in her own right. She remained her own unassuming self, and her majesty combined with her modesty were irresistible to all who met her. She was a realist and knew how much struggle, how many battles between nations and factions, lay in the path of progress, what hard efforts would be needed for even the smallest step ahead. Yet she remained a believer. Her love for people was undiminished, her beliefs were passionate, her work was strong to the end of her days. Even grim disappointments did not discourage her. She simply tried harder next time—her commitment and conviction that you had to fight for your beliefs were for life.
She never gave up. One thing she couldn’t stand was someone saying, “But what can I do? I can’t do anything.” She would say, “We have gotten ourselves in a nice big hole and we have lost a lot of power, but that’s because we weren’t working hard enough for our country.”
She often spoke of individual responsibility and thought we shouldn’t blame everything on Washington, or look for someone else to blame. “Let’s look at ourselves,” she would say. Maybe we did not live up to what we were supposed to do. Discuss it, talk about it, but do something about it.
She’s been gone now for thirty-five years, yet she is still with us. Last year a statue of Eleanor was unveiled in a beautiful spot in New York’s Riverside Park. It is amazing that there hadn’t been one before commemorating her—or any other American woman. Thousands streamed into the surrounding streets and stood quietly through the dedication ceremonies. Even though they couldn’t hear or see very much, they wanted to be there. They came to pay respect to a great woman who was important to them. And it’s quite amazing to see the people who come and spend a while sitting on one of the benches, looking at the statue, honoring her work and her legacy.
To many of us, it was her being there as an example of what one person could do that changed and enhanced our expectations of ourselves; to others it was the love and care she gave to those she saw as the most needy and lonely. To all, it was her courage and untiring effort, her total dedication to service to others, that were so inspiring. When she died, a columnist friend wrote, “While she was with us, no man had to feel entirely alone.”
You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
The next time you’re in New York, take some time to visit the Eleanor Roosevelt statue at 72nd Street and Riverside Drive. Drawing on the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor, the Roosevelt Institute champions new ideas and new leaders to make our economy and democracy work for the many, not the few: rooseveltinstitute.org