Skip to main content

Theodore Roosevelt, Feminist

July 2024
3min read

“Viewed purely in the abstract, I think there can be no question that women should have equal rights with men …I would have the word ‘obey’ used no more by the wife than by the husband.”

”I first saw her on October 18, 1878, and loved her as soon as I saw her sweet, fair young face. …” Thus Theodore Roosevelt wrote of Alice Hathaway Lee, the girl he married in 1880 when he was twenty-two and she nineteen—tall and lithe, with curly light hair and “dovegray” eyes; “beautiful in face and form,” he said, “and lovelier still in spirit.…” T.R. wooed her with all the impetuous gusto for which he was later famous, and the wedding took place soon after he graduated from Harvard.

Yet it is doubtful that the young man swept Alice Lee off her feet. Though not a great deal is known about her—few of the letters that passed between them survive, for instance—there are indications that she was a girl of lively intellect and advanced opinions. There is a story that one autumn day she breached the exclusively male precincts of Harvard’s Porcellian Club by lunching there extemporaneously with her suitor, to the consternation of other members.

Even more suggestive of Alice’s influence over Thee (as she called him) was a senior essay he wrote in the spring of 1880, when their young romance was in first flight. Its title was “Practicability of Giving Men and Women Equal Rights,” and here are a few excerpts:

“Viewed purely in the abstract, I think there can be no question that women should have equal rights with men.… In the very large class of work which is purely mental… it is doubtful if women are inferior to men … individually many women are superior to the general run of men … if we could once thoroughly get rid of the feeling that an old maid is more to be looked down upon than an old bachelor, or that woman’s work, though equally good, should not be paid as well as man’s, we should have taken a long stride in advance.… I contend that, even as the world now is, it is not only feasable [ sic ] but advisable to make women equal to men before the law.… Especially as regards the laws relating to marriage [ sic ] there should be the most absolute equality preserved between the two sexes. I do not think the woman should assume the man ‘s name . The man should have no more right over the person or property of his wife than she has over the person or property of her husband.… I would have the word ‘obey’ used no more by the wife than by the husband.”

The one area in which young Roosevelt conceded the inferiority of women was physical strength: “As long as the world continues in its present state, just so long will women in actual life be continually subjected to abuse, owing purely to their weakness.…”

That these views were largely the result of long conversations between the lovers is an almost irresistible conclusion. “Not one thing is ever hidden between us,” Theodore wrote in his diary, and it seems likely that Alice went over his essay carefully before it was handed in—though there is no evidence that when they were married in the fall she continued to go by her maiden name.

Tragically, it turned out that Alice was indeed not very strong. After “three years of happiness such as rarely comes to man or woman,” as T.R. put it, she underwent a difficult pregnancy and then, while her husband was in Albany as a busy member of the New York state legislature, she gave birth to a baby girl in New York City on February 12,1884. But apparently her kidneys had become infected, and half a day after Roosevelt reached her bedside she died. (Almost incredibly, his mother, sick with typhoid in another room of the same house, died early on the same day, February 14.)

“Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden,” T.R. wrote of Alice, “loving, tender, and happy as a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be but just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her—then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her.”

In the feminist pantheon it is unlikely that Theodore Roosevelt will ever find a niche. He made a cult of strenuous masculinity, and as President he often inveighed against birth control, divorce, and reluctance to have large families (he once expressed delight at meeting a voter and his wife who were the proud parents of seventeen children). On the question of woman suffrage he remained lukewarm while he was President: “I believe in [it],” he said in 1908, “but I do not regard it as a very important matter.” Later, under the influence of women leaders like Jane Addams, he grew somewhat more zealous, and the Bull Moose party platform in 1912 called for votes for women.

In any case, the convictions of maturity do not always reflect the visions of youth. Perhaps back in the intoxicating spring of 1880, with lovely Alice Lee by his side and very soon to be his wife, T.R. saw the relationship between men and women through romantically tinted glasses; or perhaps he saw it then not through a glass darkly, but face to face.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.