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March 3, 2010 > Writing women back into history

Writing women back into history

National Women's History Month

By Suzanne Ortt

Drawing by Olivia Montalvo
Photographed by Doris Nikolaidis

Let's write Eleanor Roosevelt back into history, as many may not be familiar with her. Let's add Michelle Obama who is still making history. A comparison of their lives and status as "First Lady," reveals strong contrasts and similarities.

The United States has changed. Women did not receive the right to vote in this country until the 19th amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920. Roosevelt was then almost 36 years old. Obama was born 44 years after the ratification. In Roosevelt's younger years, women predominantly (75 percent) stayed home - 25 percent worked for pay. World War II changed that. Obama never directly experienced this era. Now, work outside the home is the norm for most women.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born October 11, 1884, in New York City. Despite family wealth and privilege, her early years were sad. Her mother, Anna Hall Roosevelt, died of diphtheria when Roosevelt was eight. Less than two years later, her father, Elliott Roosevelt died of alcoholism and depression. Her maternal grandmother, Mary Ludlow Hall, assumed the responsibility of raising her. Roosevelt lacked much family affection, was insecure, and thought she was plain, an "ugly duckling."

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born January 17, 1964 into a working class family. Fraser Robinson, her father, worked as a city pump operator in Chicago. Her mother, Marian Robinson, was a secretary for Spiegel. Later she became a stay-at-home mom to raise Michelle and her brother, Craig. The parents stressed the value of education and family time.

For years, Roosevelt was privately tutored (a version of home schooling). At age fifteen, Roosevelt attended Allenswood Academy near London, England. Marie Souvestre, the headmistress, aimed to develop independent thinking in the young women at the school. During those two years, she flourished. Returning to the United States at age 17, Roosevelt ended her formal education, made her debut, and began volunteer social work.

Obama, in the sixth grade, attended "gifted" classes, learned French and was in accelerated courses. Next she entered the city's first magnet high school for the gifted. After high school, she attended Princeton University and earned a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School in 1988.

Roosevelt's life changed in 1902. On a train, she met Franklin D. Roosevelt, a distant fifth cousin and a dashing 20-year-old Harvard University student. Soon their courtship began. On March 17, 1905, the two were married.

Michelle Robinson met Barack Obama at the Sidley Austin law firm in 1989. He was a summer intern and she was assigned to advise him. Despite initial misgivings, Michelle eventually began to date him. The courtship lasted three years culminating in their wedding on October 3, 1992.

Both Roosevelt and Obama experienced motherhood. Roosevelt had six children, five of whom survived infancy. This was a frustrating time for her, as she had little time for self-fulfillment. Currently, Obama is raising her two daughters in the White House. She tries to keep their lives as normal as possible, despite Secret Service protection and living in the White House.

Franklin Roosevelt's political career was a positive and a negative time for his wife. She thrived on her active involvement. After FDR's paralysis, she was more involved than ever, aiding his career. Marital strife and conflicts with her mother-in-law were negatives.

This quote by Obama reveals her appraisal. "I stand here today at the crossroads of that history - knowing that my piece of the American dream is a blessing hard won by those who came before me." Due to her newness in the White House, history has not yet been written on her accomplishments.

One of Roosevelt's outlets was her daily news column, "My Day," written from 1936 - 1962. It evolved into a newsletter dealing with current issues: unemployment, poverty, education, rural life, and women's role in society. Another was the press conference. She held 348 of them while serving as First Lady. The twist was these were limited to female reporters. She believed this group faced discrimination. During her tenure and after, she continued her human rights work. President Harry Truman described her as "First Lady of the World."

Michelle Obama has been bringing different issues to the public view: support for military families, working women balancing career and family, and national service. Additionally, Obama recognizes the value of the organic food movement. She, with the help of 23 fifth graders in a local school, planted a vegetable garden, and installed beehives on the South Lawn of the White House. This is the first garden planted on White House soil since Eleanor Roosevelt's "Victory Garden" planted in WWII. Currently she is focusing on the national problem of childhood obesity.

Roosevelt put her civil rights beliefs to the test when she challenged the Daughters of the American Revolution's refusal to allow Marian Anderson, who was African-American, to sing in Constitution Hall. Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership in protest and helped find a new venue for Anderson's concert. Michelle Obama may have future conflicts and can use Eleanor Roosevelt's accomplishments as building blocks.

On a lighter note, the Roosevelts hosted the 1939 visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. They held a picnic for them at Hyde Park and served hot dogs. This caused indignant reactions by many. History rather repeated itself, when, in March 2009, Obama presented the British Prime Minister with a gift of 25 DVDs. It was a bit of a snafu because American DVDs do not work in Britain.

For an amusing insight into Roosevelt, read the delightful children's book, Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride. It is allegedly based on a true incident.

Keep in mind this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt. "A woman is like a tea bag - you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water." Reflect on the strong women encircling your life.

Upcoming "Women's History Month" Events:

Red Hats Celebrate International Women's Day
Thursday, March 4
Dinner at 6 p.m.
Pasta Pomodoro (Meals discounted 15%)
32216 Dyer, Union City
Followed by:
Movie: Half the Sky (turning Oppression into Opportunities)
7:30 p.m
Cost $12.50
Century 25 Theatre
32100 Union Landing at Alvarado-Niles exit off 880, Union City
(510) 793-5201

The Woman Warrior: A Multicultural Identity Performance
Speech Brown Bag Speaker
Thursday, March 4
2 p.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Ohlone College
Fremont Campus, Room 2133
43600 Mission Boulevard, Fremont
(510) 659-6000
Free Admission
Sponsored by: ASOC and the Speech and Communication Studies Department

Alameda County Commission on Status of Women
Second Wednesday of each month
Next meeting Wednesday, March 10
5:30 p.m.
Eden Multipurpose Service Center, Sixth Floor
24100 Amador, Hayward
Call (510) 259-3871 at least 24 hours in advance to confirm meeting date.
Open to public.

California State University East Bay- Concord Campus
Women's History Month: Talk on Phyllis McGinley, author of Profession: Housewife
Wednesday, March 10
2 p.m. - 3:30 p.m.
CSUEB- Concord Campus
4700 Ygnacio Valley Road, Oak Room, Concord
(925) 602-6776
Sponsored by: - Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Free to OLLI members and those with a CSUEB ID.
Admission is $5 to all others. Advance registration is required.

Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame Awards Luncheon
Saturday, April 17
11:45 a.m. - Silent Auction
12:30 p.m. - Luncheon
Greek Orthodox Cathedral
4700 Lincoln Ave., Oakland
Reservations: (510) 272-6510
Cost - $75/person

AAUW (American Association of University Women) - Women's History Tea
Saturday, May 15
11:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.
Fremont Adult School, Multi-use Room
4700 Calaveras Avenue, Fremont
Email: for details

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