Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 810
The central theme of the biography is Roosevelt’s process of self-discovery, or self-realization. As she matured, she grew to understand the value of her unique talents and created a life for herself that not only offered her personal fulfillment but also helped to improve the lives of others. In this process, she discovered that she need not be bound by the old traditions that restricted women’s roles in society. With determination, she could forge an independent path, focusing not only on her family but also on larger issues that mattered to her, such as social reform and the emancipation of women.
For Roosevelt, this was a long journey because she had a lot to overcome. In the upper-class society in which she grew up, a woman’s duties were to supervise the household and support her husband in his career. Ambition was frowned upon since it was believed that God had ordained that a woman’s place was in the home. A woman was expected to find complete fulfillment in the life that was prescribed for her.
From the time of her marriage until 1919, Roosevelt imagined that this traditional framework might satisfy her. In her early years as a wealthy society matron, she had few responsibilities other than raising the children, putting on lavish parties, and arranging seasonal travel. Later, she found pleasure in performing the duties of a political wife, helping to advance FDR’s career. She did not envision a separate role for herself, but Roosevelt eventually grew to resent having such limited horizons imposed upon her. She had the courage to recognize her dissatisfaction and do something about it. The shock she suffered when she discovered that her husband was having an affair proved the stimulus for her to reexamine her life. During the 1920s, as she developed her own circle of friends and her own political activities, she began to live more independently. She was aware that she was pursuing a life purpose that she had freely chosen. This new life was one that satisfied the demands of her own nature rather than that of an inherited tradition which no longer spoke to her needs and desires or those of many other women.
Linked to the theme of self-discovery is the theme of self-worth. At a very early age, Eleanor was made to feel that she was unworthy of love. Her mother did not extend to her the same affection she gave to Eleanor’s brothers. Anna even mocked the seriousness of her two-year-old daughter, calling her ‘‘Granny’’ and assuming that she would be a social failure. Eleanor admitted in her memoirs that she was a ‘‘shy and solemn child.’’ This attitude of rejection on the part of her mother had a devastating effect on young Eleanor. It was compounded when her mother died when Eleanor was only eight. Eleanor felt abandoned, and she may even have believed that it was her fault that her mother had died. These early circumstances had far-reaching consequences. As Cook states, ‘‘Her mother’s disapproval dominated Eleanor’s childhood, and permanently affected her self-image. With her mother’s death, she became an outsider, always expecting betrayal and abandonment.’’
Throughout her life Eleanor made heroic efforts to overcome this early trauma and to prove herself worthy of love. Later events provided similar challenges to her sense of self-worth. She fought an uphill battle to win the approval of her mother-inlaw and then was faced with abandonment issues once again when her husband had an affair with Lucy Mercer. This was so traumatic that for a while Eleanor suffered from anorexia. But always Eleanor sought new ways of finding fulfillment and demonstrating her worth. The empathy she showed for downtrodden individuals and groups may well have sprung from her personal struggles.
The main theme of Eleanor’s public activity was the goal of equal opportunity for women, combined with other social reforms that would create a more fair and just society. Once her public life gathered strength, in the 1920s, she was a tireless advocate of the rights of women and children, and she fought for a prominent role for women within the Democratic party. By 1928, as director of the Bureau of Women’s Activities of the Democratic National Committee, she was one of the highest-ranking Democrats in the nation, although many barriers were still being placed in the way of women who wanted to achieve political power.
Eleanor also took every available opportunity to broaden understanding of women’s capabilities and demolish old stereotypes. When she gave the keynote address to the eighth annual Exposition of Women’s Arts and Industries, for example, she attacked a remark by Henry Ford that women were too ‘‘imprecise’’ for industrial work and should remain in the home. Eleanor dismissed this as, in Cook’s words, ‘‘narrow-minded, old-fashioned silliness.’’
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