Eleanor Roosevelt’s Freethought Mentor (August 2002)

With an affectionate but alcoholic father, a vain and distant mother, a husband who turned out to be unfaithful and a mother-in-law so domineering that she controlled her son’s finances even after he was elected president, Eleanor Roosevelt needed all the guidance and mentoring she could get.

Providing just the inspiration and example for her pupil to become the most admired woman of the twentieth century was an unmarried French headmistress some fifty years Eleanor’s senior by the name of Marie Souvestre. The accompanying portrait was kept by Eleanor Roosevelt on her desk during the course of her life.

Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre was the daughter of a Breton philosopher. Her mission was to establish a preparatory school where young women could expand their minds and attain intellectual independence, a daunting task in the era of Victorian piety. At a time when the term atheist was virtually unutterable, she owned up to being an agnostic. Her teaching method was based on primordial doubt and the testing of every proposition. First established at Fontainbleau as Les Ruches, Souvestre’s academy attracted some of the brightest daughters of well-to-do on both side of the Atlantic. The most famous graduate of Les Ruches was Natalie Clifford Barney, the Cincinnati railroad heiress who, with Getrude Stein, co-reigned over the literary and artistic scene in early twentieth-century Europe.

With Napoleon III’s defeat at Sedan in 1870 and the supression of the Paris Commune by the Third Republic and its Prussian ally, Souvestre decided it was time to get out of France. With the help of her great English friend Lady Strachey, mother of the critic Lytton, Souvestre set up her school under the name Allenswood in Wimbledon. French remained the language of instruction however, though German and Italian were also required. It was to this island of progressive thought and international education for women that young Eleanor Roosevelt was sent, at the urging of her grandmother and aunt.

Eleanor turned out to be better prepared than most for Allenswood, due to extensive French tutoring prior to departure. She soon became Souvestre’s special favorite. Although six feet tall with prominent front teeth, she quickly lost her shyness and acquired the self-confidence and background which would stand her so well in later life. The two women would make field trips to Venice and Paris, a teenaged Eleanor charged with making the arrangements. Souvestre died in 1905 but her influence would reverberate through the life of her protege, as events would soon demonstrate.

The great moral drama of Eleanor’s adult life after marrying her cousin Franklin and bearing five children, was to discover, by accident, that her own social secretary, a young Catholic female by the name of Lucy Mercer, had become her husband’s mistress.

Instead of retreating to religious martyrdom or obtaining a punitive civil divorce, Eleanor used her husband’s presidential ambitions to negotiate an arrangement for separate bedrooms while the pair maintained a facade of public unity. To her chagrin, Eleanor would later discover what labor leaders learned in the 1930s — that FDR was not to be trusted. Though he had sworn to break off the relationship with Mercer, it continued for the rest of his life with assignations scheduled by Eleanor’s own first-born daughter, Anna, according to an excellent two-part biography by Blanche Wiesen Cook (Viking Penguin, 1992).

A successor of sorts to Souvestre was the worldly and experienced Associated Press reporter, Lorena Hickok. Having established herself in a profession dominated by men and while covering the statehouse after FDR had been elected governor of New York, “Hick” spotted in Eleanor a female who needed bringing out, as well as getting rid of the hairnets. They soon became inseparable, spending weekends together in New Hampshire. After Eleanor became first lady in 1932, it was Hick at her side for the seaplane trip to inspect the slums of Puerto Rico.

As Hick eventually relinquished her own career to accompany Eleanor and work for the New Deal, FDR realized what an asset he had not only in his independent wife but also in her assertive companion. It was Hick who ended up being chief field investigator for Harry Hopkins’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration. After Eleanor’s death, her children cut out Hick’s pictures from the family albums but Hick outlived the first lady and left a thousand of her letters to the FDR Library in Hyde Park. (See Doris Faber, The Life of Lorena Hickok, E. R.’s Friend, William Morrow, 1980.)

Time has only increased the stature of Eleanor Roosevelt. While the Supreme Court was still denying relief to Americans jailed for miscegenation a century after the Civil War, Eleanor Roosevelt early recognized racial inequality as the Achilles’ heel of American democracy. In November 1938, she keynoted the biracial Southern Conference on Human Welfare in Birmingham, Alabama, and ended up on a camp stool in the aisle for refusing to sit with the whites in a public meeting segregated by law.

Of all Eleanor Roosevelt’s accomplishments, there is none greater than her authorship of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. It was her insistence on constitutional language that gives the document its power, despite a lack of specific enforcement machinery. Article 23 provides, “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” With the notable exception of the Federal Republic of Germany prior to the War Service Amendment of 1954, no European government dared follow suit. While the Council of Europe adopted a Declaration which appeared to track Eleanor Roosevelt’s great statement, Article 11 contains the fatal hedge: “This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.”

In 1978, Congress made it a felony for anyone to urge or solicit any member of the armed forces to join any labor organization, 10 U. S. Code, Section 976.

That fascist wannabes like Jean-Marie Le Pen are now coming out of the woodwork all over Europe and phony democracies are being deserted by cynical electorates is an ominous indication of the price to be paid for ignoring the foresight and courage displayed half a century ago by Eleanor Roosevelt.

Freedom From Religion Foundation