ELEANOR ROOSEVELT – THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

SUBJECTS — U.S./1865 – 1991; Politics;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Leadership; Female Role Model;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Caring, Citizenship.

AGE: 10+; No MPAA Rating; Documentary;

1995; 150 minutes; Color with black and white footage. Available from Amazon.com.

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MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS

For a movie worksheet for this film, see Film Study Worksheet for a Documentary.

DESCRIPTION

This is a PBS documentary about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. The film is excellent and worth watching several times.

SELECTED AWARDS & CAST

Selected Awards:

None.

 

Featured Actors:

None.

 

Writer and Director:

Sue Williams.

BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE

This episode of “The American Experience” describes the public and private life of the most influential American woman of the 20th century.

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS

None.

PARENTING POINTS

Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question. If your child is interested in Eleanor Roosevelt, review the Helpful Background section and share the highlights with your child.

HELPFUL BACKGROUND

This film is a documentary and provides its own background. We can offer a few additional details of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life that we have collected from various sources.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the first white person of national stature to champion civil rights for blacks and minorities. She was a necessary precursor for the non-violent Civil Rights Movement that began in the 1950s. A few of her actions fostering civil rights for all Americans are recounted in the film. There were hundreds of others, large and small. For one powerful example, see Learning Guide to “Tuskegee Airmen”.

Mrs. Roosevelt also fought to increase the political power of women through the ballot box and through the appointment of competent women to policy-making positions in government.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership extended beyond government to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world and in the United States who admired her and respected her opinions. Throughout her public career, she advocated compassion in public policy and in private action. Her calls for social equality (particularly for women and minorities) were instrumental in moving the national and international consensus toward her position on many of these issues.

A skilled politician in her own right, Mrs. Roosevelt headed the successful effort to mobilize women to support many of her husband’s campaigns for public office. Her speech to the deadlocked 1940 Democratic National Convention was a key factor in resolving a political impasse that threatened FDR’s nomination for a third term as President. In 1948, after her husband’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt represented the United States in the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She was instrumental in its passage, chairing the committee that drafted the document and outmaneuvering experienced diplomats from the Soviet Block.

 

Eleanor Roosevelt acted as Franklin Roosevelt’s social conscience, providing a counterbalance to the pressures of political expediency.

“No one who ever saw Eleanor Roosevelt sit down facing her husband, and, holding his eye firmly, say to him, ‘Franklin, I think you should …’ or ‘Franklin, surely you will not …’ will ever forget the experience…. And even after many years [FDR] obviously disliked to face that devastatingly simply honest look that Eleanor fixed him with when she was aware of an injustice amenable to Presidential action or a good deed he could do…. It would be impossible to say how often and to what extent American governmental processes have been turned in new directions because of her determination that people should be hurt as little as possible and that as much should be done for them as could be managed; the whole, if it could be totalled, would be formidable.” Eleanor and Franklin at p. 457 & 458, quoting Rexford Tugwell in “Roosevelt Day Dinner,” Journal of Americans for Democratic Action, Jan. 31, 1963.

 

How did Franklin Roosevelt deal with a wife who sought to serve as his conscience and the conscience of the government?

Once she asked [the President] whether her advocacy of the anti-lynching bill might hurt his efforts to get southern votes for his rearmament program. “You go right ahead and stand for whatever you feel is right,” he said. She was not wholly persuaded that he meant what he said and repeated her question. [He replied] “Well, I have to stand on my own legs. Besides, I can always say I can’t do a thing with you.” Franklin never tried to discourage her, she wrote later, discussing some of the controversy she had created. But it was more than that. He approved. Just because he had to ease up on his efforts to get New Deal legislation, he wanted her to press harder. It helped politically with the groups whose claims he had to postpone and, more important, it helped him resist the temptation of following the easiest course. That was her old role. One of the reasons he had married her was to keep him from sinning. “She had stronger convictions that he on the subjects of social welfare and social progress,” observed Arthur Krock, who had occasionally been invited to small family dinners by Eleanor. “She was also a very determined woman – determined not only to make a career for herself so that she would not be just the President’s wife, but also to make a career that would in her opinion put pressure on her husband to pursue the path of social and economic reform that he was embarked upon.” She was not, she said in later years, “what you would call a ‘yes-man’ because that wasn’t what he needed.” Nor was it what the president particularly wanted, she added, “He might have been happier, if he had always been perfectly sure that I would have agreed. He wasn’t. And it was probably good for him that he wasn’t. But there must have been times when he would have liked it if he didn’t have to argue things.” She acted as a spur, she said, “because I had this horrible sense of obligation which was bred in me, I couldn’t help it. It was nothing to be proud of, it was just something I couldn’t help.” Eleanor and Franklin, page 457.

 

Not only with the President, but also with politicians and bureaucrats throughout the federal government, Mrs. Roosevelt used her influence and political skills to help the female, the young, the ill, the injured, and the disadvantaged.

Few people today are aware of either Eleanor Roosevelt’s deep religious feelings or of the timeliness of her message for the beginning of the 21st century. Joseph Lash, her friend and biographer, described her core beliefs in this manner:

Her speeches and writings called for the building of a new world, and though her language was that of the Gospel and the Declaration of Independence rather than the Communist Manifesto, her underlying message was revolutionary. People “must understand what it is in the past which held us back, what it is in ourselves, in human nature as a whole, which must be fought down if we are successfully to have a new deal.” The nation’s goal had to be the creation of “a new social order based on real religion” rooted in people leading the lives “they would live if they really wished to follow in Christ’s footsteps.”

She had her own concept of utopia. She sketched it softly, in phrases disarmingly modest and simple, in an article she wrote shortly after becoming First Lady, “What I Hope to Leave Behind Me.” She would like to live in a community where every individual had an income adequate to provide his family with the ordinary comforts and pleasures of life but no individual had an income so large that he did not have to think about this expenditures. Such a community, she felt, “would have the germs of a really new deal for the race.” But it would not happen without a shift in thought and a reconstruction of values — less concern with creature comforts and more cooperation in everything that might help people “acquire a little more graciousness and freedom in life.”…..

Eleanor Roosevelt was fundamentally a moralist. She believed that the Depression was caused as much by defects of spirit and character as of institutions. The nation had gone through a ten-year “orgy” of speculation and quick profits, “of money bringing returns which required no real work.” Selfishness and a preoccupation with material things had been the hallmarks of the decade [of the 1920s]. Selfishness, she felt, had been responsible for America’s imposition of higher tariffs and had flawed Americans’ relationship with each other — the financial East ignored the distress in the farmlands, and everywhere the rich paid little attention to the poor.

In the frenzy to make money, Americans had lost some of the qualities that made life worthwhile, the ability to enjoy simple things — a landscape, “the breath of a crisp October day,” “the play of the sun and shadow,” “the view from a high hill” — and above all the joy that came from sharing: “As I grow older I realize that the only pleasure I have in anything is to share it with some one else …. I could not today start out with any zest to see the most marvelous sight in the world unless I were taking with me someone to whom I knew the journey would be a joy.”

If the Depression had taught men any one thing, Eleanor hoped it was the lesson of “interdependence” — that “one part of the country or group of countrymen cannot prosper while the others go down hill, and that one country cannot go on gaily when the rest of the world is suffering.” Perhaps the Depression might reunite the country and give it the sense of community that comes from shared hardships. …. Eleanor and Franklin, pages 382 & 383 (footnotes omitted)

One of the key facts to remember about Eleanor Roosevelt was that she was Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite niece. Now, almost 100 years after he was President, it is hard for us to imagine how important Theodore Roosevelt was in turning U.S. government back to the principles of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Adams, i.e., that instead of government being used to benefit well-connected special interests, its proper role was to look out for the interests of the American people as a whole. In Theodore Roosevelt’s time that meant busting the trusts, helping ordinary people, creating national parks, etc. Theodore Roosevelt inspired a generation of young people, most notably Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, with his conception of public service. They also adopted TR’s view that the talented and the privileged had an obligation to commit their energy and effort to improve society (another return to concepts of the Founding Fathers). Franklin Roosevelt sought to model his career on that of “Uncle Ted.” Eleanor, as favorite niece, worshipped Theodore Roosevelt and adopted much of his view of the world.

In extemporaneous remarks given at a federal prison for delinquent women and girls in Alderson, West Virginia, Eleanor Roosevelt summed up her view of the role of government and also provided an insight into how she pulled herself out of the black depressions which plagued her during much of her life. Government’s purpose was to:

… help the people it governs over the rough spots. There was a new concept of social justice and government abroad in the land. “The fundamental change is just this, that instead of each person being out for himself for what he can get for himself … people must think … of the people around them and ask of any action not only “what will be the effect … on me, but what will be the effect on those around me?” She then told of a recent visit to Puerto Rico and of a little rural school there that had been started by an obscure, humble individual but which was transforming the whole approach to rural education. “So when you get a chance to push something that is new and that helps the life of the people around you to be better, just remember what I have told you about Puerto Rico and help it along.” Then she went into her own philosophy of life:

It is a wonderful thing to keep your mind always full of something that is worth while doing. If you can get hold of something that you feel is going to help the people around you, you’ll find that you’re so busy trying to add one more thing to it that you won’t have time to be sorry for yourself or to wonder what you’re going to do with your spare time …. If I get sorry for myself, I’m no good to anybody else. It is just the best tonic I know, to get so interested in everybody that you want to see them happy always, and somehow or other you’ll find that you haven’t time for any of the things that filled your mind, that kept you from being a really useful person in the community that you were living in. Eleanor and Franklin pp. 420 & 421.

The differing reactions of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt to Warm Springs, Georgia, captures some of the difference between them. FDR loved the relaxed lifestyle that he found at Warm Springs. When he first visited in 1924, looking for a cure for the polio that had wasted his leg muscles, FDR was enchanted. At that time, Warm Springs was “not much beyond the horse-and-buggy stage…. The little whitewashed cottages were dilapidated, and the single hotel in town was pretty run-down, but Roosevelt loved the place the moment he saw it, so much so that he decided to invest money in it, with the idea of sprucing it up and turning it into a national resort.” Warm Springs manager Egbert Curtis quoted in No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin, 1994, p. 116.

Eleanor’s reaction was quite different. It was said when Eleanor first visited Warm Springs she “began asking questions about the plight of the poor blacks in the town as she rode from the train station the first night; and that once she started asking questions, she never stopped.” “Between the harsh segregation, the suffocating poverty, the Spanish moss, which she hated, and the sound of the Southern drawl, which grated on her ears, Eleanor could not wait to get away.” No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin, 1994, p. 116. FDR, however, repeatedly visited Warm Springs throughout the rest of his life and was there when he died in 1945. See also Learning Guide to “Warm Springs”

 

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin reports that:

In the fall of 1945 Eleanor Roosevelt told her son Jimmy, that is seemed to her that “a giant transferrence of energy” had taken place between the president and the people. “In the early days, before Pearl Harbor,” she said, “Franklin was healthy and strong and committed to the Allied cause while the country was sick and weak and isolationist. But gradually, as the president animated his countrymen to the dangers abroad, the country grew stronger and stronger while he grew weaker and weaker, until in the end he was dead and the country had emerged more powerful and more productive than ever.”

It was a romanticized view of her husband’s leadership, ignoring the many fierce arguments they had during the war regarding his decision to intern the Japanese Americans, his failure to do more to help the Jews of Europe, his surrender to big business on military contracts, his caution on civil rights. She brooded on his shortcomings while he was alive, but she could idealize him as she had idealized her father, and grasp the elements of his greatness — his supreme confidence, his contagious faith, his sense of timing, his political skills. Beneath all, there had been, she could now see, a fundamental commitment to humane and democratic values, a steadiness of purpose, a determination to with the war as fast as possible, a vision of the principles on which the peace would be based, a dedication to better the life of the average American. Ibid, p. 630.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. See Discussion Questions and Projects for Use With Any Documentary.

 

2. Name the ten most influential women in world history. Is Eleanor Roosevelt among them? Justify your answers to both questions.

 

3. Name the five most influential women in American history. How would you rank Eleanor Roosevelt and why?

 

4. Is it fair to say that Eleanor Roosevelt achieved her position through the political power of her husband? How much of her ability to have a positive impact on the world was due to her position as First Lady and how much was due to her personal accomplishments? Does this matter?

 

5. Describe three instances mentioned in the film in which Eleanor Roosevelt exercised political power on her own.

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING

FEMALE ROLE MODEL

1. What attributes of Eleanor Roosevelt could you use in your own life?

 

LEADERSHIP

2. What actions did Eleanor Roosevelt take to make herself a leader of people in America and throughout the world?

 

3. What tools of leadership did Eleanor Roosevelt employ?

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.

 

CARING

(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)

 

1. Name three instances in which Eleanor Roosevelt went out of her way to help others in need.

 

CITIZENSHIP

(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)

 

2. How does Eleanor Roosevelt’s career demonstrate the value of citizenship?

 

3. Has any First Lady of any country had as broad an impact on the nation and the world as Eleanor Roosevelt? To help you with this concept, list out the last three First Ladies and describe what, if any, impact they have had on the nation?

 

4. Many people believed that Jacqueline Kennedy had a broad impact on how American women saw themselves. Compare Jacqueline Kennedy’s impact as First Lady and that of Eleanor Roosevelt.

ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES

See Discussion Questions and Projects for Use With Any Documentary.

  • Compare Eleanor Roosevelt to the First Ladies who came after her: Bess Truman, Amy Eisenhower, Jacquelyn Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalind Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, and Hillary Clinton. Some of these ladies were very special and some wanted quiet ordinary lives. How did they compare to Eleanor Roosevelt in terms of their impact on society?
  • Many people believed that Jacqueline Kennedy had a broad impact on how American women saw themselves. Prepare a report of __ pages comparing Jacqueline Kennedy’s impact as First Lady with that of Eleanor Roosevelt.
  • Name the ten most influential women in world history. Write one page on each, ranking them in order of importance. Is Eleanor Roosevelt among them?
  • Name the five most influential women in American History. Prepare a one-page report on each and how you would rank them in order of importance.

BRIDGES TO READING

None.

LINKS TO THE INTERNET

BIBLIOGRAPHY

In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph P. Lash, 1971, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York.
  • No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin, 1994, Simon & Schuster, New York.

This Learning Guide was last updated on December 17, 2009.