Much has been written about Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady who became an activist and advocate for the powerless. Hers is a remarkable story of courage and resiliency: born into a politically ambitious family (her uncle was Theodore Roosevelt), her father was sent to an insane asylum to “cure” his alcoholism; she was orphaned by the age of 10, and then shuttled among relatives until she met and married her distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, in 1905.
Naturally shy, she was forced to take a more public role after her husband was stricken by polio in 1921: in order to keep his political dreams reachable, she acted as her husband’s surrogate for several years while he tried, unsuccessfully, to recover fully. Her efforts began to reap benefits when Franklin was elected governor of New York in 1928. Ironically, by the time Franklin was elected President in 1932, Eleanor was so comfortable in her public role – giving speeches, campaigning for her husband and other Democratic candidates, and advocating for women and minorities- that she dreaded having to take on the traditional role of First Lady (hosting dinners and teas, visiting schools and hospitals, and smiling at every utterance of the President). Fortunately, her husband recognized what an asset his wife was, and he supported her activities outside the White House.
“You must do the thing you think you cannot do” – Eleanor Roosevelt
After FDR’s death in April 1945, Eleanor once again assumed that her political and public roles were finished, but that was not to be so. FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, appointed her as a delegate to the new United Nations, and Eleanor authored one of the most significant documents of the 20th century – the International Declaration of Human Rights.
She also remained a force to be reckoned with in the Democratic Party, and it was an unspoken requirement that any Democrat seeking the presidency had to gain the approval of Eleanor Roosevelt – as did Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. When Eleanor died in 1962, world leaders, governors, and prominent politicians and diplomats attended her funeral.
However, there was another Roosevelt woman who, for over 30 years, was also considered an important political force: Alice Roosevelt, the eldest daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. Born a few months before Eleanor, Alice also knew loss: her mother died a few hours after giving birth to her, Alice’s only daughter committed suicide at the age of 26, and Alice lost three of her half-brothers prematurely. (Theodore and his second wife, Edith, had five children: Ted, who died during the Normandy invasion in 1944 in France, Kermit, who committed suicide after years of fighting depression and alcoholism in 1943, Archie, and Quentin, who was shot down in France in 1918, and a daughter, Ethel).
Alice, who was three when her father remarried, never felt part of the Roosevelt family. She bristled at her stepmother’s attempts to guide her, and she argued with her father about everything from her secret smoking to the expenses of her wardrobe. She ignored her curfew (and as “First Daughter”, that became something of a scandal) and flirted openly with men. However, her media-savvy father recognized that his eldest daughter could also bring positive publicity, and he consented to her giving interviews to reporters.
The newspapers labeled her “Princess Alice”, and her wardrobe and activities were widely recorded. Her father sent her, as his representative, on a Pacific tour with his new navy (the Great White Fleet), during which Alice visited Japan and China. Theodore Roosevelt also allowed reporters to cover her White House wedding to Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth in 1906; sadly, at the end of the ceremony, when Theodore left the reception, so did everyone else, leaving the bride and her groom abandoned.
Alice’s marriage quickly deteriorated, as she discovered her husband was a philanderer and alcoholic; she turned her energies toward politics. By the time her father decided to seek the Presidency as a third-party candidate in 1912, he relied upon Alice to edit and shape his speeches, quietly negotiate with other politicians behind the scenes, and give him her blunt reactions to his actions. Theodore Roosevelt lost his 1912 bid, but Alice continued to support her father’s political ambitions through the rest of his life. After his death in 1919, Alice became a staunch advocate for her brother Ted’s political ambitions; she campaigned for him when he ran (unsuccessfully) for governor of New York in 1924. None of her brothers, though, were successful politicians, and Alice was really the one with the political instincts – and ruthlessness – but she was a woman ahead of her time. Women just gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1920, and few women had elected positions at the state or federal level.
Alice was a fierce critic of the other Roosevelt – FDR. Although she was included in family dinners at the White House during FDR’s 12 years as President, she continued to criticize Eleanor and Franklin, and hated FDR’s New Deal. She deeply resented his insistence that he was carrying on the Progressive policies of her late father, and wrote newspaper columns and articles attacking New Deal policies. While she had a quick wit, Alice could also be very petty, even making nasty comments about FDR at a family wedding.
“If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me” – Alice Roosevelt Longworth
But Alice, unlike Eleanor, always seemed to be on the wrong side of history after 1920. Her newspaper column was dropped by 1940, and after WWII, Alice retreated from public life. She raised her only grandchild after her daughter’s death in 1951, and while she was still regularly invited to dinners and parties, politicians regarded her with amusement, not respect.
Alice died at the age of 96 in Washington, D.C.
Two Roosevelt women, two cousins, Eleanor and Alice. Two modern women who tried to shape their worlds.