Anna Roosevelt declared she does not own the legacy of her grandmother Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945 who championed the rights of marginalized people.
“All American citizens and peoples of the entire world own the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt,” Anna Roosevelt said last Wednesday to a packed Alumni Hall audience in a lecture sponsored by the Albert Schweitzer Institute. “I cannot tell you how to remember Eleanor Roosevelt, nor should I be able to do so.”
As the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt “leveraged the position” of First Lady in an unprecedented way, elevating the rights of the poor and disenfranchised. Until then, the role of the wife of the American president was relegated to symbolic leadership and official state visits, she said. Even so, while Eleanor Roosevelt garnered widespread acclaim for her civil rights work, she struggled with feelings of inadequacy about how to be a successful mother to her five children, her granddaughter said.
“She never felt she was doing anything right in raising the children because her own mother had died when she was an infant, so she did not have a model by which to base her mothering skills,” Anna Roosevelt said. Another factor that contributed to household tensions between Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband stemmed from her mother-in-law’s influence over her husband, she said.
Born in 1879 into a wealthy and politically prominent family in New York City, Eleanor Roosevelt transformed herself from an “extremely shy” child into an “independent” young woman, Anna Roosevelt said. During her formative years, Eleanor Roosevelt noticed the different opportunities in life that were inherently available to people based on their socioeconomic status, Anna Roosevelt said. “These observations shaped her activism on behalf of the have-nots of society,” she said.
Telling a story about the pain her grandmother experienced upon learning of her husband’s marital infidelities, Anna Roosevelt cautioned the audience against lionizing prominent politicians: “They’re not saints; they’re just folks like the rest of us. But they take the time to care to move the public agenda forward.”
In an interview with The Chronicle, Anna Roosevelt drew a distinction between feeling obligated to incorporate her grandmother’s values into her own life and adopting those same values because she authentically shares them. “Her values need to become my values,” she said. “Only then I can make my own decisions as to how to live. The things she worked for have transferred to me.”
As far as the extent to which Eleanor Roosevelt was a pioneering First Lady, Anna Roosevelt said that a few earlier First Ladies had worked toward improving the lives of the disenfranchised but that they worked toward these goals outside the public eye.
“I think Eleanor Roosevelt was the first First Lady to go outside the White House and play a public role. My grandmother was the first one to go outside and speak for herself, even though it was not always the official position [of the administration],” she said.
The Albert Schweitzer Institute invited Anna Roosevelt to speak about her grandmother’s legacy because it wanted students, teachers, and townspeople to hear about someone who furthered humanitarian values on an international scale, said David Ives, executive director of the institute.
“The Schweitzer Institute is very similar philosophically to Eleanor Roosevelt. She was very concerned about international issues and peace and justice and we are, too,” Ives said. “There are a number of different programs that the Roosevelt Institute does that we would like to cooperate on in the future.”
Toward the conclusion of the lecture, Anna Roosevelt explained that her grandmother valued people more than anything else in life and that she eschewed the pursuit of material wealth: “Things did not mean anything to her,” she said, pausing. “What mattered to her human beings and spending time with them.”