Elements of Eleanor: Living Like the First Lady
By Robin Lane
"It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it."
(Eleanor Roosevelt addressing the United Nations, 1947. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's words truly resonate with the mission of the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission. With both the United States and the United Nations recently declaring the violence against the Yazidi people by ISIS is indeed genocide, these words are not only meaningful but necessary, now more than ever. Despite the timely nature of these words, they are not necessarily words that we - or the students we are trying to reach - are likely to hear often. It seems to be getting more and more difficult in this day and age to stand up for what is right.
In seminal research done by the Josephson Institute in 2008, researchers uncovered that high school and college students are "apathetic about ethical standards," that 30 percent have engaged in stealing, and 64 percent in cheating. If young people aren't able to follow some of the most basic moral codes, how can we expect them to make the kind of change necessary to build a world free from genocide? How does the U.S. create enough Eleanor Roosevelts to heal the world?
To answer this burning question, I started with the life of the woman herself. We know her well as the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but I wanted to know what kinds of experiences she had in her early life that made her care so much about others. I wanted to understand what education and knowledge she had at her disposal that helped her make such ethical decisions.
We know that although she was born into wealth, she experienced difficult loss at a young age - her mother passed away when she was eight years old, and her father died two years later. Was she able to show more compassion for others because of the difficulties she experienced as a young girl?
After her parents' deaths, Eleanor was sent to Allenswood Academy, a boarding school in London, where she studied with Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre. Eleanor learned about language, literature, history, and politics - and, most importantly, how to articulately communicate her views. Was it this classical, liberal arts education that opened her eyes to some of the world's challenges and some of the ideas about solving them? Was it the tutelage of a strong, female mentor?
(School portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, 1898. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
When Eleanor returned to New York City, she resisted the pressures of the times to be a proper young woman, and dove headfirst into activism. She became a member of the Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements and also volunteered as a teacher for the College Settlement on Rivington Street. She was an upstander of the greatest kind, resisting pressures and naysayers to follow her passion and do the right thing regardless of the social risks. Did this experience of standing for her beliefs and facing resistance help her deal with the greater challenges in her later adulthood, when she faced great opposition over many of her outspoken opinions?
Here's the thing about all of these questions: although truly unanswerable, and although we will never really know which exact combination of events made Eleanor Roosevelt the giant of history she is known as today, they do spark thought, creativity, and courage. Here at the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission, we work on creating educational programs that spark similar courage and that help students develop moral compasses of their own. We can only hope that the next Eleanor Roosevelt is out there somewhere, ready to make her mark on the world.Tags: thgc texas holocaust and genocide commission education students upstander women eleanor roosevelt