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ER to HRC--Come in, Dear! | The Nation

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ER to HRC--Come in, Dear!

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Hillary Dear,

About the Author

Elsa Dixler
Elsa Dixler, a historian and longtime Nation editor, now works at the Social Science Research Council.

Also by the Author

"This is a story about a spy," writes Millicent Dillon in Harry Gold: A Novel.

I was so touched when I heard you'd told Lucinda Franks in an interview that you found it a "mystical experience" to visit out-of-the-way places around the country and find guest books that I had signed. You even quoted to her my remark that women in public life have to have "skin as tough as rhinoceros hide" [see Talk magazine, September]. I didn't go in much for mystical experiences, but it's certainly true that you resemble me more than any of the First Ladies who came between our husbands' presidencies. Like me, you're energetic and independent and you step beyond the traditional boundaries of a woman's role. Like mine, your relationship with your husband is a partnership, and political talk is at its center. And like me, you attract vicious caricature and real hatred. Oh, it was something, dear, the way people made fun of my looks and my accent--but you know all about that. Some men just can't abide a strong woman; it makes them crazy. And it's got nothing to do with politics--men on the left can be the worst. If you read The Nation, you know what I mean. But I guess there's no accounting for people's psychosexual makeup, is there dear?

Since you're channeling me anyway, Hillary darling, I thought I would save you some trouble and write you a letter. There are some experiences I'd like to share with you that will point out the differences between us as well as our similarities. Most of what I have to say can be found in the second volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook's biography of me, which was recently published. (In form it's a conventional academic biography, based on thorough archival work and a range of interviews. But, as she did in the first volume, Professor Cook focuses not on "Eleanor and Franklin"--the title of Joe Lash's classic biography--but on me. It's a feminist account, with particular attention paid to my women friends and our political project. Cook's strength is her ability to show the relationship between my life and my work. This came off somewhat more successfully in the first volume, which told how I shed the expectations of me as a daughter, daughter-in-law and wife and became my own person. By the time of Franklin's first and second administrations--the period covered in the second volume--the coming-of-age story was finished, and I was who I was. Besides, with the Depression and the looming European war, the world was on fire. So there's more small-p politics and less big-L life.)

Both of us, Hillary, are perceived as being well to the left of our husbands. It's easier to test the perception in my case because I had my own political life in organizations like the Women's Division of the New York State Democratic Committee, the National Consumers League and the Women's Trade Union League in the years before Franklin became President. Your independent political life was limited to the years of your youth--that law school summer when you worked for Bob Treuhaft, Jessica Mitford's husband; your connection with Marian Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund; your work on the House Judiciary Committee's Watergate inquiry. After you moved to Arkansas and married Bill, your politics tended to get folded into his. When he was governor you worked on projects for his administrations in areas like education reform, although even that reform was less than it seemed to be, wasn't it, dear?

Within Franklin's administration, I staked out my own territory. I had what Professor Cook calls my own court, and Franklin had his, and most of the time I made it fairly clear when I disagreed with him. In 1936, I began writing my newspaper column, "My Day," and that became an important vehicle for making my views known. For one thing, I was way out in front of Franklin on the question of racial justice. From the first, I fought (with limited success) to get blacks and women included in New Deal programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. (Despite my efforts, blacks benefited from our programs much less than whites--80 percent of black women and 60 percent of black men were not covered by Social Security, for example, and our agricultural programs were disastrous for black tenant farmers in the South.) I reached out to black political leaders like Walter White of the NAACP and Mary McLeod Bethune, and they entered the White House through the front door. I hired a black household staff for the first time. And I spoke out in favor of a strong, enforceable anti-lynching bill, which Franklin would not support publicly. As you know, it never passed.

I differed with Franklin on other issues as well. At the time of the Spanish Civil War, I urged him to end the arms embargo that left the Spanish Republicans without American aid in their fight against fascism. I supported the emerging Congress of Industrial Organizations more strongly than he. I was thrilled by the student movement of the thirties and lent my support to the American Youth Congress and the American Student Union. I was no Communist, but rumors of Communist involvement didn't scare me away from groups whose work I admired. I also developed my own projects and devoted a great deal of time to Arthurdale, a model community in the coal country of West Virginia. I thought all Americans should have decent housing, decent schooling and a chance at decent jobs.

My politics had its origins in a tradition of upper-class social service. As a young woman, I was an early member of the Junior League. But, perhaps because as an orphan I was myself an outsider in my parents' families, I always cared deeply about those in need. When I taught at the College Settlement on the Lower East Side, I insisted on riding the streetcar there and back, refusing a friend's offer of a lift in her carriage. (At that point Franklin was still at Harvard, and we were engaged. One day I brought him with me to visit a student's home; it was the first time he'd ever seen such a tenement. That was merely the first time I served as Franklin's ambassador to the world outside the privileged circles in which we grew up.) When we returned to New York State in the twenties, I became involved with a circle of women reformers who were concerned with child and maternal health and the condition of women workers. Along with Frances Perkins, whom Franklin appointed as the first woman Cabinet member, at my urging, I was a conduit into the New Deal for those ideas, which today are called social feminist.

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