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Linda K. Kerber

July 2024
1min read

May Brodbeck Professor in the Liberal Arts, University of Iowa

Most underrated:

Eleanor Roosevelt, although a new wave of scholarship about her and her colleagues is under way to correct this situation. Most historians have treated her, when at all, as a humanizer of her husband’s hard-edged politics, and the popular interpretation of her career is still that of the ugly duckling turned into an ugly swan by her husband’s illness and the tutelage of Louis Howe.

But Eleanor Roosevelt had created a public life for herself long before she moved into the White House, and she continued to have a consequential career long after her husband’s death. Well before her marriage she had joined the National Consumers’ League, perhaps the preeminent feminist reform organization of her time, and she worked at the Rivington Street Settlement House when that work was unusual for women of her class. She was a visible and important member of the first postsuffrage generation of political women, helping to build the Women’s Trade Union League, the League of Women Voters, and the New York City Club as well as the Women’s Division of the Democratic party. Well before FDR’s Presidency she was fighting for equal-pay legislation and a child-labor amendment.

In her middle years she used her strong political voice as an advocate for the oppressed, generally running far ahead of her husband on issues like racial equality, civil liberties, and sanctuary for the victims of Nazism. She was important in international efforts to sustain world peace and was the prime mover in the creation of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the end of her life, her chairing of the 1963 Presidential Commission on the Status of Women appropriately ushered in the second women’s movement of the twentieth century.

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