By Dhritiman Banerjee and Liza Hadiz
My grandmother, Helena Hall was an American journalist in the 1960s, at a time when they were only a few women journalists. She had a career that spanned almost twenty years until she retired only to become a biographer. One of the highlights of her career as a journalist was when she interviewed former First Lady and political activist, Eleanor Roosevelt—something that the family is very proud of.
When my mother died she left me, her only child and daughter, a suitcase which was passed on to her by her mom, Helena. When my mother was still alive, I never bothered to ask what was in that old-faded antique looking suitcase that had been in her closet for as long as I can remember. Finally, two months after my mom’s funeral, I decided to uncover the mystery. When I opened the brown, aging leather suitcase, all it had inside were written papers, piles of them, some typed, some handwritten. All were difficult to read because of the fading ink and coloring of the paper. However, a two-page letter caught my attention. It began with the words Dear Helena and ended on the second page, where at the bottom it was signed Eleanor Roosevelt. My god… I couldn’t believe what I saw! My lips shivered as I read the words:
New York, April 18th, 1962
I was very much honored when President Kennedy asked me to chair the President’s new Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW). Today, I had the great opportunity to interview the president. My first question was about his objective in setting up the commission. The president had a clear answer to this question. He said the government wants to ensure that the available talent of trained women in the country is being used effectively. It is the government’s recognition of the special problems women have as mother and housewife, and at the same time their desires to participate usefully in public and private life. In fact, the president feels that these issues are a matter of great national concern.
|Ms. Eleanor Roosevelt interviews President John F. Kennedy (openvault.wgbh.org)|
However, in the interview I also reminded him of the fact that the country lacked women in policymaking positions and that his administration should make special efforts to change this situation. In response, President Kennedy tried to assure me that he understands that it is the conscious responsibility of the government to make this change happen.
I personally think it is now time for women to assert their identity in the public sphere and to gain equality in policymaking. I hope that the wise people in Congress would also go forward on the ideal of women’s equality and would draft a constitutional amendment that would guarantee equal rights for women at par with men.
On employment, I asked the president whether he has any objections to helping women to be employed, as people say that we should have more women taken out because there are unemployed men. He does not seem to be worried that more jobs for women mean that men will have to compete with women. Instead he said “I think the way to do it is not to attempt to deprive women of the chance to work and contribute, but to try to expand the opportunity generally in the economy.”
For this purpose, the president requested the PCSW to analyze employment policies affecting women, such as labor laws, the availability and quality of legal representation for women, and the availability and quality of education and counseling for working women, which findings will be presented in a report to the president.
|With her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt |
What a long journey it has been for women to gain equality in the economy and politics. It would take 72 years after the Seneca Falls meeting where Elizabeth Cady Stanton read from the Declaration of Sentiments that “all men and women are created equal”, echoing the Declaration of Independence, until the time women of the US gained the right to vote in 1920.
Even after the vote, women stood outside the door of all important meetings and waited. I can still remember being told to wait outside while the men deliberated on recommendations for all women's organizations in the country. The Democratic National Committee had asked me to chair its platform committee on women's issues in 1924 and it was then that I saw for the first time where women stood when it came to a national convention. I shortly discovered that they were of little importance.
That is why I believe that although it is necessary for us to clamor for the rights of women, women must also learn to play the games of politics like men. I also believe that the best way for women to gain their rights would be to fight for them at the front of the table rather than settle for a seat at the back corner.
I have realized that for long, women have been treated as the second sex whereby they have been confined to their homes and left to care for their family and do household chores rather than work in the public arena like men. All the nation-states of the west and all ideals of western liberalism, democracy and religion have been built based upon this discrimination. I believe that it is now time for women to stand up for their rights and be no longer counted as the second sex. Only women can solve this apparent dichotomy in western democracy which on the one hand claims for the fundamental rights of their citizens including political, social and economic rights while reserves those same rights for men on the other. This inherent dichotomy has been the hallmark of western government for centuries and has also hampered the reproductive rights of women as the right to abortion has been denied to women through the ideals of religion.
|A young Eleanor |
Western states also function based on the distinction between public and private because of which the state fails to interfere in the private realm of the family. This distinction adversely impacts women as issues like domestic violence fail to come under the purview of the law.
Despite the barriers, an international milestone was finally achieved when the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women was established in 1947, following the founding of the United Nations. Fortunately, I also had the honor to chair the United Nations Human Rights Commission and helped write the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. A lot of progress was achieved afterwards with the drafting of important conventions for women’s rights, such as the 1951 Convention concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value and the 1953 Convention on the Political Rights of Women.
Finally women have found a voice in the international arena, a voice which can help address international issues concerning women. I hope that through these UN Conventions, we can help to argue for the cause of women worldwide including women residing in the Third World where the discrimination against them is greater than in the west. However there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that these UN Conventions take proper effect before we can actually rally for the cause of women in the Third World. I also believe that by incorporating women’s rights into the international arena we can actually create a better world that would be free from the ravages of the Holocaust, the Atomic Bomb, war and the resultant discrimination. I will believe that all human beings will truly be free when women will have equal rights as men.
That is why I welcome the PCSW with so much enthusiasm, finally created 15 years later after the establishment of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. I am looking forward to the PCSW’s report on the status of women in the US. I am optimistic that this is the decade that we will move forward and achieve important changes for women. I hope my health permits me to continue to contribute to this very important decade in women’s lives.
Signed, Yours sincerely, Eleanor Roosevelt
|Eleanor's statue in Riverside Park, N.Y.|
My mind was so blown away after reading this that I felt I had to know what happened after the interview with Kennedy and the changes achieved.
I learned that sadly, just seven months after her interview with the president, Eleanor Roosevelt passed away in November 7th 1962. Therefore, she never got to read the PSCW report as it would be published in 1963 a year after her death. The findings of the report entitled “American Women" which was presented to the president in 11 October 1963, coinciding with what would have been Eleanor Roosevelt's 79th birthday, demonstrated the extensive discrimination women in the US experienced and presented recommendations and actions to take. However, in line with the dated discourse of gender equality of the era, women’s traditional roles were still considered important, so the PSCW in a way supported women’s double burden of working in and outside the home. Amid this view, the Equal Pay Act was nonetheless successfully passed through the legislature in 1963.
The end of the decade would see the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women adopted in 1967. The next decade would see the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the United Nations in 1979, which took legal effect in 1981. Interestingly, it is a convention that the US would never ratify up to today.
I find that it is also interesting that it would be more than a century and a half after the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, almost a century after US women won the right to vote, and more than half a century after the establishment of the PCSW, until Hillary Clinton—who calls Eleanor her heroine—would face the historic day of becoming the first female nominee of a major U.S. political party in 2016. This was of course followed by many more women gaining positions in US government, culminating in Harris’ historic election as the first US female and woman of color vice president.
The changes Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for concerning women’s discrimination in policymaking positions has finally gained momentum decades after her death. I am proud that my grandmother was part of this history. Being a female journalist during a time so unfavorable towards women, like Eleanor Roosevelt, she certainly didn’t settle for a seat at the back corner.
Dhritiman Banerjee is a postgraduate student of political science at the department of international relations in Jadavpur University Kolkata his interests include writing fiction, research about politics, drinking alcohol and comic books. His blog is https://literary-political.blogspot.com.
Liza Hadiz lives in Jakarta. Her passion includes writing, feminism, history, and cappuccino. She blogs at https://feministpassion.blogspot.com.
Photo sources: Pinterest except where indicated otherwise