It was a childhood you wouldn't wish on anyone. The girl was born on Oct. 11, 1884, into a confounding world of privilege and deprivation. She was rejected by a mother who called her "granny." She idolized a father who was at once loving and unstable. Orphaned by the age of 10, she went to live under the roof and rules of a grandmother so rigid that the girl rebelled by adding a bit of warm water to a cold bath.
The creature of this comfortlessness later described herself as "a solemn child, without beauty. I seemed like a little old woman entirely lacking in the spontaneous joy and mirth of youth." As a cousin put it, "It was the grimmest childhood I had ever kown."
Yet, out of this, Eleanor Roosevelt became, quite simply, the greatest American woman of the century.
Those of us who pay homage at the centennial of this woman's birth, those of us who admire her, live now in a rampantly psychiatric age. We have the conceit that adult life is predictable to any nursery school observer. Yet who could have predicted Eleanor, the First Lady of the World?
Today, our baby talk is psychobabble. We hover over our children, filling out psychological checklists, armed with books that presume to tell us how to carefully nurture children to be achievers. We are afraid they'll be bruised. We forget that, finally, each person creates his or her own life. Surely the battered girl named Eleanor did.
This same psychiatric age, puffed up with the insights of hindsight, has chosen now to analyze Eleanor Roosevelt's public life as "compensation" for private disappointments. It is only part of the truth. Herrole as a mother was surely undermined by the dominating mother-in-law who told Eleanor's children, "Your mother only bore you." Her marriage never fully recovered from her husband's affair with Lucy Mercer, or from the gradual drift of two such different personalities. It made sense to search for meaning outside of her family circle.
But Eleanor Roosevelt's greatness didn't come from finding herself. It came from transcending herself. She didn't have a well-adjusted personality. She had character. Her work was not just thwarted love projected onto the world. It was a life lived on principle.
The woman who did not begin her work outside the home until she was nearly 40, and who never held a formal title until she was a widow, was a professional goad, a citizen busybody. Her own enormous energy, inherited from her uncle Teddy, meshed with the moment of tremendous national need, a Depression followed by a world war. In the early days of the New Deal, she transformed the job of First Lady into one of advocate, taking up the cause of one beleaguered group after another.
She had two tools for her work. The first was access to a president-husband about whom she once wrote, "He might have been happier with a wife who had been completely uncriticial . . . . Nevertheless, I think that I sometimes acted as a spur."
The second was the power of her own conscience. It was her sense of duty that sent Eleanor Roosevelt to the mining communities and pockets of Depression poverty. It was her sense of righteousness that forced Eleanor Roosevelt to place her seat between the black and white aisles of a segregated southern conference in 1939. It was her sense of justice that pushed a Declaration of Human Rights through the contentious United Nations in 1948. She couldn't see a problem without asking: "Can't something be done?"
As the most public woman of her era, Eleanor Roosevelt was mercilessly reviled and admired for breaking female traditions. The woman who once opposed suffrage became the most visible model of what women could do in public life.
A hundred years after her birth, we tend to privatize public lives, to see every social critic in terms of his or her personal pain. We turn politics into psychobiography. Our psychiatric scalpel can cut people down below size. Instead of increasing our understanding, we may inhibit it.
"The influence you exert is through your own life and what you've become yourself," wrote this self-made woman. There are times when we forget the weight of will and principle in the midst of our infatuation with "urges" and "motives."
At her memorial service Adlai Stevenson said, "What other single human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many? She walked in the slums . . . of the world, not on a tour of inspection . . . but as one who could not feel contentment when others were hungry." This is a moment to remember not the disappointments, not the sadness, but the power of an idealist.