There probably wasn’t a more recognized woman in the world in part because she reminded us what human beings are supposed to be.
I suppose Mrs. Roosevelt was known–known, that is, to be recognized and remembered–by more human beings than any woman in history.
For one thing, she went everywhere and went always as herself, a woman concerned with a woman’s things–which means with human things. Even when her husband was President she was never a public figure, a symbol, a representative of one kind or another. Wherever she was, she was there in her own right, her own person.
And then again, wherever she was she was distinct, distinguishable–her height, her fine carriage, her face: a plain face which could be beautiful as merely handsome faces never are. She was a great lady and therefore a woman first and a lady afterward, her exquisite manners a means always of reaching others, not of putting them off, holding them at a distance.
There have been famous women known the world over for their profiles on coins or their images in light. The world knew Eleanor Roosevelt by heart.
Why was she famous? For herself. What she did was useful and generous and good, but what she was will be remembered longer. In a starved and hungry time haunted by intellectual abstractions. and scientific divinations, she remained a woman. Others might identify themselves by their dogmas, as we all are expected to do in this century–Communist or anti-Communist or Nationalist or Pacifist or whatever. Others might think in terms of their slot in the census, as white or black or Jew or gentile, or judge themselves by their status in the statistics. Mrs. Roosevelt identified herself by herself. and judged herself as herself and did her own thinking. She belonged to herself in the old American way of belonging to one’s self and thus belonged to everyone as a human being always does who reminds the rest what human beings ought to be.
It was not what she said in her columns or in her speeches or anywhere else. It was her response to her time. Where the rest of us increasingly respond in formulas dictated by the place we live or the paper we read or the income we earn, so that a man’s opinions can be predicted the moment you know he comes from the North Shore of Chicago, Mrs. Roosevelt always responded in her human person. No problem was big enough to become abstract to her–not even the problem of a world full of underfed children or exploited women. And no conviction, no matter how firmly she held it, ever made her doctrinaire. She felt what she thought. And she made others feel it. Not by eloquence, for she was not.eloquent. Not by mere persistence: she was far too busy to waste time. By candor. By the unanswerable honesty of her own commitment.
And by the reality, the humanity, of her world. To most of us, the world–what we continue to call “the world”–has become an abstraction of one kind or another: an economic mechanism such as the Marxists still believe they have discovered; the Absurdity which contemporary literary fashion plays with; the hardheaded Reality which only Republicans can ever know; the ultimate Equation which science will someday write. To Mrs. Roosevelt the world was never an abstraction. It was human.
This, I think, was the key to her hold upon the imagination of her time. Because the world was human to her, people, in her presence, took themselves upon her terms. They talked like human beings–were even unashamed to feel like human beings. With her there on the platform, or in a chair by the window, or merely passing on the street, things took on their old human proportion again and the slogans somehow withered and went away–even those enormous outdoor slogans of American suburbia, and those prestige-building, inside slogans of American intellectualia and the sky-high slogans of the various cults and creeds. Things got simpler where she was. Good became good again, and nonsense nonsense, and evil evil, and a man could love again and even pity.
It was for this reason, of course, that the doctrinaire of all the doctrines railed against her or patronized her with their silence. She left them nowhere at all to stand. And it was for this reason too, I suppose, that she never answered them. It was not that she ignored them. She knew what they said and some of it–the worst of it–must have hurt her: But what she meant and what they meant were so far apart that there were no words left in which to meet them. Doctrine is what life leaves behind like a skim of ice above a run of water: her thought was for the water.
Or not perhaps her thought: her being. For it was her being that counted. What renewed the feel of things where she passed was not what she thought or said but, what she was. It was Eleanor Roosevelt, a great lady in a great tradition, who was also a woman and who saw the world as women see it and who gave it life. That, perhaps, is the word one needs: that she gave our time her life. All of it. Not just the end of it, the death, but all of it–the whole, full life.