ELEANOR Roosevelt called her first press conference in the White House on March 6, 1933. Her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had been installed as president on March 4.
She scheduled 348 of these sessions with the "press girls," as she called women reporters. ("Incense burners" is what male reporters called them.) She gave her last press conference April 12, 1945, a few hours before the president died on that day.
You might think transcripts of these sessions would be found in the library at Hyde Park. They are not. Eleanor Roosevelt used to say her papers were of little consequence.
One complete set of transcripts simply vanished.
Scholars of the period (casual readers as well) owe their knowledge of these press conferences to Maurine Beasley, professor at the University of Maryland, who did not start out with the idea of finding and preserving transcripts, but began with an interest in women's roles in America. She started looking into women reporters and was led to Eleanor Roosevelt simply because she was an early supporter of women on newspapers.
She limited her press conferences to women. She did this, she said, partly because she liked the idea of giving women reporters a little bailiwick from which men were excluded. She was firm about this, and one of the wire services had to hire a woman reporter just to keep up with Mrs. R.'s doings.
Although Mrs. Roosevelt opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, she was herself a sufficient example of a woman charging ahead on a dozen fronts to be regarded as a champion of her sex.
Beasley, disappointed not to find a full set of reports on these press conferences, did discover the shorthand notes, quite extensive, of Martha Strayer (who died in 1968) at the University of Wyoming, all of them recorded in the Pittman shorthand system which, surprisingly, Beasley had trouble turning into English. Hardly anybody knows that system now.
She found a treasure in William D. Mohr, reporter for the Senate. He did the laborious work of transcription. Beasley said Strayer's notes were interspersed with grocery lists, etc., but it was not too difficult to separate these from Mrs. Roosevelt's comments.
The women reporters, Beasley said, were protective of Eleanor, and sometimes said "This is off the record, isn't it?" if they thought the first lady was about to say something dumb.
Eleanor's strength was perhaps honesty and an absence of pretense. One of her enthusiasms was Arthurdale, a West Virginia project in which poor people were resettled in houses to begin a new life. A report circulated that the new tenants did not take baths but stored coal in the bathtubs. Mrs. Roosevelt said, when asked to comment:
"I should think it would be very inconvenient to keep the coal in the bathtub. It would mean you have to carry all that coal up and down stairs . . . It would seem to me that it would be better to keep it where it's meant to be kept."
It was often difficult to argue with Mrs. Roosevelt's analysis of a problem.
She answered questions about clothes, beauty parlors (she went to the beauty parlor, they did not come to the White House) and entertaining guests, often with a touch of humor and a hint that more important topics might be the subject of her questioners. But no more than a hint. She understood that some Americans really did give a damn about such things and always answered sincerely.
She did much to make President Roosevelt's projects seem sensible (as millions swore the man was mad) and she particularly did her best to make the country amenable to joining in World War II. The president, no doubt wisely, thought a good bit of propaganda was called for to get the nation ready, since like all presidents he had spoken a good bit about peace. It can still be argued whether his executive leadership in preparing the nation for war was altogether legal--acts such as Lend Lease, for example. Eleanor did much to influence opinion in favor of her husband.
No president's wife ever before or since took such interest in things like the poor, handicapped, and social questions in general. A strong moral sense pervades her press conferences, as it did her daily newspaper columns, but she took care to argue that reforms were reasonable or affordable or prudent rather than that they were morally right.
One thing Beasley's book does is record the frantic pace of Eleanor's schedule. She read in bed at night, every night, but seemed constantly to be on her way to inspect this or that project that interested her, and if not racing about, then she was having people to tea to give them a forum for their ideas on conservation, labor strikes, and everything else.
"The White House Press Conferences of Eleanor Roosevelt" (Garland Publishing Inc.) is not going to be a good seller in today's or any other day's market, and the reader soon has his fill of the first lady's recital of her day's schedule of teas and meetings. All the same, Beasley rescued from obscurity and probable loss this aspect of White House history, and for this deserves thanks.