By Paul M. Sparrow, Director of the FDR Library
The many faces that grace American currency are all men. Most of them are presidents who made great contributions to the history of the United States. But they represent only 50% of our population. The Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Jacob Lew, has started a public conversation about having a woman replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. He asked the public to use social media and #TheNew10 to express their opinions and created a web site to track the responses. https://thenew10.treasury.gov/ For many people there is no question who that woman should be: Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt.
While there are a number of highly qualified women being considered, Eleanor Roosevelt deserves to be the first woman to appear on our currency. No woman, and indeed it could be argued no man, worked harder or did more to realize the American promise that “all people are created equal.”
Besides being the longest serving First Lady, she transformed the very concept of what a First Lady could be. She championed the rights of all women, indeed of all people who suffered from discrimination, poverty, oppression or injustice. As the primary author of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights she established a global standard for how governments should treat their people – a standard which remains unmet in many countries today. Perhaps most importantly she gave hope to those who faced hopeless situations, she inspired people to “act boldly” and do good deeds and alleviated the plight of millions by shining the spotlight of publicity on their hardships.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on Oct. 11, 1884 on West 37th St. in Manhattan. Her uncle was Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. Eleanor suffered through a difficult childhood and married Franklin D. Roosevelt, a distant cousin, when she was 20 years old.
So began one of the most remarkable marriages and political partnerships in American history. A simple listing of her various roles gives some indication of her extraordinary life:
First Lady of New York (1929-1932)
First Lady of the United States (1933-1945)
Chairman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (1946-1951)
U.S. Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (1947-1953)
U.S. Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly (1946-1952)
Chairwoman of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. (1961-1962)
This official resume does not do justice to the extraordinary work Mrs. Roosevelt did across all fields and subjects. The great FDR biographer James MacGregor Burns described Eleanor Roosevelt this way:
“After eight years in the White House … she was still leading the seven lives of wife, mother, chief hostess, White House columnist, nationwide lecturer (one hundred lectures in 1940…) Democratic party voice and organizer, and spokeswoman in the White House for labor, Negroes, youth, tenant farmers, the poor and women in general.”
Mrs. Roosevelt believed that actions matter and her actions in regards to civil rights were pioneering and highly controversial. Perhaps her most famous action was in regards to the opera singer Marian Anderson.
When the Daughters of the American Revolution denied a request for Mrs. Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., because she was African American, Mrs. Roosevelt took action. She resigned from the DAR very publicly, and her letter to them is remarkable for its politeness and quiet condemnation. It begins with a simple statement:
“I am afraid I have never been a very useful member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, so I know it will make very little difference to you whether I resign or whether I continue to be a member of your organization.”
She then goes on to say that the organization had “set an example which seems to me unfortunate” and that they had “an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way” but had “failed to do so.”
She then arranged for Mrs. Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before thousands of fans. Mrs. Roosevelt also invited Mrs. Anderson to perform at the White House for the King and Queen of England. In fact she invited a wide range of African Americans to dine and perform at the White House despite intense criticism of her actions in the media. She understood the power of the press to both inform and shape public opinion and she used it more effectively than any other First Lady.
During her 12 years in the White House she held 348 press conferences and because women were not allowed to attend the President’s press conferences she only allowed female reporters to attend hers. She wrote her column “My Day” six times a week from 1936 until 1962, published 27 books and 555 articles, received 175,000 letters a year while First Lady, and after she left the White House hosted both radio and television programs.
In her “My Day” column of May 5, 1956 she wrote this about racial equality:
“For the people of this country, the question is whether they can continue to exist without giving all citizens full equality before the law and equal dignity as human beings. We must make this decision and upon it depends our whole future and that of white peoples everywhere.”
She was a tireless champion for human rights, traveling the world and challenging the status quo. Her work on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights still stands as perhaps her greatest legacy.
The accomplishments of Eleanor Roosevelt cannot be summarized easily, for she improved the lives of millions of people in millions of untold ways. The time has come to formally recognize her unique and extraordinary contributions to the United States and the world by putting her on the $10 bill.