Eleanor Roosevelt: What Ten Million Women Want Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of Theodore Roosevelt and wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was closely involved in the social reforms that took place at the beginning of the twentieth century. She was a lifelong progressive activist and a popular commentator on social issues. “What Ten Million Women Want” was published in the March 1932 issue of the Home Magazine, a publication with a middle-class female readership. It was one of many pieces she wrote about contemporary political concerns.

Summary Overview

Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of Theodore Roosevelt and wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was closely involved in the social reforms that took place at the beginning of the twentieth century. She was a lifelong progressive activist and a popular commentator on social issues. “What Ten Million Women Want” was published in the March 1932 issue of the Home Magazine, a publication with a middle-class female readership. It was one of many pieces she wrote about contemporary political concerns.

The article examines the roles that women could play in American politics at the time. In it, Roosevelt demonstrated a number of ways in which women could be ideal candidates for some political offices and addressed political issues that she considered important to women. Writing just twelve years after American women had won the right to vote, she admonished them to become just as involved in political life as men had traditionally been, to become active and informed voters, and to use their new political power wisely.

Defining Moment

Eleanor Roosevelt has become an icon of American history. Understanding her enduring appeal requires an appreciation of the social and historical context in which she lived. She was born into a privileged New York family at a time when it was fashionable for the wealthy to devote their time and resources to improving conditions for those less fortunate. Moreover, she was a Roosevelt, part of a family that had long been famed for its philanthropic generosity and eventually produced two American presidents known for their reformist zeal. From the 1920s onward, Eleanor Roosevelt enjoyed widespread fame for her articles, speeches, and radio addresses, in which she candidly voiced political views that many considered quite radical.

The United States had gone through major demographic shifts in the nineteenth century. The Industrial Revolution in the first part of the century led to a mass migration of laborers from rural settings to urban centers where factories were concentrated. People also came in record numbers from overseas to pursue work in US cities. This process of urbanization created serious social problems. Many cities became notorious for their high rates of poverty, crime, and disease, and the end of the nineteenth century saw a growing awareness of the widespread economic inequality between the rich and the poor. Wealthier concerned citizens helped form numerous charitable organizations to provide assistance to those in need. The Progressive Era, as this period in American history has come to be called, can be roughly dated to between 1890 and 1920.

Women gained a more significant role in the American political system when the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920, removing gender barriers to suffrage. While women now had the vote, Americans, both male and female, were uncertain about what role women should play in politics. When the Great Depression began in 1929, families everywhere faced severe economic hardship, and people became increasingly desperate for real systemic change. Many women started to question traditional gender norms, including those around political leadership.

“What Ten Million Women Want” was a response to questions about how women could help improve the political system. Published in 1932–the year of a heated presidential race between Franklin Delano Roosevelt, campaigning as a reformer, and Herbert Hoover, blamed by many for the Great Depression–the article was also a practical effort to mobilize women voters. Indeed, women's votes helped deliver the election to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His presidency focused on a series of social programs known as the New Deal, which addressed areas of social inequality that had first gained widespread attention in the Progressive Era, thanks in part to activists such as his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Author Biography

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 11, 1884. She was the eldest child of socialites Anna Rebecca Hall Roosevelt and Elliot Bulloch Roosevelt. Her father's older brother was Theodore Roosevelt, who became governor of New York, then vice president, and then president of the United States.

Eleanor Roosevelt had an unhappy childhood. By the time she was ten years old, her mother had died of diphtheria and her father had died of complications related to alcoholism. As a teenager, Eleanor was sent to study at Allenswood Academy, a private all-girls school in London. When she returned to New York in 1902, she became involved in a number of progressive philanthropies, influenced in part by her uncle's reformist policies. In 1905, she married Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her fifth cousin, and his rapidly advancing political career as a reformer made her one of the most influential women in American progressive politics. The couple became centrally involved in American politics. Roosevelt supported her husband's political career as he became a New York state senator, assistant secretary of the Navy, governor of New York, and finally president.

Eleanor Roosevelt was an outspoken advocate for social reform, writing numerous articles and giving many speeches outlining her beliefs. After her husband's death in 1945, she remained active in politics, serving as a delegate to the United Nations, an organizer for the Democratic Party, and an adviser to presidents. By the time of her death on November 7, 1962, Eleanor Roosevelt had established an enduring reputation as one of the most influential women in American political culture.

Document Analysis

“What Ten Million Women Want” begins by asking what role women should play in public life. Roosevelt immediately notes that there is no single answer to this question and that individual women, like men, have their own ideas. She states that women are “callow fledglings” compared to the “wise old birds who manipulate the political machinery,” a metaphor that would have appealed to the growing numbers of women discontented with the political establishment as the economic effects of the Great Depression began to be felt by ordinary people.

In the article, Roosevelt claims that women are not ready to elect women to certain political roles, such as the presidency. Her own husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was a contender for the presidency in 1932, and this remark can be read as a tacit endorsement of his campaign, supporting a man for president while maintaining the article's pro-woman message. Yet to demonstrate that talented women can be successful in political office, she then goes on to say that women are nevertheless ready for other political jobs and gives examples of women who have already excelled in political office, such as an Ohio Supreme Court judge, a New York labor commissioner, and six congresswomen.

Roosevelt argues that women have skills that make them ideal candidates for certain political roles. For example, she believes that because women are typically in charge of household budgets, they may be more careful with public finances and better at balancing budgets than men. “After all,” she claims, “all government, whether it is that of village, city, state or nation, is simply glorified housekeeping.” She also asserts that women should be more involved in making laws, since much social welfare legislation concerns the domestic sphere, typically considered a female domain; and that women should head a proposed Department of Education, since women are more involved in the education of children than men are. In addition, she favors more female judges and police officers because women are naturally concerned about the social impacts of crime and its effects on their families, and because “policewomen and matrons [are] a necessity for the proper care of girl and women offenders.”

Roosevelt then notes some other ways in which women are dissatisfied with the contemporary political reality. She says that marriage laws must be reformed to create uniform divorce rights throughout the country and that American women want the government to take steps to make utilities, such as water and electricity, cheaper, as is already the case in many Canadian cities because “cheaper electricity means less work in the home, more time to give to their children, more time for recreation and greater educational opportunities.” She then raises the issue of international relations, stating that this is a topic women should pay better attention to because their children might be victims of future wars if the United States is not able to maintain “amicable relations” with other countries.

The main hurdle that women must overcome in asserting more control over government decisions, Roosevelt plainly states, is that “there are still a goodly number who do not know how to use their influence and how to make known their ideas.” She recounts a story, in which a woman voted against a series of proposed amendments in a referendum simply because she did not understand them–a cautionary example of what can happen when women remain ignorant of political issues. Women must become as politically active as men are, Roosevelt concludes, if they are to help the United States achieve a better future.

Essential Themes

“What Ten Million Women Want” appeared in 1932, the same year that Eleanor Roosevelt's husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was running for president. Over a decade had passed since American women had gained the right to vote. In the 1932 election cycle, there was much debate in American society about what role women should play in political life. This article was Eleanor Roosevelt's response. It also addresses several concerns American women had in 1932, such as laws surrounding marriage and divorce.

The ultimate message that Roosevelt sought to send to her female audience was that they had an unprecedented potential to effect political change, but they needed to learn how to use this power. She argued that women must develop the same level of interest in political activities as men and that voting without understanding the issues of the day was a harmful waste of the right. Only through ongoing and active participation in political life could women help build a stronger American government.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Buhle, Mari Jo, & Paul Buhle, eds. The Concise History of Woman Suffrage: Selections from History of Woman Suffrage. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2005. Print.
  • Jaycox, Faith. The Progressive Era. New York: Facts on File, 2005. Print.
  • Kearney, James R. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt: The Evolution of a Reformer. Boston: Houghton, 1968. Print.
  • Roosevelt, Eleanor. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt. New York: Harper, 1961. Print.
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