Author Biography: Robin Gerber, J.D., is a senior scholar at the Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland. For more than twenty years she has trained women in leadership at organizations including the Democratic National Committee, the United Nations, and the State of New York. Ms. Gerber is a regular contributor to USA Today and other major newspapers.
Read an Excerpt
“Character building begins in our infancy, and continues until death.”
In late 1933, at the end of her first year as FirsT Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt called her publisher to ask how her first book, It’s Up to the Women, was doing? The book had only come out a few months earlier, but Eleanor was anxious and relieved to hear it was selling “very steadily.”
Eleanor had written the book as a combination of home-making advice and political manifesto. In a chapter titled, “The Problems of the Young Married,” she counseled couples to show “an immense amount of tolerance and of unselfishness” toward each other. But women should also feel free to marry and have careers she argued in a later chapter. “Women’s lives must be adjusted and arranged for in just the same way that men’s lives are” Eleanor wrote.
Eleanor had written her first book in the middle of a year when she also determinedly rewrote the role of first lady. She held the first-ever press conference by a president’s wife and, to counter the all-male White House press corps, she admitted only women. She put together a team of women to work on getting women appointed to government jobs, an effort that resulted in Frances Perkins’ appointment as FDR’s secretary of labor, making her the first-ever woman cabinet member.
By August of 1933, Eleanor’s leadership had begun to attract notice. Suffragist and political strategist Carrie Chapman Catt had pictures of statesmen hanging on her wall, “but under the new administration,” she wrote to Eleanor, “I have been obliged to start a new collection and that is one of stateswomen…and you are the very center of it all.”
It’s Up to the Women was part of a larger agenda. According to biographer Blanch Wiesen Cook, Eleanor wanted to create a grassroots movement, led and informed by women,” to carry out the social reforms of the New Deal. Her book stood like a banner in that effort. The small volume held a message that rested on foundations forged in Eleanor’s childhood, especially the idea of personal responsibility and duty. She had taken these first leadership lessons, as many leaders do, from early experience. Just as It’s Up to the Women called on women to make change, it had been up to Eleanor as a child, to triumph over more misfortune than any child should have to face. But triumph she did, with the firm belief that if she could, anyone could.
Reflecting on her early life, Eleanor concluded that “one can, even without any particular gifts, overcome obstacles that seem insurmountable if one is willing to face the fact that they must be overcome; that, in spite of timidity and fear, in spite of lack of special talents, one can find a way to live widely and fully.”
She held to a simple understanding drawn from her childhood—you don’t have to be special to lead a special life. That belief cemented her many and varied relationships. Eleanor had drawn a key lesson from her history and gained faith not only in her own ability but also in the ability of other people. Publishing It’s Up to the Women was only one act of many that Eleanor took to inspire women by speaking to them as fellow travelers on the road to a better world.