Thirty-six years before Geraldine Ferraro stood at a podium in San Francisco to accept the vice presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, there were rumors that a tall, rather ascetic widow who stuffed prayers into her handbag might become the first woman to run for that office.
Oddly enough, it was Clare Boothe Luce, a conservative Republican, who wrote that to nominate Eleanor Roosevelt would "raise the woman issue . . . To put a woman on the ticket would challenge the loyalty of women everywhere to their sex, because it would be made to seem that the defeat of the ticket meant the defeat for a hundred years of women's chance to be truly equal with men in politics."
Some felt that Luce was merely trying to cause friction between President Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt. Their relationship was often testy and subtly combative and the Republicans would profit if the situation worsened. But in any case, there it was. A proposal of great proportion.
"There certainly was talk of putting Eleanor Roosevelt on the ticket in 1948," said historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. at "The Vision of Eleanor Roosevelt: Past, Present and Future." The four-day conference honoring the centennial of Eleanor Roosevelt's birth convened Saturday on the Vassar campus. "She didn't pursue it because she simply didn't believe the country was ready for it. But she would have rejoiced in the choice of Geraldine Ferraro."
Indeed, it was Eleanor Roosevelt herself who said, "It isn't that women haven't the brains or the ability or the physical strength to dominate. It is that they want the world the way it is and for the most part are content . . . I have a firm belief in the ability and power of women to achieve the things they want to achieve. It is a man's world now, however, and will be just as long as the women want it to be."
"Mrs. Roosevelt was of politcs, but not in them," said Joseph P. Lash, the author of "Eleanor and Franklin" and its sequel, "Eleanor: the Years Alone."
Schlesinger and Joseph L. Rauh Jr., the cofounder with Eleanor Roosevelt of Americans for Democratic Action, spent part of Saturday afternoon poking around inside the trailer of a 16-wheeler parked outside a dormitory. The trailer was filled with memorabilia celebrating the centennial year.
As a tape recording of Roosevelt's voice wafted through the truck, Rauh pondered Eleanor Roosevelt's "feminism." It is a thorny, controversial question. While the extreme right thought her more than a bit soft on communism, the extreme left often felt she was a patrician, an anachronism, a doughty do-gooder who would not call herself a "feminist."
"If Eleanor Roosevelt were alive today, she would have had three cheers for Geraldine Ferarro," Rauh said. "The funny thing is, by being one of the first feminists, Mrs. Roosevelt may have worked first ladies out of a job. Ferraro and other women who run for national office may make it impossible for first ladies to occupy the sort of position that Eleanor Roosevelt held in the White House. Mrs. Roosevelt filled a vacuum that shouldn't have been there."
Schlesinger was less willing to tie Eleanor Roosevelt with the modern feminist initiatives. "It seems pointless to me to decide whether or not she was a feminist by creed," he said. "She was an example, a person of her times. She did more for women by example than the professional feminists did by their arguments."
And in his address at the opening session of the conference, Schlesinger said, "She was not what her husband and Louis Howe called, without affection, a 'she-male.' . . . She opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, as did Francis Perkins, Helen Gahagan Douglas and most liberal women of the time, on the ground that until female workers were better organized, they needed the protective legislation for which a generation of social reformers had worked so hard."
"Oh, well," Rauh mused. "Arthur is a historian. It's his job to be scrupulous. He can say those things. I think Eleanor Roosevelt was a goddess. And a feminist one, too."
The American Culture Department at Vassar offers a seminar on the life and work of Eleanor Roosevelt. The college is in its October break now and few students were among the audience at the various weekend events, but Laura Carter of Silver Spring is taking the seminar and the conference quite seriously.
"The conference is an amazing bonus," she said. "I think we've learned that first and foremost she was a feminist, one of the greatest of the 20th century. She always down-played her role, but it was amazing what she could accomplish. People really did write her letters scrawled on paper bags asking her for one thing or another. She would make sure that these people would get the help they needed."
Marque Mirningoff, a sociology professor who helped organize the conference and also teaches the seminar, said, "Eleanor Roosevelt was a lightning rod for women. What we're trying to communicate in the course is the relationship between her biography and the historical events that took place around it."
The Vassar conference is the culmination of a score of activities that have taken place this year to commemorate Eleanor Roosevelt's birth on Oct. 11, 1884. There will be seminars and panel discussions on her involvement in women's rights, human rights, Israel, economics and youth.
The college is just a short drive away from Val-Kill, the 179-acre estate that Eleanor Roosevelt used as a refuge from Hyde Park and her frequently hostile mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt. After FDR's death in 1945, she used the estate as her permanent home. "At Val-Kill," she once wrote, "I emerged as an individual."
This week the foliage on the maple, oak and hickory trees in Duchess County is an unending blaze of color. The few students who are left on campus pad around in pink and gray sweatsuits (the school colors) or try in vain to plow through thick 19th-century novels while sitting on lawns strewn with crisp leaves. In this pastoral setting, a stream of public figures and supporters are trying, in Edna Silber's words, "to keep Mrs. Roosevelt's flame burning."
On Thursday, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo dedicated Val-Kill as a National Historic Site. "If we had a process of secular canonization," Cuomo said, "there would be no candidate surer of success than she."
And on Friday, four generations of Roosevelts gathered at Val-Kill for a family reunion. "This centennial year is helping to focus public opinion a little on the goals that mother and father shared," said Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. "It's a good time for it, really. This is a time when many people are stumbling towards unadulterated materialism and forgetting the moral, ethical and human problems the world faces."
The presidential campaign this year has featured both parties alluding to the Roosevelt presidency in glowing terms. But there were no Reagan-Bush buttons to be found here. When one of the speakers made a slight reference to the Reagan administration, a member of the audience let go a hostile hiss. The crowd was decidedly Democratic. Hundreds of men and women had blue and red Mondale-Ferraro medallions poked into their tweeds.
"The commission that organized this conference is non-partisan," said Trude Lash, the chairman of the Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and the wife of Joseph Lash. "Mrs. Reagan invited our people to a luncheon, of course, but it's clear that Mrs. Roosevelt stood more for the things that Mondale-Ferraro do than the other side does. That's why you see all these buttons."
Joseph Lash said the last time he was a keynote speaker at the Vassar chapel was in 1937 when he returned from Spain and urged the leftist American Student Union to denounce isolationism and the growth of fascism in Europe. When Lash was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Eleanor Roosevelt advised him on how to testify. They were friends until her death in 1962 at the age of 78.
Shortly after FDR died, Eleanor Roosevelt held a small press conference aboard the Queen Elizabeth which was carrying the United States delegation to the first session of the United Nations General Assembly in London. One of her off-the-record comments reveals, perhaps, just how much she savored her ability to play a role in public life without holding elected office. "For the first time in my life I can say what I want. For your information it is wonderful to feel free."
She was free of the restraints of the White House, free to work for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the U.N., free to fight for the creation of Israel and free to support John Kennedy and battle with Carmine De Sapio and Cardinal Spellman. And most of all she was free to develop herself into a symbol of compassion that inspired millions.
Lash recalled a famous Herblock cartoon in which a young girl and her mother are standing in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
"Look mother!" the child cries. "It's Mrs. Roosevelt!"