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Could We Take a Cue From Eleanor Roosevelt’s Humanitarian Work?

“Eleanor Roosevelt is infinite,” says Professor Blanche Wiesen Cook, quoting fellow Roosevelt biographer Joseph Lash.

Cook’s history of the nation’s longest-serving first lady spans more than 2,000 pages across three volumes, the first of which was published in 1993. In 2016, Cook completed the final volume, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and After, 1939-1962 (Viking/Penguin Random House, 2016). It’s a sweeping, vivid portrait of a woman who never stopped fighting for social justice.

Roosevelt’s friends believed she would make a great senator, vice president or even president; she replied, “I’d rather be chloroformed.” Taken together, her contributions far exceeded any reforms she might have accomplished in office, from advancing the Tuskegee Institute to championing the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She even wrote a six-day-a-week newspaper column for 26 years and hosted several popular radio programs.

One notable defeat: Roosevelt was unable to persuade her husband that all races were created equal. “She failed,” said Cook, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center, CUNY, in a CUNY Book Beat podcast, “but she created a climate for social change.” A fierce advocate for human rights, Roosevelt vocally condemned racism, white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, military segregation, and the denial of entry for Jewish refugees from Europe.

Roosevelt’s progressive convictions were very much in line with 21st-century leftist views, Cook notes. “Even before Bernie Sanders, she said, as early as 1943, that we should have free, public higher education for all.” Yet the injustices Roosevelt tackled over half a century ago persist today. “Dignity, respect, equality, human rights for everybody — it’s her lifelong vision and we’re still in the process of having to fight for it.”

Beyond SUM

Book Cover: 'Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and After, 1939-1962' by Blanche Wiesen Cook
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Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and After, 1939-1962
Viking/Penguin Random House, 2016

Work By
Blanche Wiesen Cook (Professor, History) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Colleges & Schools
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
The Graduate Center

Bonus Content
Eleanor Roosevelt: A Woman in Full (CUNY Book Beat Podcast)

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