Women, Politics, and Policy
"WOMEN, POLITICS, AND POLICY" by Eleanor Roosevelt
The following excerpt from a column about female representation in politics was published in Eleanor Roosevelt's daily column My Day on June 16, 1939.
NEW YORK, Thursday—There was one item in the paper yesterday which was extremely interesting to me. It appears that Governor Lehman signed a bill introduced in the New York State Legislature this past term by Assemblyman Jane H. Todd, Republican, which makes it permissable to have equal representation of the sexes on all political committees. This may be done by action of a county committee or of a state convention.
This representation, so far as the Democratic party in New York State is concerned, has been acknowledged and considered advisable for a number of years. It is quite true that there have been cases where, on county committees and in other positions, certain gentlemen have objected to giving women equal representation and, therefore, in such places there have been few if any women active in the party. Since, this bill is not mandatory, however, I cannot see how it really changes the present situation a great deal.
I feel quite sure that in the case of coveted positions on committees at state conventions, there will be considerable objection if any group of women attempt to obtain fifty-fifty representation! However, I suppose that having even a permissive law, rather than a party rule, is a step forward for the women, and I congratulate Miss Todd and the Governor on achieving this.
LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS
The League of Women Voters (LWV) was formed by Carrie Chapman Catt in 1919 out of the National American Women Suffrage Association with the mission of education women on voting, implementing a program of desired legislative reform, and promoting active interest in public policy amongst women. Eleanor Roosevelt joined the New York division of the LWV in 1921 and was given the responsibility of chairing the legislative committee. Roosevelt became very invested in the league and the education of young women in the world of politics and worked her way up from being the representative of Dutchess County in the state conference to being the representative of New York state in the national conference in 1922. That same year Roosevelt was elected the the national board where she concentrated her efforts on advocating an international peace plan, arguing for women’s right to serve in a jury, and pushing for equal prosecution of men and women in prostitution cases. Roosevelt lobbied for these issues and instituted state wide programs educating women voters until she retired from the league in 1924 so she could devote more of her energy to the Democratic Party. Although she had left her position, Roosevelt remained active in the LWV by attending league events and delivering speeches on foreign affairs, social legislation, and pacifism. Once FDR had been elected into office, Roosevelt pushed the LWV’s agenda and consistently supported the league’s stance on disarmament, the world court, and women’s responsibility in a democratic society. Roosevelt continued attending LWV events until her death and publicly praised their commitment to educating citizens on their responsibilities in a democracy.
WOMEN'S DIVISION OF THE DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE
Eleanor Roosevelt did not become involved with the Democratic Party until FDR’s paralysis took hold in 1921. Roosevelt channeled all of her energy into representing her husband in the party to prevent him from falling into irrelevance. She joined the newly formed Women’s Division of the New York state Democratic Committee where she ran fundraisers that gave Democratic women freedom and opportunity as well as organized women’s groups in every county of the state. Through her work with the Women’s Division, Roosevelt became a key contributor in the grass roots organization of New York women in the 1920s. In 1928 she was even asked to head the “women’s work” division of presidential candidate Alfred Smith’s campaign. Later that year she left position on the board of the Women’s Division and began to work with legislative action behind the scenes instead of as a lobbyist in the public eye. During her time away from the Women’s Division, Roosevelt convinced FDR and Democratic Party Chairman, James Farley, that the division should be full time and well funded and also recruited Molly Dewson to head the division.
Roosevelt continued to push the agenda and importance of the Women’s Division due to the priority of women’s involvement in the democratic process to her. She believed that the Women’s Division provided an opportunity for women to become involved and that the involvement of women did nothing but improve the condition of the Democratic Party and country as a whole.
Roosevelt once wrote, “On the whole, during the last 20 years, government has been taking increasing cognizance of humanitarian questions, things that deal with the happiness of human beings, such as health, education, and security. There is nothing, of course, to prove that this is entirely because of the women’s interest, and yet I think that it is significant that this change has come about during the period when women can have been exercising their franchise.” (Ware, 45)
WOMEN'S PRESS CONFERENCES
As first Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt held 348 press conference at the White House. Prior to FDR’s first term the First Lady made little contact with the press and Roosevelt’s engagement with the media revolutionized women’s role in politics and the visibility of women in the news. What made Roosevelt’s press conferences unique was not just her public voice as a First Lady but also that she closed the conferences to all men. Roosevelt’s insistence on having only female reporters present at her weekly press conferences put pressure on newspapers to hire female reporters which was the intention of the gender guidelines. Lorena Hickok first presented the idea of a press conference for only female reporters to Roosevelt in hopes to it would provide greater opportunity and job security for women reporters. The press conferences not only made Roosevelt’s views visible but provided value and visibility to female reporters. 35 women attended the first press conference, including Ruby Black, the first woman hired by the United Press strictly to attend the White House press conferences. By 1941 the number of female reporters had surpassed 100. Roosevelt focused the conferences on calling attention to inequitable socio-economic conditions and made a rule not to answer any political questions so as not to tread on FDR’s territory: a rule she broke often. While most women saw the women’s press conferences as a great opportunity for women in news, some saw it as an impediment to the women’s movement. May Craig of Guy Gannett Newspaper made it clear that she thought the exclusion of men did nothing for the benefit of women. Despite the criticism, Roosevelt continued these weekly women’s press conferences until her last week as First Lady. Overall, the press conferences forced the employment of women by major news organizations and helped revolutionize what was “okay” for women to report on by giving them the opportunity to become engaged in political news.