Eleanor Roosevelt’s It’s Up to the Women: A Work of Social Feminism?

One contradiction I found in Carl Degler’s At Odds was his opinion of Eleanor Roosevelt. “She asserted no feminist ideology or outlook,” says Degler. Later, though, he says that FDR’s presidency gave Eleanor a “larger arena in which to assert her social feminism.” A social feminist, according to Degler, is one who asserts that women should be a part of the professional and political realms; but only because their special influence as women would have a positive effect on the world (as it does in the home). Social feminism is less of an individualistic pursuit than an effort to give and contribute to society. So was Eleanor Roosevelt a social feminist or not? Degler only spends a couple of paragraphs talking about this famous first lady, but I was still curious to know whether or not, according to Degler’s criteria, her writings would assert social feminist ideals. So I decided to investigate one of her works – It’s Up to the Women.

Roosevelt’s reasoning for choosing to give this title to the book, published in 1933, is expressed on the first page, where she states, “We are going through a big crisis in this country and…women have a big part to play if we are coming through it successfully.” The title of the book would suggest that the author feels women would be the deciding factor in the success or failure of America. Indeed, it could even imply that women might need to take charge in the public arena. But even in the first sentence she makes it clear that women are only going to play a part, even if it is a big one.

In the first chapters, Roosevelt explains that women need to simply get used to having less; and they need to not look down upon their husbands if they are unemployed or can’t provide as well as they used to. She references the grit and determination of the women from the Mayflower and other early settlers, and encourages the women of her age to follow their example.

Throughout the book, Roosevelt maintains that women are to be a helpmate to their husbands. She often references how important it is that women support their husbands in their role as breadwinner. She does not discourage working outside the home, especially in times of need. However, she believes that “If a woman does her own work, the vital thing for her to do is organize it so well that when her husband returns home she is not an exhausted human being, but can still meet him with a smile…”

Roosevelt believes that a woman’s role as mother should come first. From a few things that Roosevelt asserts, it seems that she thinks motherhood is worthy of being called an occupation. “A mother must learn to be almost a trained nurse,” she says. She should also “look upon her housekeeping and planning of meals as a scientific occupation.” The author provides six pages of recipes found in a week-long meal plan, complete with cooking instructions. If, in Roosevelt’s mind, it really is “up to the women,” then she believes that the influence will be felt most strongly in the home. It is evident that a woman’s role, to the author, is to occupy herself with the well-being of her family.

Roosevelt encouraged women to join the workforce, with the condition that they desire to do so. And the husband ought to support her. What is interesting here, though, is the reasoning behind allowing her to work – the end to which work seems to be the means. She says, If a “woman wants to work and keep her home, let me beg you, Mr. Man, to help her and not to hold her back. If you are sympathetic and understanding, you will find her in the end a better helpmate…if you fight her she may be resentful, though she may give in to you, and you may wake up some day to find that you have a wife in your home who is an automaton — no longer a fulfilled and a happy personality.”

Notice that Roosevelt, when giving the reason a woman should be allowed to work outside the home, talks about individual fulfilment. Degler’s definition of a social feminist was a feminist who is less about individual fulfillment and more about a responsibility to bring positive change to society outside the home. This prescribed individual pursuit seems that it would ring more true with feminists that were not social feminists. Further, it would seem that individual fulfillment is supposed to make the woman happier – and therefore more fit to fulfill her role as a wife and mother. It would reinforce her disposition to be a homemaker and caretaker.  So, we see that this is hardly arguing for a shift in women’s roles. And even if this is a feminist argument, it is more individualistic than it is social.

The author later makes a similar statement which further reveals her opinions regarding women working outside the home. Women being prohibited from work outside the home, says Roosevelt,  “Might mean a loss to themselves in enrichment of personality, and in their happiness, and therefore, in the end, a loss to the community at large.” Here it is worth remarking what is counted as a loss. It is not the direct influence a woman may have on a professional field, but a missed opportunity to progress as an individual.

Roosevelt even states that the “best thing” about a working woman is that she “has to use her brains in order to find time for both her job and her home duties.” This double duty “keeps her brain from stagnating” and helps her to have interesting conversations with her husband so he does not find her boring! Certainly Roosevelt is not a strong advocate for a switch in gender roles. Time and time again she asserts that a woman working outside the home is desirable because it would make her more happy, and a better mother – not that she would solve social problems with her superior morality or other womanly attributes.

In her chapter entitled Women in Public Life, Roosevelt would presumably talk about a special role females may play in the political realm. However, all she talks about is what a woman ought to do to prepare herself to be a good representative – if she so chooses to do so. She does virtually nothing to stress the importance of women being in office as opposed to men. She simply says that if a woman does have political aspirations, she ought to begin preparing by working outside the home in positions that will relate to this. She talks about the general principles that should guide any politician, regardless of sex.

Finally, Roosevelt encourages civic engagement, but only to give women a more fulfilling intellectual and social life. “[Working] with some civic group, or some active piece of work for the community will make the world a far more interesting place to live in,” she says. Here she asserts not that women are to work with civic groups to make social change, but to make their lives more interesting. This is hardly a social feminist’s argument.

In conclusion, from what is to be read in It’s Up to the Women, it seems that Eleanor Roosevelt did not assert social feminist ideals. In fact, the arguments that did support women moving outside of “traditional” gender roles were less socially motivated and more individualistically charged. She believed that women ought to be able to move outside of their domestic roles because they were individuals. To her, the women would actually best help the country by helping their family economies in their domestic roles, but if they sought fulfillment outside the home, they ought to be allowed to seek it. I believe that over the years, and as she gained more political standing, Eleanor adopted more feminist ideals. But in this early stage of the Roosevelt presidency, and in her first book published as first lady, she did not assert a social feminist ideology or outlook.

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One thought on “Eleanor Roosevelt’s It’s Up to the Women: A Work of Social Feminism?

  1. Interesting critique of Deglar’s characterization ER using one of her own writings. If you were to take this further I would keep in mind the publication date and what some of her unspoken goals may have been with this–reassuring a wide spectrum of the American public in the depths of the Depression (and think about all the concerns about American men). I think it also worth considering how her more “individualist” rather than “social” feminist points in here were pushing the parameters of mainstream thinking about women. The social arguments aren’t totally absent–and those kind of arguments (women offered something different, their special qualities were needed in the public sphere) had been around for a while in thinking about women and politics–and had been one of the primary ideas behind arguments for the extension of suffrage rights to women. She’s also, as you point out, however, trying to carve out space that went beyond those ideas (at a time when people didn’t exactly embrace the idea of women in political positions–or outside the domestic sphere, despite contemporary and historical realities). Pretty significant. So how do we understand the shifting contours of feminist thought in the public mind? Is it helpful to narrowly categorize feminist thought in the way Deglar does?

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