Eleanor Roosevelt on Women and the Vote Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. She is remembered as one of the most active women to ever hold that position. “Women and the Vote” is an essay in a book entitled It's Up to the Women, which Eleanor Roosevelt authored in 1933, the first year of her husband's presidency.

Summary Overview

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. She is remembered as one of the most active women to ever hold that position. “Women and the Vote” is an essay in a book entitled It's Up to the Women, which Eleanor Roosevelt authored in 1933, the first year of her husband's presidency.

This essay is a celebration of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. It is also an acknowledgement of the great responsibilities and opportunities this new right afforded them. Perhaps most importantly, this piece is a call to women to help turn the crisis of the Great Depression into an opportunity to build a new American society on stronger egalitarian and democratic values.

Defining Moment

In order to understand how and why the essay reflected important contemporary issues, it is necessary to fully appreciate the changes going on in American culture at the time. Doing so involves taking a somewhat broader view of the historical moment.

In the early nineteenth century, America was by and large an agrarian society, with most people earning their livings through farming and animal husbandry. As that century unfolded, manufacturing took on new importance to the economy. The Industrial Revolution, as this process of economic change has come to be called, increased the importance of cities. As factories opened in America's cities, people flocked to them from the countryside and from abroad, dramatically increasing the nation's urban population.

American cities, including Roosevelt's native New York, became centers of both concentrated poverty and wealth. For members of the working class, life in cities was difficult and dangerous. Overcrowding, disease, crime, and exploitative working conditions were common features of life for America's working poor. At the same time, industrial capitalism allowed a minority of people to become quite wealthy.

Some wealthier members of society began to address the negative aspects of life in America's cities, supporting philanthropic channels designed to help the urban poor. At the same time, many people began to ask important questions about America's political culture, such as what the role of race was, how to help ensure the safety of workers, and how women should be involved in American politics. The Progressive Era, as this broad trend of activism is called, is typically dated from the 1890s to the 1920s. Eleanor Roosevelt was both a product of and a central figure in this wider movement.

Women's rights became a major issue of the Progressive Era. The right to vote, in particular, gained significant support. In 1918, the Nineteenth Amendment to Constitution was introduced, removing gender barriers to participation in democratic elections. It was eventually ratified in 1920.

In the years after the Nineteenth Amendment's ratification, there was much controversy about how exactly women should use their new right. Many people still considered women incapable of making important decisions about the public sphere or of understanding nuanced political issues. Eleanor Roosevelt published many pieces about this topic, taking the view that women should strive to be just as informed about and involved in politics as their male counterparts. As she began her new role as first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was keenly aware of the potential political power of women voters. This essay expresses her views on the matter at the time.

Author Biography

Born on October 11, 1884, Eleanor Roosevelt was the oldest child of New York socialites. Her parents both died before she was ten years old, and her relatives took over responsibility for her care. The Roosevelts were an old, wealthy, and powerful New York family, in the political spotlight because of Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor's paternal uncle.

Eleanor Roosevelt was sent to study at the Allenswood Girls Academy in London, where she worked under headmistress Marie Souvestre, known in educational circles for her pioneering work in girls' education. When Roosevelt returned to New York in 1902, she was expected to enter the city's elite social scene as a debutante. Instead, she got involved in philanthropic work, joining thousands of middle-class women in trend of popular social activism.

In 1905, she married her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with whom she had kept up a friendly correspondence for years. His political career took him from the New York State Senate to New York's governor's mansion and then to the White House after the 1932 elections. Meanwhile, Eleanor Roosevelt developed a successful career as a political commentator. She voiced her progressive opinions in newspaper articles, in essays, in speeches, and on the radio.

As first lady, she helped her husband develop the social service programs of the New Deal designed to pull America out of the Great Depression. She always rejected the idea of running for political office herself, despite her immense popularity. However, even after her husband's death in 1945, she remained an important organizer within the Democratic Party and the United Nations.

When Eleanor Roosevelt died, on November 7, 1962, she was eulogized as having been the world's most influential woman, an honor supported by several international polls. She was always a prolific and outspoken critic of the political status quo, taking on such issues as women's rights, racial equality, and class bias at a time in American history when women were not expected to discuss such controversial matters. Her progressive views were lambasted as radical by some. However, she was a great personal hero to many other Americans, especially women, as they struggled to make sense of life in a rapidly modernizing United States.

Document Analysis

“Women and the Vote” begins by noting that the Nineteenth Amendment opened up a “new field of responsibility and direct power” for American women. Roosevelt then pays homage to some of heroes of the women's suffrage movement, who had worked for years to secure equal voting rights for women. Such champions of women's suffrage, Roosevelt explains, showed “unselfish devotion” to the struggle because they believed giving women the vote would “herald great changes for the good of mankind.” Roosevelt seeks to take stock of what women have done and are doing over a decade after the achievement of the right to vote.

She notes that most people, women and men, are too busy earning a living to pay much attention to political issues, and says women in particular may not know where to find information upon which to base their voting decisions. Roosevelt mentions that groups have been formed to help with this, and names the League of Women Voters, founded in 1920, as a resource for securing unbiased candidate information.

Roosevelt then posits that the involvement of women in American politics is particularly important in 1933, as the Great Depression undermines the financial security of families throughout the country. She believes that there has been “a revolution in thinking” as women seek the government's help to survive the economic upheaval. She predicts a future in which women are thoughtfully engaged in political decisions, involve themselves in the organization of political parties, and win political offices in large numbers.

She mentions Frances Perkins (1880–1965), United States secretary of labor from 1933 to 1945, as an example of the new kind of female civil servant who can help put America back to work. Roosevelt goes on to argue that further labor law reforms are needed to improve economic opportunities for women. She mentions some reforms suggested by the National Woman's Party as being partially reasonable. This group was considered to be a radical women's rights organization in 1933. In agreeing with some of its positions, Roosevelt takes a bold stand in favor of continued equal rights reforms.

Roosevelt then mentions she is reading a book by former British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald (1866–1937). In it, MacDonald describes the charitable nature of his late wife, saying that she believed in the brotherhood and sisterhood of all human beings. Roosevelt hopes this realization will help to inform a new social order informed by both “the brains of our men” and “the understanding heart of the women.”

Essential Themes

The first theme Roosevelt sought to communicate in this essay was that it was appropriate to celebrate the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment as a major accomplishment afforded by decades of struggle. She recommended that women make an effort to inform themselves so that they could vote with confidence in their decisions, become involved in political parties, and even win elected offices.

The economic reality of the Great Depression and the disruption it caused in the lives of many American families were also important parts of Roosevelt's message in this essay. She contended that people were looking to the government to help lead the country out of the economic crisis and, therefore, were becoming more avid and savvy consumers of political information. She envisioned a possible future in which women could lead social and labor reforms that would result in improved opportunities for all Americans.

Roosevelt also struck an idealistic note in this essay. She postulated that the crisis of the Great Depression could be an opportunity to reform values and to build a more equal and democratic America. She spoke of the potential evolution of a society informed by the acknowledgement that all men and women are brothers and sisters and of a social order reflecting the compassion of women as well as the intelligence of men.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Beasley, Maurine, & Holly Shulman. The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood, 2001. Print.
  • Buhle, Mari Jo, & Paul Buhle. The Concise History of Woman Suffrage. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2005. Print.
  • Jaycox, Faith. The Progressive Era. New York: Facts on File, 2005. Print.
  • Roosevelt, Eleanor. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Cambridge: Da Capo, 2000. Print.
Categories: History