9 Timeless Bits of Wisdom from Eleanor Roosevelt
Most people remember Eleanor Roosevelt as a first lady, United Nations diplomat, and humanitarian, but she was also a prolific writer. Roosevelt wrote 27 books—and her first one, an advice book for American ladies called It’s Up to the Women, was published shortly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 inauguration. Out of print for years, the work is slated for a re-release on April 11, 2017, with a new introduction by Harvard University historian Jill Lepore.
It’s Up to the Women contains an eclectic assortment of wisdom. (The Hartford Courant described it as "a book of general counsel and advice on pretty well everything, from dish-washing to high diplomacy.") Naturally, the book offers reflections on women's changing roles in society, and tips for living through the Great Depression. But even by modern standards, it still yields plenty of good, common sense advice for women and men alike, on everything from health to parenting to doing one's civic duty.
In honor of Women's History Month, here are some select nuggets of wisdom culled from Eleanor Roosevelt’s debut work.
1. ON JUGGLING A FAMILY AND A CAREER
Long before we debated the concept of “having it all,” Roosevelt contemplated how women could have both a family and a fulfilling career. To make this juggling act possible, she argued, society needs to relax its rigid standards of motherhood and wifehood. Men occasionally need to shift their priorities, and women may have to as well:
I never like to think of this subject of a woman’s career and a woman’s home as being a controversy. It seems to me perfectly obvious that if a woman falls in love and marries, of course her first interest and her first duty is to her home, but her duty to her home does not of necessity preclude her having another occupation. A woman, just like a man, may have a great gift for some particular thing. That does not mean that she must give up the joy of marrying and having a home and children. It simply means, when we set them in opposition to each other, that we haven’t as yet grown accustomed to the fact that women’s lives must be adjusted and arranged for in just the same way that men’s lives are. Women may have to sacrifice certain things at times—so do men.
2. ON MONEY
Roosevelt wrote It’s Up to the Women during the Great Depression, so the nation's economic downturn weighed heavily on her mind. She advocated a frugal lifestyle, and even devoted an entire chapter to the importance of budgeting (“A budget is a necessary evil no matter how dull you may find it,” she conceded). However, Roosevelt also acknowledged that we sometimes need to throw austerity to the wind and splurge on little things: "No one can really decide [what to spend our money on] for us because to some people certain things mean more than to others,” she wrote. “I should be most unhappy if I could not buy new books but having beefsteak for dinner would mean nothing to me whatsoever!”
Roosevelt also had plenty of advice for fashion on a budget: Buy only what you need, spend more money on quality clothing items that will stand the test of time, and jazz up a tired ensemble with fresh accessories. “One can usually count on a coat lasting two seasons, but a new hat will frequently make people think that everything one has on is new,” she wrote. Good style, Roosevelt concluded, is the product of taste and a carefully curated wardrobe—not money.
3. ON BUDGETING TIME
Roosevelt was a tireless worker, but even she needed a respite from the daily grind. “It is a rare person who can get on without some break in the regular routine,” she wrote. “Budgeting time to arrange for these breaks is just as important as it is to plan the income.”
To fit leisure time into a busy schedule, Roosevelt recommended sticking to a regular routine, completing the hardest chores in the morning, and teaching children to perform basic self-care tasks and chores for themselves. As for break time, it doesn’t matter what you do, so long as it's relaxing. “If you need extra sleep perhaps you can get a nap, but if not, sewing or reading or doing some kind of work you enjoy may be your rest,” Roosevelt wrote. “It simply means that your regular routine should be off your mind.”
4. ON HEALTH
Taking the time to maintain a healthy lifestyle is important for your health as well as the wellbeing of those close to you. “Your physical condition rests on your mental condition and on your spiritual attitude toward life,” Roosevelt wrote. “A nervous and irritable person can do little to make life pleasant for those around her; therefore it is up to us to study our physical needs well and to budget our lives to meet these requirements.”
Roosevelt rattled off a list of tips that would make any physician proud: Eat nutritious meals, get fresh air, keep your brain sharp with hobbies, and exercise. She also recommended staying mindful of your food choices, indulging in moderation, and eating slowly. Try dining with “some congenial companion" to pace yourself, she suggested, but “a book will do if no human is at hand!”
Sleep is also important—but don't get too freaked out if you experience bouts of insomnia. “People who do not sleep should not worry about it,” Roosevelt wrote. “They should lie there and rest and think about pleasant things. They will either fall asleep or, at the worst, get up next morning perhaps a little less refreshed but still quite able to do their daily tasks and retire early the next.”
5. ON PARENTING
Roosevelt, a mother of six (her third child died when he was less than a year old), believed in teaching children to do their own chores; to love books, nature, and their country; and to explore their unique talents. But aside from that, the first lady had a hands-off approach to motherhood. She believed that children should be allowed to make mistakes—and learn from them—at every stage of life.
“I believe very strongly that it is better to allow children too much freedom than too little; it is better for them to get their feet wet than to be told at the age of 15 to put on their rubbers," Roosevelt wrote. "They should be old enough by that time to take care of themselves and if they prefer to get their feet wet, they should be allowed to do so."
However, Roosevelt did point out that a parent’s counsel occasionally comes in handy—particularly during the teen years: “Try to understand young people, particularly your adolescent young people, and not to be shocked or irritated by them," she wrote. "They are at an age where they do not understand themselves or the emotions which sweep over them and it is a time above all times when wise parents may be useful.”
6. ON KEEPING AN OPEN MIND
As times change, so do societal values, Roosevelt wrote. Stay open-minded and routinely reevaluate your core ideals:
We must all realize, I think, that between generations there is a tremendous gulf and that each new generation sets up its own standards as the result of contact with its own con-temporaries ... What would have seemed to one generation absolutely immoral will to another generation simply seem a matter of custom and manners and therefore in a changing world we must bear in mind that we cannot be too sure that ideals which have served us in the past are to continue to serve us in the future.
7. ON KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
Can't afford to live like your affluent neighbors? Instead of feeling insecure, try enjoying life on your own terms and budget, Roosevelt wrote. After all, in an uncertain economy, everyone—even the rich—needs to watch their wallets:
One must set one’s own standards of what one wants in society. One must not be too much influenced by others and above all one must not attempt to strive to match what somebody else is doing. 'Keeping up with the Joneses' is no longer so important because Mr. and Mr. Jones are apt not to be very sure how long they can continue doing what they have always done. It is becoming increasingly evident that what one has matters little; what one is means that one can gather around oneself those who wish to see real people without regard to anything except enjoyable relationships and real personality.
8. ON MAKING FRIENDS
Cultivating a diverse social group broadens your horizons and helps you become a better person, Roosevelt wrote. Make an effort to befriend all sorts of people, and teach your kids the same principle:
The more kinds of people we know, the more interesting will our lives be. And the younger we discover this and bring up our children in an atmosphere of friendliness and to a habit of understanding and congeniality with varied interests and conditions in life, the more vital will be our homes and the better a training place for the children whom we must eventually shove out of the nest.
9. ON DOING YOUR CIVIC DUTY
Not everyone has time to be politically active, but as a U.S. citizen, it's your duty to stay informed and "use [your] vote as intelligently as possible," Roosevelt wrote. Don't vote for a candidate just because your family is, or because of regional prejudices: “A vote is never an intelligent vote when it is cast without knowledge. Just doing what some one else tells you to do without any effort to find out what the facts are for yourself is being a poor citizen.”
And since the book's title is It's Up to the Women, Roosevelt would have been remiss if she hadn't urged women to use their unique perspectives to change the political landscape:
One can have a bloodless revolution if one can count on leaders of sufficient vision to grasp the goal for which the mass of people is often unconsciously striving, and courage enough in the nation as a whole to accept the necessary changes to achieve the desired ends ... Are there women ready to lead in these new paths? Will other women follow them? We do not know, but one thing is sure, the attitude of women toward changes in society is going to determine to a great extent our future in this country. Women in the past have never realized their political strength. Will they wake up to it now?