Eleanor Roosevelt accomplished a great many things in her lifetime for the good of the “underdogs” in society. The pinnacle of her accomplishment lies in her notoriety as being extremely influential in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. However, there are many questions relating to her morality in other areas and other times in her life. I would like to pose Eleanor Roosevelt as a moral exemplar, and I think the only way to view moral exemplars is through a wide lens that can capture the entirety of their lives.
I believe a great deal about the nature of morality can be learned from posing Eleanor Roosevelt as a moral exemplar. However, a biographical background of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, of anyone’s life, is necessity in evaluating the holistic moral example, which can only be examined in the span of a lifetime. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884 into a prominent and wealthy New York family to Elliot Roosevelt and Anna Hall Roosevelt (Hoff and Lightman, 3). In 1892, the death of her mother had a profound effect upon the course the life of eight-year-old Eleanor would take.
Her father and mother had been separated while her father strived to prove to her mother that he had conquered his alcoholism. After his wife’s death, he no longer had the desire to cure his disease, and most of the family agreed that it was in the best interest of Eleanor to go and live with her maternal grandmother, Mary Livingston Ludlow Hall, with her two younger brothers, Elliot and Hall. Then, her little brother Elliot contracted scarlet fever and diphtheria and died in 1893.
When her father, who she infrequently saw in the ensuing years, died in 1894 as a direct result of his increasing alcoholism, a ten-year-old Eleanor became an orphan cared for primarily by her grandmother (Cook, 75-89). Eleanor’s Aunt “Bye”, Anna Cowles, persuaded her grandmother that Eleanor, in 1901, at the age of 15, needed to be educated in Europe under the supervision of Marie Souvestre. Aunt Bye’s education had also been supervised by Marie Souvestre at her school near Paris called Les Ruches.
After she had to close Les Ruches when the Germans invaded Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, Marie Souvestre opened Allenswood in London (Cook, 100-3). Allenswood was a school for girls that was feminist and progressive. The education girls received under the supervision of Marie Souvestre was thought very highly of in liberal intellectual circles throughout Europe. Eleanor made a great impression with Marie Souvestre, who was in her late sixties and known to be partial to favoritism, right from the start. At her first dinner in school, Eleanor chatted away with Mlle` Souvestre in French.
At the entirely French-speaking school, Mlle Souvestre had ruled that girls that spoke any English during the day had to confess to her at dinner. Eleanor, already fluent in French, was very comfortable and at an advantage. She quickly became one of Marie Souvestre’s favorites. What she admired in her favorites was their ability to think for themselves, to question authority (even her own), and to be politically engaged. Mlle Souvestre insisted that Eleanor sit next to her at dinner. She was always prominent when Mlle Souvestre invited her group of favorites to her classroom for poetry readings and the like.
During school breaks, Eleanor and Mlle Souvestre travelled extensively throughout Europe—France, Italy, Belgium, Germany. Eleanor, a young woman becoming confident in her abilities to think, write, and speak, the latter two in several languages, was given the responsibility of packing and planning for the both of them. She studied train schedules, bought tickets, and experienced cities like Paris and Florence on her own. When Eleanor’s education was completed in 1903, she returned to America, but she and Marie Souvestre regularly corresponded with one another (Cook, 103-24).
Shortly after her return, Eleanor turned 18 and was expected to enter New York society. She came out, went to the events that she was “supposed” to go to, but her diaries and letters at the time reveal that her heart was not in it. She, however, would never be the typical debutante. For one, she had almost total responsibility for her brother Hall, now that her grandmother was becoming weak and frail. Also, she joined The New York Junior League for the Promotion of the Settlement Movement, through which she taught classes in both calisthenics and dancing on the Lower East Side.
She also joined the Consumers’ League in which she was given the responsibility of investigating working conditions in garment factories and department stores (Cook, 125-36). She really enjoyed her work in these organizations, but that would all change when she married Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Franklin proposed to Eleanor in November of 1903, after a few serious months of courtship while he was at Harvard. He told his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, almost immediately, but she persuaded the two of them to keep their engagement a secret, at least for a year until Franklin finished his schooling at Harvard.
Sara Delano Roosevelt felt that that the two of them were young, immature, and rash, and she set out at once to make them come to their senses. When none of Sara’s schemes worked, they announced their engagement and were married on March 17, 1905. They honeymooned in Europe that summer. Eleanor visited Allenswood, but Marie Souvestre had already passed away. On the ship back home, Eleanor became increasingly seasick and finally realized that she was pregnant. When they returned home, they moved into Hyde Park, Franklin’s childhood home, with Sara Delano Roosevelt, while he was in law school at Columbia.
Hyde Park was Sara and Franklin’s family home, and Eleanor always felt like an outsider. There was nothing for her to do. Sara was a strong matriarch, used to controlling every aspect of her estate and her son’s life. While Eleanor and Franklin were on their honeymoon, Sara bought them a house in New York City, just blocks away from her own New York house, ordered furniture, and hired servants. The house was completely set up before Eleanor returned from her honeymoon. Later, in 1908, Sara bought herself and her son matching townhouses in New York.
These houses were adjoining and Sara had sliding panels installed on all floors to ease her movement between the houses. Sara justified it to FDR and Eleanor saying that they would need to use the enlarged dining and drawing rooms on the first floor for parties, but she also had sliding door installed on the upper floors where their bedrooms were. While there, at any time of day she wanted, Sara could simply appear in FDR and Eleanor’s lives, without even having to ring the doorbell. Eleanor’s entrance into motherhood, with the birth her daughter Anna Eleanor on 1906 did nothing to alleviate her feelings of uselessness.
Eleanor knew nothing about how to take care of infants, and instead of teaching her, Sara perpetuated Eleanor’s feelings of incompetence by hiring all of the nannies and generally taking charge in her grandchildren’s upbringing in much the same way she took charge of most everything in her life. Little Anna Eleanor was quickly joined by James in 1907, Franklin Delano, Jr. , in 1909, and Elliot in 1910. Franklin Delano, Jr. died in infancy, and Eleanor blamed herself for his death and subsequently became more involved in the upbringing of her children, believing for instance that had she breast-fed Franklin Delano, Jr. onger, he would have been healthier and may not have died (Cook, 139-183). FDR had dropped out of Columbia in 1907, because he had passed the New York State Bar Exam. He took a job with the prestigious Wall Street firm of Carter, Ledyard, and Milburn, dealing mainly with corporate law. He was bored with corporate law. When approached by a group of anti-Tammany politicians to run for State Senator for Dutchess County in 1910, he jumped at the change, much to the chagrin of his mother who did not consider politics an admirable trade.
He won this election and he and Eleanor moved to Albany in January 1911. For the first time in her marriage, Eleanor made her own choices about furniture and servants. FDR quickly became the leader of the “Insurgents”, the anti-Tammany group in Albany. Eleanor explored her new arena as a politician’s wife. Eleanor met, dined with, and charmed some of Albany’s most notable politician’s wives, and their husbands. She was very comfortable in the small political atmosphere of Albany, where everyone knew everyone, and business was done everywhere.
She quickly won the hearts of not only the Insurgents but also the Tammanyites. After Wilson won the Presidency in 1912, Josephus Daniels, Navy Secretary, offered FDR the position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy, FDR resigned as a New York State Senator and accepted this position (Cook, 184-200). FDR and Eleanor moved to Washington, and Eleanor’s duties increased as she became the wife of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Their break with Sara Delano Roosevelt deepened. Eleanor took upon herself to call on every notable wife in Washington.
Her days were filled with visiting Congressman’s wives, Senator’s wives, Supreme Count Justice’s wives, and the like. She also had two more children. The second Franklin Delano, Jr. was born in 1914, and John Aspinwall was born in 1916. Eleanor felt that Franklin Delano, Jr. was the first child she had been able to successfully breastfeed. Her quaint little political life ended, however, with the American entrance into World War I, for which FDR had sufficiently prepared the Navy (Cook, 201-14). Eleanor “organized the Red Cross canteen, and with
Addie Daniels organized the Navy Red Cross. She knitted and distributed free wool to the Navy League, entertained troops in and out of Washington’s Union Station, and made coffee and sandwiches” (Cook, 215). She also visited sailors in hospitals and homes for the wounded and shell-shocked (Cook, 215). In 1914, Eleanor hired Lucy Mercer as her social secretary. Lucy Mercer was an excellent social secretary. She was competent and charming, and considered by Eleanor to be a reliable friend. In the meanwhile, Lucy Mercer and FDR had begun to have an affair.
Most of Washington knew that they were sweethearts, but somehow Eleanor, due to her naivete or working so hard in the war effort, did not know, or perhaps did not want to know. In the summer of 1918, FDR sailed for Europe, in the course of his work as the Assistant Secretary to the Navy, to inspect the fleet. In early September, Eleanor was visiting Sara, when the two women received a telegram asking them to meet FDR’s ship in New York with an ambulance and a physician. He had double pneumonia and influenza, as did most of the men on the ship.
Later that night, as Eleanor was serving as a nursemaid to a delusional, ill FDR, she unpacked his bags and found the letters that Lucy Mercer had written to him during his time at sea. Eleanor knew, and not only was she humiliated by her husband’s affair, she was humiliated that she was the last person in Washington to find out about it. When FDR came to, she offered him his freedom. If he preferred this woman and wanted to be with her, Eleanor would divorce him and give him his wish. She insisted on divorce, actually, if FDR did not immediately end the affair. Franklin assured her that he wished to remain married to her.
He promised to not ever contact Lucy Mercer again. Their marriage was strained for months, even years. Reportedly, they would never again share a relationship of a sexual nature (Cook, 217-232). Eleanor accompanied FDR on his tour of Europe in 1919, during which he presided over the liquidation and distribution of America’s vast military stores. After seeing the carnage and toil of the war, Eleanor committed herself to Wilson’s postwar vision and the League of Nations. In 1920, FDR left his post as the Assistant Secretary to the Navy to campaign for the Vice Presidency with Governor James M.
Cox of Ohio running for the Presidency, but the Cox-Roosevelt ticket was heavily defeated by Republican Warren G. Harding in the presidential election. FDR then retired to a New York legal practice and joined the newly organized New York Civitan Club, but few doubted that he would soon run for public office again (Cook, 232-287). In August 1921, Roosevelt contracted an illness diagnosed at the time as polio, but since then the subject of considerable debate, many experts believe that the correct diagnosis would have been Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Regardless of which disease it was, the result was permanent paralysis from the waist down. FDR all but dropped out of the political arena at the onset of his debilitation disease, but Eleanor felt that she was responsible for making sure that her husband was still influential in political circles. She had joined the New York League of Women Voters in 1920, and in 1922, she joined the Women’s Trade Union League and fought hard for the Forty-eight hour week, the Five Day week, and the Child Labor Amendment. She became an active member of both the Children’s Bureau and the Women’s Bureau.
She fought hard for the Sheppard-Towner Act, which would provide matching federal funds for states to set up maternity and pediatric clinics, and instituted a national health-care program for mothers and infants. She described herself using words like “feminist” and “liberal” and “socialist. ” Also, in 1922, she joined the Women’s Division of the Democratic Party, where she was extremely influential in giving women power in the New York Democratic Party (Cook, 288-324, 361). In 1923, at the age of 37, she agreed to administer the Bok Peace Award along with Ester Lape and Narcissa Vanderslip.
Edward Bok had offered $50,000 to “provide a practicable means whereby the United States can take its place and do its share toward preserving world peace, while not making compulsory the participation of the U. S. on European wars” (Cook, 342). The Bok Peace Award came under attack from the Senate Special Committee on Propaganda for attempting to manipulate American public opinion on foreign affairs and specifically the League of Nations by promising extremely large sums of money (The award of $50,000 would be over a million in today’s currency).
The summary of the Senate investigations are the first pages in the large FBI file on Eleanor Roosevelt’s un-American activities (Cook, 342-5). Eleanor developed close friendships with both Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, who were lesbian companions. With the two of them, she purchased a cottage on the Hyde Park estate, so she could stay and enjoy the country, after Sara Delano Roosevelt had closed the estate for the winter and moved into her New York house.
They also purchased the Val-Kill furniture company, where Eleanor explored her keen business sense, and the Toddhunter School for Girls in New York, where Eleanor Roosevelt, in addition to being vice-principal, taught history, literature, and public affairs, and attempted to develop the kind of relationship with her students that she had had with Marie Souvestre. The three of them were also almost solely responsible for the production of the Women’s Democratic News, with both Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook writing and Eleanor Roosevelt serving as editor (Cook, 320-4).
In 1928, while both she and FDR were working on Al Smith’s presidential campaign, Smith persuaded FDR to come out of political hiding and run for governor of New York. Al Smith lost the Presidency, but FDR became the governor of New York. The years that FDR was governor, 1929-1932, were extremely busy years for Eleanor. She continued to teach at Toddhunter; she still was co-owner of the Val-Kill furniture company; she became a slightly quieter political activist; and she had her name removed from the Women’s Democratic News in fear that it would be associated with FDR and supported causes that he did not necessarily support.
However, she continued to function as the editor and even wrote several anonymous editorials. As First Lady of the State of New York, she developed close friendships, which bordered on romantic relationships, with first Earl Miller and later Lorena Hickok. Earl Miller was hired as Eleanor’s bodyguard. He was tan, athletic, and charming. The two had a close, comfortable relationship, but since almost all of their correspondence has been destroyed the exact nature of their relationship is unknown. However, many have speculated that Eleanor had a romantic, sexual relationship with him.
Lorena Hickok was a female reporter assigned to trail Eleanor after FDR had secured the Democratic nomination for President and was campaigning. The two became very close during this period; Lorena Hickok often failed to report information that she was privy to as a result of her friendship with Eleanor. Lorena Hickok eventually quit her job as a news reporter and moved into the White House (Cook, 376-498). Most of the correspondence between them has been destroyed, but a surviving letter, in which Lorena Hickok describes missing “the feeling of that soft spot just orth-east of the corner of [Eleanor’s] mouth against [her] lips,” leaves little doubt to the sexual nature of their relationship (Cook, 479). Eleanor’s stay as First Lady of the United States, a position that lasted from 1933—1945, an unprecedented 12 years in the White House, was filled with activities and trips, despite the fact that her greatest fear during FDR’s first campaign was that being First Lady would cause her to give up many of her own activities and political activism.
Her greatest reach in the early years was directed toward women. Two days after FDR’s inauguration, Eleanor called for the first press conference for women reporters, at the suggestion of Lorena Hickok who persuaded her that this would create a symbiotic relationship between herself and the women reporters. Eleanor’s women’s press conferences would require all major broadcasters to have a woman on staff to attend the press conferences, and since the women would largely owe their jobs to her, they would write only favorable things about Eleanor.
She continued to be opposed to the ERA, first fearing that it would undo the years of working to get laws protecting women from terrible working conditions. Reformers had tried to get protection laws for all workers, but when one was passed, it would be almost immediately revoked by some court or another. Only the laws protecting women and children would hold up in court. Later, as women joined unions in large numbers, Eleanor argued that the ERA was unnecessary, since women could collectively bargain for equal treatment and rights.
On her fiftieth birthday, she took a group of her “press girls” to tour the depressed areas of West Virginia. She even toured some of the coal mines (Scharf, 84-98). In what she called in her memoirs, “The Peaceful Years: 1934-1936”, she went on a great many lecture tours (Roosevelt, This I Remember, 138). As a great many unemployed women began writing to her and she realized that New Deal policies did very little for the plights of women, she hosted a conference at the White House designed to gain support for programs that could aid unemployed women.
Eventually, due in part to Eleanor’s efforts, the Works Progress Administration put over 400,000 women to work during its productive but controversial lifespan. In 1936, she began writing her “My Day” newspaper column, which was another way for her to reach out to the American home-makers. She also wrote for Woman’s Home Companion about such social concerns as prenatal care, better working conditions, American holidays, and New Deal programs to insure home mortgages (Scharf, 92-102). Then, in 1937, at the age of 51, her first auto-biography, This is My Story, was published (Roosevelt).
In addition to working hard for the women of the United States during the Great Depression, she also befriended and sought to address the issues of American youth, which frequently led her to associate with Communists and other radicals. As a result of this, she was often accused of being a Communist and a radical. She was neither, but she had a genuine concern for the youth. The two most prominent youth organizations with which she was associated was the American Youth Congress (AYC) and the American Student Union. She especially tried to impress upon the radical youth that they were not the only ones in favor of peace.
She had seen the destruction of World War I, while touring Europe with her husband immediately following the war, but she maintained that an “adequate defense is necessary as long as we cannot have simultaneous reductions in armaments” (Scharf, 118-9). Her definition of passivism was to not look for a fight and to try to prevent fights by aiding threatened nations with all help short of military aid. Passivism also meant not imposing one’s own opinion or demands on another. She maintained that, “if war comes to your own country, then even pacifists…must stand up and fight for their beliefs” (Berger, 14).
She stood up for what she believed. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, she flew to California where the citizens were fearful of bombings and invasion. She admitted, “One thing among others I’ve learned, if we have trouble anywhere that is where I must go, because it does seem to calm people down” (Lash, Eleanor and Franklin, 638). Go and go she did. In the fall of 1942, she toured Britain to examine their women’s war effort and visit American troops. The British women aiding the war effort by performing unfeminine tasks convinced her that American women could do the same.
She tried to convey the immediacy of the war to Americans through her daily columns, and in a BBC broadcast aimed at encouraging the British, she urged them to “fight for a just peace with the same determination they fought the war” (Scharf, 126-7). When FDR suggested a trip to the South Pacific in 1943, she was afraid it would be attacked as a political stunt. Nevertheless, she went as an official representative of the Red Cross. The chief of all operations in the Pacific, Admiral Halsey, resented her arrival, but he later wrote that he “marveled at her hardihood, both physical and mental” (Lash, Eleanor and Franklin, 685).
She walked for m iles through rows of patients that were horribly wounded, treating each as though he were her son. She made the third of her wartime trips to the Caribbean, because FDR wanted the servicemen there to know that they were not forgotten while the public was absorbed with Western Europe and the Pacific. She did not forget those at home during her extensive travelling either. She continued to receive request for help from organizations as various as the American Communist Party, the NAACP, and the United Automobile Workers (Scharf, 127-132).
While she was travelling, so was FDR; he was making treks to all of the various conferences during which major world leaders agreed on the structure of what would be called the United Nations. Eleanor had wanted to accompany him on some of these trips, but he always refused. While attempting to recover some of the health that he always seemed to lose on these trips, and that he lost while campaigning successfully for a fourth term as President, on April 12, 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died (Scharf, 132-9).
When President Trumann assumed the office of President, he had great respect for Eleanor Roosevelt; in fact he still called her the First Lady. Within months, he called and asked her if she would consider as serving as a United States Delegate to the United Nations, and help foster the organization that her husband had worked so hard to found. She did not think that she would be an adequate representative of the United States. She, for instance, had never held public office before and knew little about how the politics of foreign affairs was carried out.
She finally agreed to serve, and sailed for England with the rest of the United States delegation to the opening ceremonies and session. En route, to England, the rest of the delegation, who were entirely male ex-politicians, asked Eleanor if she would serve on Committee III of the UN, the Committee for social, humanitarian and cultural issues. Eleanor described that she thought the men wanted her in that committee, because they thought it would be a non-controversial committee in which she would be harmless. However, one of the most controversial topics of the session landed in Committee III—refugee repatriation.
The Soviet delegation argued, very well through the notorious debater Vishinski, that there were two types of refuges, those that wanted to be repatriated, and those that did not, because they were traitors or war criminals. Eleanor countered by citing the guarantees of fundamental human rights written into the UN Charter. Eleanor’s arguments held. She had won, and the Economic and Social Council asked her to serve on the human rights commission that was given the responsibility of preparing a plan for the installation of a permanent Commission. She was elected chairman.
Their recommendations were presented at the next UN session, where the first Human Rights Commission session was held. Eleanor served as the American representative (Lash, Eleanor: The Year Alone, 36-54). The first real job of the Commission was to draft a Declaration of Human Rights, but the debates quickly became philosophical. The Chinese representative wanted Confucian ideas as well as Aquinas’ version of Christianity present in the document. The Soviet delegation argued that human individuals have no rights, but rather gain rights when gathering collectively.
The Western nations wanted civil and political rights in the document. The Eastern nations wanted economic and social rights. Eleanor saw no reason why these latter rights should not be in the document. When she saw that there would never be agreement to the precise wording, she urged the drafting committee to not spend too much time on the wording; it could all be argued later. Another problem arose when the small nations wanted more than a document implying moral obligations; they wanted a binding treaty.
Eleanor advised the creation of two documents, one that briefly ran through all of the rights of man, and another that would precisely state the obligations of nations that ratified it. A draft declaration was circulated in the Human Rights Commission, and after lengthy debate on some of the wording, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was submitted to the General Assembly and was passed on December 10, 1948. The vote of the General Assembly was unanimous except for eight abstentions—Byelorussian SSR Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukrainian SSR, USSR, Yugoslavia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.
The Soviet states abstained on the basis of some of the enumerated rights were actually held by the state or not, and Saudi Arabia absented on the basis of a conflict over whether or not freedom or religion was a right (Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone, 55-79). The other document, the binding treaty, actually became two documents—The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Both were passed by the General Assembly in 1966, and both were ratified by enough nations to enter into force in 1976 (UN OHCHR).
In 1949, Eleanor’s second autobiography, This I Remember, was published; Eleanor was 63 (Roosevelt). In 1953, Eleanor resigned from her post at the UN when Dwight D. Eisenhower became President. She remained active in politics, especially the Democratic Party. In 1958, at the age of 72, Eleanor had her third and final autobiography, On My Own, published. When JFK became President in 1961, he reappointed her to the United States delegation to the UN, as an advisor. He also asked her to chair the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, which she did until her death on November 2, 1962.
President Kennedy ordered the lowering of flags to half-staff in her memory (Scharf, 153-175). UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson commented, “The United States, the United Nations, the world, has lost one of its great citizens. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt is dead, and a cherished friend of all mankind is gone” (Stevenson). In a study of moral exemplars, I believe a holistic view of their life is important. The morally ideal is considered not on the level of a moment, or an hour, or a day, or a year, or a decade. The measurement of time, in my opinion, in which the moral exemplar is considered, is their lifetime.
The condensed biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, while rather lengthy, was prerequisite to a consideration of her example of morality. I believe Eleanor Roosevelt to be a moral exemplar. However, in considering Eleanor Roosevelt as a moral exemplar there are many questions that could be raised regarding what her position as a moral exemplar says about the nature of morality. Questions could be raised in regard to her extramarital relationships with Earl Miller and Lorena Hickok, or as to whether or not her “good deeds” were motivated by the pure goodness of her heart or motivated by a sense of selfishness and desire to receive praise.
Questions could even be raised as to whether or not she would have even gotten involved in politics and accomplished these good deeds had not her relationship with FDR and his paralysis fostered need for her to get involved in politics. If we borrow Christine Korsgaard’s definition of the moral point of view, then there is no reason that any sexual relationship in Eleanor’s life was necessarily immoral. Whether or not an action is immoral is largely based on the definition of morality used to judge the situation.
Obviously, if using the definition of morality that all extramarital sexual relationships are immoral, then Eleanor Roosevelt’s extramarital sexual relationships are immoral. However, if using Christine Korsgaard’s moral point of view, which defines the moral point of view as recognizing that others are equally as real as yourself and recognizing that the views and opinions of others are equally as real as your own, though differently informed, Eleanor Roosevelt’s relationships were not necessarily immoral. Eleanor, by all accounts, was a faithful wife until after FDR had deeply hurt her by having an affair with Lucy Mercer.
Eleanor even offered him a divorce. They decided to not get divorced, and they came to an agreement. Various accounts of their children allege that they never again had sexual relations. That is all that is known about their agreement and even this is liable to ridicule. The reality is that no one knows what sort of agreement they came to. Eleanor never complained about FDR’s secretary Missy, who many of their children claim had an affair with their father. FDR never complained about either Earl Miller or Lorena Hickok.
Maybe, just maybe, part of their agreement was that they would never have sex again, but they were free to have sex with whomever they wanted. Maybe Eleanor got her revenge for Lucy Mercer with Earl Miller. Perhaps FDR countered Earl Miller with Missy. Possibly, Eleanor retaliated against Missy with Lorena Hickok. If this were the case, then it would be immoral behavior. I think either possibility is just as likely to be true as the other. I like to think that sexual freedom was part of their agreement when they decided not to get divorced. In reality, this is something that neither Eleanor nor FDR ever talked about.
Using Christine Korsgaard’s definition of the moral point of view, the morality or lack thereof, of Eleanor’s sex life is impossible to judge. Perhaps everyone involved recognized that others were equally as real as themselves and recognized that others views and opinions were equally as real as their own. Perhaps, but to presume to be able to judge the morality or immorality of the situation is to presume to know something about their relationships that is impossible to know. Maybe Eleanor was morally justified in her extramarital relationships. Maybe she wasn’t.
I like to think that she was, but it is honestly something that is impossible to judge. Her motivation for doing “good deeds” was next called into question. Was she simply selfish and desirous of praise or fame? I don’t think so; Eleanor had a lot more to gain by keeping her mouth shut than by standing up for the rights of women and children and minorities and Bolsheviks. While I agree that motivations are central to the morality of certain actions, I highly doubt that someone would devote their entire lives to causes that they didn’t support simply for selfish reasons.
Selfish people do not devote their lives to working for something that doesn’t directly benefit themselves. Eleanor could have been the quiet, little, racist, society matron, which she was for a few years early in her marriage, for the rest of her life. Actually, if she had, her life would have been far more comfortable. Instead, she saw something that needed to be done, something that needed to be fought for, and she fought for it. She wrote letters to her mother-in-law early in her marriage that conveyed her own racism. She was a product of her society; she was taught to be racist.
I think it is far more important to note that she realized the error of her ways and ceased to be racist and, in fact, supported civil rights, than it is to note that before she put much thought into the subject she clothed herself in the racism that was rampant around her class during her lifetime. If she was someone who wanted praise, she picked the wrong field to go into. While she is revered today for being pivotal in the drafting of the International Declaration of Human Rights, in her own lifetime, she probably got two or three times as much criticism as praise.
She was disapproved of because she fought for women and children and minorities and Communists. She fought for the weak and the poor, but she was not praised for it. As for her desiring fame, I find that almost ridiculous. By several accounts, she wanted to divorce FDR when he was running for his first term as President. She had seen her aunt become the docile First Lady when her uncle Theodore was elected President. She was so afraid that she would have to give up her work, that she did not want her husband to become President, or rather, she did not want to become First Lady.
Her favorite places to be were remote, sometimes rustic, places where no one could see her or knew who she was. She liked to escape the press. I doubt she sought after fame. I honestly believe her motivations were pure. She was concerned about “the little man” and was always seeking after his best interest. I think she did this because it was the right thing to do and not for any sort of personal gain. Finally, questions can be, and have been, raised about whether Eleanor would have even been in politics had it not been for her relationship with her husband and his paralysis fostering her entrance into politics.
First and foremost, Eleanor’s entrance into social work occurred before she had even begun courting FDR. At the age of 19, she had joined The New York Junior League for the Promotion of the Settlement Movement, through which she taught classes in both calisthenics and dancing on the Lower East Side. She had also joined the Consumers’ League in which she was given the responsibility of investigating working conditions in garment factories and department stores. Both of which she did before ever becoming involved with FDR.
She would have moved her desire to help people through social work to the political arena had she never met FDR. Second, since they occurred at approximately the same time, many people mistakenly believe that Eleanor entered politics when FDR was diagnosed with polio, as a way to keep him actively involved. This however, is simply not true. Eleanor had already joined many prestigious, politically minded women’s organizations before FDR became suddenly paralyzed. If any event in their marriage had spurred Eleanor’s entrance into the political arena, it would have been the Lucy Mercer affair.
However, I think that it just so happened that after the Lucy Mercer incident, Eleanor realized or decided that she would not have any more children. Therefore, she once again had the time and energy to renew her passion of helping others through social work, because she would not be constantly pregnant, preparing to become pregnant, or taking care of a newborn. If Eleanor had never met FDR, she still would have become influential in politics. If Franklin had never become paralyzed, she still would have become influential in politics. If FDR had never had an affair, she still would have become active in politics.
These things aided in springing her into the political arena, but she would have been who she was, a moral exemplar who accomplished great things for humanity, without the added incentive of these events in her life. Moral exemplars are who they are, regardless of what is going on around them and in their lives. I think Eleanor Roosevelt is marvelous; I thought she was amazing before I began to research the details of her life. Regardless of my or anyone else’s preconceived notions of Eleanor Roosevelt, the lessons about the nature of morality that can derived from a careful study of her life are important.
While I have basically assumed that the moral person can only be examined when viewing their entire lifespan, I think a study of the life of Eleanor Roosevelt shows that certain aspects of morality and the moral example that arise from a study of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life would not be evident without a study of her life unabridged. Second, I think Eleanor Roosevelt’s life has much to teach about the nature of morality and sex, particularly extramarital sexual relations. I think her life shows that extramarital sexual relations are not necessarily immoral.
Also, I think that viewing the lifespan of the moral exemplar provides assurance that the motivations of the moral exemplar are not selfish. Selfish people do not devote their lives to causes that do not directly benefit themselves. Lastly, I think a study of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life shows that the nature of morality and the moral exemplar is such that the moral exemplar is who they are regardless of other occurrences around them or in their own lives. I think Eleanor Roosevelt’s life teaches quite a bit about the nature of morality, and I think that her life proves her to be a moral exemplar, proves that her life was worth living.