7 Facts You Didn’t Know about Eleanor Roosevelt and AAUW

October 31, 2014

We’re bragging here, but sometimes our history is just too good not to share. AAUW is proud to have called Eleanor Roosevelt a member, supporter, and friend. It is of course impossible to list all of the ways the famous first lady connected with us over the years, so here are some of the highlights.

1. She joined AAUW in 1929.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt attended the AAUW National Convention in June 1959. (From left) Mrs. W. Louis Moore, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mrs. Ray Townsend.

As a young girl, Eleanor Roosevelt was educated privately, and her only formal education ended in 1902 when she left London’s Allenswood Academy as a teenager. She did not attend college. However, AAUW membership was still open to her: The criteria had a special ruling that stated that membership was open to women who had received honorary degrees from a list of approved colleges.

In her lifetime, Eleanor Roosevelt received 45 honorary degrees, the first of which came from Russell Sage College in Troy, New York, in 1929, when she was New York’s first lady. This was the college’s first honorary degree. At a speech granting her the degree, the college president called her “one of the ablest, most energetic, and most versatile women in public life today.”

2. Her first speech to an AAUW audience was in 1929.

Eleanor Roosevelt attended the International Assembly of Women meeting in Kartwright, New York, in 1946.

Eleanor Roosevelt attended the International Assembly of Women meeting in Kartwright, New York, in 1946.

At an event marking Armistice Day in 1929, Roosevelt addressed an AAUW audience for the first time. She spoke to the AAUW New York City (NY) Branch. Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, as she was introduced, was also the guest of honor at the branch dinner, and according to the New York Times, “ha[d] just been elected to the membership in the AAUW.”

In her address, Roosevelt urged the members to do everything possible to make “another war impossible.” She continued, “The only real safeguard is what education can do to change the hearts of men, and I think that has to be done by women. I think that you are the women to do it.”

3. She attended AAUW branch meetings throughout the country.

Eleanor holds a large Spanish draft of the Declaration of Human Rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt holding Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish at Lake Success, New York, in November 1949. Photo courtesy of FDR Presidential Library & Museum, Flickr

From her home in the Big Apple to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Eleanor Roosevelt attended and spoke at a variety of branch events across the country. Many of these are chronicled in her syndicated My Day column, which is available online courtesy of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University.

4. Her close friend was an AAUW leader in New York.

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at the dedication of the Roosevelt estate, Hyde Park, New York, as a national historic site. President Harry S. Truman seated behind Mrs. Roosevelt. Image via fdrlibrary, Flickr Creative Commons

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at the dedication of the Roosevelt estate, Hyde Park, New York, as a national historic site. President Harry S. Truman seated behind Mrs. Roosevelt. Image via fdrlibrary, Flickr Creative Commons

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt built Val-Kill cottage in Hyde Park, New York, near the Roosevelt family home. Eleanor lived there along with her friends Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook. The three women also operated a business called Val-Kill Industries that employed local residents in furniture-making and handicrafts.

Marion Dickerman was president of the AAUW New York City (NY) Branch. She was active in state politics with the Democratic Party, serving as executive secretary of the women’s division of the State Democratic Committee. In addition to being a political activist, Dickerman was also an educator; she served as vice president and principal of the Todhunter School, a private school where Roosevelt also taught.

5. She believed that women were written out of history.

A photo of Eleanor Roosevelt and Esther Peterson standing together

Eleanor Roosevelt (left) and Esther Peterson laid the groundwork for the 1963 American Women report. Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

As first lady, Roosevelt held White House press conferences exclusively for women reporters because they were usually barred from the president’s press conferences. In 1936, she invited Mary Ritter Beard, a historian and AAUW member, to speak about her efforts to write women back into history. This was on the same day that Beard saw her dream take shape — the World Center for Women’s Archives, a grand idea to collect and centralize the archival records of women’s contributions to our world, held its first planning meeting.

Later that evening, Roosevelt and Beard visited AAUW’s headquarters at 1634 Eye St. in Washington, D.C., and along with AAUW leaders they discussed the plan to gather historical materials relating to women. Roosevelt expressed surprise that women had not “tackled the writing of history in larger numbers than seemingly they have done” but applauded Beard’s efforts to gather the documents necessary to do so. Both women expressed dismay that major U.S. history books at that time failed to mention a single woman.

6. She spoke at the AAUW National Convention in 1959 on the United States as a Democratic Leader.

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at the 1959 AAUW convention in Kansas City, Missouri

Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1959 AAUW National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri

In her remarks to the convention audience in Kansas City, Roosevelt addressed the subject of the United States’ position in the world during the Cold War era. She answered the question of why Americans should help developing areas of the world. According to Roosevelt, as leaders of the noncommunist world, Americans must understand the regions that have yet to be swayed to either democracy or communism. Americans needed a complete understanding of the native people, customs, and religions in order to better understand what democracy could offer to those nations.

7. Eleanor Roosevelt and AAUW were a natural fit from the start!

Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, including JFK and Eleanor Roosevelt in the Oval Office.

December 14, 1961: President Kennedy establishes the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women to investigate the social and economic conditions of women in America. He appoints Eleanor Roosevelt as chair of the commission.
Visible in the photograph are AAUW members Rep. Edith Green (D-OR) and Marguerite Rawalt.

Eleanor Roosevelt had so much in common with AAUW. We both sought to find safe haven for refugee scholars during World War II, we both urged political leaders to appoint women to public office (and rejoiced over the appointment of AAUW member Frances Perkins as Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor). We were both also involved with the establishment of the United Nations and with John F. Kennedy’s President’s Commission on the Status of Women. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Thanks for the fond memories, Eleanor; you continue to inspire us!

Suzanne Gould By:   |   October 31, 2014

2 Comments

  1. […] AAUW is proud to have called Eleanor Roosevelt a member, supporter, and friend. Sometimes our history is just too good not to share. Read more »  […]

  2. Nancy Shoemaker says:

    Note that membership can, by policy, still be granted based on an honorary degree. The most famous recent use of that rule was when we welcomed Lilly Ledbetter as a member after she received an honorary degree from the CUNY School of Law in 2010.

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