When I think of International Women’s Day, first observed nationally in the U.S. on February 28, 1909, I often consider women who made significant contributions to the state of women before the officially proclaimed day.
One of the most influential of those women was Eleanor Roosevelt.
After Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in as president in March 1933, Eleanor began to transform the conventional role of first lady from social hostess to that of a more visible, active participant in her husband’s administration.
Roosevelt encouraged her husband to appoint more women to federal positions, and she held hundreds of press conferences specifically for female reporters at a time when women were typically barred from White House press conferences. From 1961 until her death the following year, Roosevelt headed the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, at the request of President John Kennedy.
Suffrage in 1920 granted already active women the opportunity to expand their reforms even further into the public sphere. Concerning the vote, Eleanor stated, “I became a much more ardent citizen and feminist than anyone about me in the intermediate years would have dreamed possible. I had learned that if you wanted to institute any kind of reform you could get far more attention if you had a vote than if you lacked one.”
Eleanor Roosevelt came to symbolize the independent and politically active woman of the 20th century. The novice political spouse who once said, “It was a wife’s duty to be interested in whatever interested her husband” had traveled a long and sometimes lonely road. “I could not, at any age, really be contented to take my place in a warm corner by the fireside and simply look on,” she wrote in her final years. This vitality lasted until tuberculosis took her life in 1962.
Ms. Roosevelt’s pioneering attitude set the example for women today who continue to dedicate themselves to pursuing equality and each year celebrate International Women’s Day on March 9.
I think that many of us are unaware of what a challenge it must have been before the Feminist Movement for women to pursue equality. When I attended Ryerson Polytechnic Institute from 1961 to 1964 to get my diploma in Business Administration, I was the only woman in a class of over 100 men. Near the end of my final year, 1964, when Corporate Canada was interviewing the graduating class, I received only one job offer, compared to the men in my program who received upwards of 10 offers. I had one recruiter say “Why don’t you just get married?” And this was in 1964.
If I encountered in the 1960s the continuing bias against women of influence, I can’t imagine what Eleanor Roosevelt faced. She pursued her passion to find equality for her female peers against much stronger criticism than I experienced.
If it hadn’t been for her crusading, there likely would not have been the growth of the desire of women to become equals in all aspects of their lives. There might not have been the Feminist Movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that propelled women forward internationally in all aspects of their lives. And without the Feminist Movement, would there ever have been an International Women’s Day to mark our progress? Not likely.
International Women’s Day celebrates the strides, the accomplishments, the march toward total equality that women have made in the past 100 years. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the early champions, one of the most visible champions, one of the most influential champions. Without Ms. Roosevelt’s pioneering, people certainly would not be enjoying the celebration of International Women’s Day. Her advocacy promoted recognition of the need for equality for women and International Women’s Day reflects many of her hopes for women of her time and women of the future.
Eleanor Roosevelt not only set the stage for women’s equality, she also gave women an incredible role model.