Carrying a tin box of candied oranges, Eleanor Roosevelt walked toward the White House Red Room to greet the group of 35 journalists, all female.
The women, dressed as if they were attending an afternoon tea, sat down, some on chairs and some on the floor. A nervous Roosevelt, who didn’t know many of the women, passed around the candied oranges to break the ice.
Listen to this story on “Retropod”:
Watching from the doorway was a group of male White House reporters, unhappy that such an event was taking place, displeased that they were excluded, and laughing at the group of “docile news hens” sitting at Roosevelt’s feet.
These gatherings wouldn’t last six months, the manager of the Associated Press concluded.
On March 6, 1933, the new first lady held the first on-the-record news conference by the wife of a president, as recounted by author and speaker Robin Gerber in her book, “Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way.” It was a bold move for Roosevelt to make at that time, just two days after becoming first lady and three days ahead of her husband’s first news conference as president.
Roosevelt, heeding the advice of her friend Lorena Hickok, a reporter, invited only female journalists because only male journalists were allowed at presidential news conferences. As Gerber explained, White House press secretary Stephen Early did not like the idea, but Roosevelt moved forward. She told the reporters that she would “get together” with them once a week.
The March 6 news conference would be the first of many she would host during the entire length of her husband’s 12-year presidency.
Her decision to counter presidential press gatherings with her own paved the way for future first ladies to become more than just symbolic public figures, according to the White House Historical Association. Modern-day first ladies have used their platforms to focus on specific issues. Michelle Obama started an initiative for children to exercise and eat healthier. Laura Bush advocated for education and literacy and used her foreign trips to talk about HIV/AIDS.
First lady Melania Trump announced her initiative at her White House Rose Garden debut Monday. Trump said her “Be Best” awareness campaign will focus on challenges that children face, including opioid abuse and bullying on social media. Trump, unlike Roosevelt, did not take any questions.
Roosevelt’s news conferences also changed the lives and careers of many female journalists, who relished the chance to report on the White House, a job delegated exclusively to male journalists in the past. Some, as Roosevelt said, would’ve been laid off from their jobs during the period’s economic crisis.
“Journalists like everyone else lost jobs during the Great Depression, and so who would be the first to go? Well people who had recently joined the profession and weren’t absolutely vital to the next day’s front page,” Nancy Woloch, an adjunct professor and author of “Eleanor Roosevelt: In Her Words,” told Smithsonian.com. “So women journalists were fearful for their jobs and, one assumes, were able to retain their jobs because of Eleanor, because she provided this news source, which nobody did after her.”
Roosevelt had initially intended to cover topics “of special interest and value to women of the country.” There wouldn’t be talk of politics, she said; that was her husband’s “side of the news.”
“I feel that your position is to try to tell the women throughout the country what you think they should know. … You are the interpreters to the women of the country as to what goes on politically in the legislative national life and also what the social and personal life is at the White House,” Roosevelt told the reporters on that first day.
She began each gathering by talking about her daily schedules. She talked about the prints on the White House walls. She shared low-cost menus for Depression-era households, according to the National Women’s History Museum. She answered questions about her wardrobe and family life.
Roosevelt’s newfound platform would soon prove to be an indispensable window into the workings of the White House.
On March 22, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a measure that amended the National Prohibition Act. Selling 3.2 percent beer was no longer illegal, and the president was asked if he would allow beer to be served at the White House.
“Ask Eleanor,” the president said, according to Gerber’s book.
Ruby Black of the United Press International then rushed to the airport to catch the first lady.
“Will you allow beer to be served at the White House?” Black asked.
She deferred to her husband, prompting the reporter to tell her that her husband had passed on the question to her. Roosevelt laughed and promised to give her answer at her next news conference.
That following Monday, according to Gerber, male reporters begged their female colleagues to fill them in.
Roosevelt soon broadened the scope of her news conferences as reporters pressed her to talk about public policy. She advocated for low-cost housing, equal pay for equal work, pensions and a minimum wage, according to Black. She also brought guests, such as foreign dignitaries who were visiting the White House and female members of the administration.
In March 1934, she visited Puerto Rico and invited some of the female reporters to join her.
She also talked about her trips to foreign countries and shared her thoughts about the war.
“There is a complete change in the way of living for every person in England, not just the workers, not just the middle class, but everybody from top to bottom. … [There is] a sense of cold, a sense of what the blackout means, what it takes to go through it — the cold and the blackout — winter after winter and still keep cheerful, still keep up the universal attitude, ‘We have to get on with this war,’ ” she said on Nov. 18, 1942, shortly after her trip to Britain, a United States ally during World War II.
Roosevelt held her last and 348th news conference on April 12, 1945, a few hours before her husband died in Warm Springs, Ga.