Would Eleanor Roosevelt Support Occupy Wall Street?

Dec 7, 2011Suzanne Kahn

She left clues in her advice columns about how she viewed activism aimed at changing entrenched policy.

In 1941, readers of the Ladies' Home Journal found out that Eleanor Roosevelt did not like mice, "but I do not shriek when I see one." In 1945, she told them that their husbands should help them with their dishes because, "I think anything connected with the home is as much the husband's work as the wife's." They learned all this and much more in Eleanor's monthly advice column.

Although it's not discussed nearly as often as her syndicated newspaper column, "My Day," Eleanor wrote an advice column for women's magazines from 1941 until 1962. For two decades, women asked her about how they should handle daughters who couldn't attract boyfriends, how she managed her budget, and what they should make of the major political issues of their day. By looking at some of the advice she doled out, it may be possible to piece together what she would have to say about the political issue of our day: Occupy Wall Street.

In 1962, she answered a question about another set of mass protests -- the anti-nuclear rallies of 1961 and 1962. Asked if she saw any value in women's groups marching in front of the White House for peace, she wrote:

The average person has a sense of frustration because he can think of no way to express to his government or to the world at large his desires for peaceful solutions to the difficulties that confront us. The demonstrations you mention are important if only because they dramatize the lack of more useful ways for people to show their devotion to the cause of peace. (McCall's, May 1962).

Similarly, in 1961 Eleanor also wrote about the frustration individuals felt about not being able to do more to prevent nuclear war. In "My Day" she wrote that the best an individual could do was "register...with our government a firm protest."

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OWS confronts massive inequality, not nuclear war and world peace, but Eleanor's take on the meaning and importance of protest in the face of overwhelming issues hits the nail on the head. OWS provides the average person with a way to express frustration and register a firm protest about an unfair economy. Critics have demanded that OWS propose solutions, but Eleanor might have pointed out that OWS makes clear the important point that there aren't easy, direct ways for the average person to fix the economy.

Viewed this way, OWS is doing something both Eleanor Roosevelt and the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s really understood: consciousness raising. Consciousness raising was a method of political mobilization developed by feminists in the late 1960s and 1970s. Formally begun by women's liberation groups, consciousness raising groups allowed women to share personal experiences and frustrations and come to understand that these were not isolated instances, but part of a larger pattern of political relationships that defined women's personal lives. Many feminists embraced consciousness raising methods because they hoped the realizations they inspired would move women to more concrete political action.

Consciousness raising came after Eleanor's time, but her advice column shows she understood the basic idea. Her column allowed women to see that their personal problems were shared. Eleanor urged her readers to take political action to address their concerns.

OWS similarly suggests that people consider how their personal challenges are rooted in political problems. "We are the 99 percent" invites people to identify with the protesters and think about how an unfair economy affects individual lives. Anyone who has been to an OWS rally has seen signs that do exactly that -- share their maker's own story about student debt, medical debt, etc. Consciousness raising is an important first step for many movements. The trick now is to find those more directly "useful" ways for people with raised consciousness to show their devotion to the cause.

Suzanne Kahn is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and a Ph.D. student in history at Columbia University.

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