Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt
and Rotary International
Eleanor Roosevelt, from a PBS American Experience TV program
In the April 1940 issue of The Rotarian, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an article, complete with almost a dozen photographs, to increase America’s consciousness about the ravages of the Great Depression, which were still affecting many Americans. Obviously, her article referred to a major “New Deal” program, the WPA (Works Projects Administration). President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was at the end of his second term in office (he would be elected for four terms, but die in office) and the administration was still trying everything they could to end the Depression.

Rotary, and the Rotarian, were more than happy to extend to the administration and Eleanor Roosevelt all courtesies, as it was in everyone’s interest to recover from the economic problems that still plagued the United States, almost nine years after the October 29 stock market crash. Rotary gave the “power of the press” to FDR efforts, and, less than two years later, when America was dragged into World War II, Rotary was encouraged to keep meeting and get involved, and Rotary responded, primarily with War Bond sales. While she wasn’t the first woman to be closely identified with Rotary, Jean Harris and Lillian Davidson being two important examples, Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most important. Her article appears here in its entirety.

Eleanor Roosevelt on:

Helping Them to Help Themselves

Eleanor Roosevelt, from a PBS American Experience TV programSOME of us who have been going around America are impressed with the fact that one type of organization might possibly be a real help in carrying people through hard times without needing so much Government assistance. It requires, however, a consciousness on the part of the whole community that there are difficulties to be solved and a willingness to set its shoulders to the wheel and help to solve them. The particular activity I have in mind is the self-help cooperative. To many people that is just a name and means very little, but to some people, it means the preservation of self-respect, the development of a new skill or the practice of an old one, and a chance to start out again with a background of security.

The first self-help cooperative that I remember hearing much about was the one established in Richmond, Virginia. The principle of the self-help cooperative is that anyone, old or young, if he has need to do so, may come in and work, and that his work hours will be exchanged for scrip which can, in turn, be exchanged for commodities and services performed by others, also members of the cooperative. In 1938 in the Richmond Citizens' Service Exchange, 211,300 hours were worked by the members. For this work, scrip was issued to the workers and they exchanged it for food, clothing, shoes, bedding and fuel wood.

In some places even shelter may be provided in this way, and frequently beauty-parlor work and barbering are done. In order to do this, all these activities must be carried on in the exchange, which means, for instance, that if you have a man who is capable of being a baker, you must give him a bake oven and the material for making bread. So the community must be conscious enough of the need to furnish the bake oven and the materials for bread. The baker, in return for his hours of labor, may want to buy a suit. Some other person who gets his bread in the exchange will have spent his hours of labor in repairing, cleaning, and pressing a suit which somebody in the community has not needed and has therefore turned in to the self-help cooperative to be renovated for someone who does need it. You see you cannot start a self-help cooperative with nothing.

The more things the people who come in are able to do, the more things you have to get from the community in order to enable them to go to work. For example, if you have good laundry workers, somebody has to donate laundry machinery; if you have people who know how to make and upholster furniture, somebody has to donate the necessary machinery. But in the end these people who work in the exchange do not suffer from the stigma of being unemployed and on relief.

USA Work Program logoOf course, on the Works Projects Administration (WPA) there should be no sense of stigma, because one gives work in return for what he gets, but I am sorry to say that in many places I have found deep resentment at the attitude of those who interview WPA workers. On the other side of the picture, there is a resentment on the part of many people toward the WPA worker, which prevents him from getting a job on the outside, which he could frequently fill and would give a great deal to obtain.

IN THE self-help cooperative these feelings are not present. What is furnished by the community is usually material which would otherwise be wasted, and, except in the case of money granted by the Government or by some other source to pay for trained supervision or for certain definite expenses which cannot be eliminated, there is very little direct tax in the way of cash taken from the taxpayer.

The Richmond Citizens' Service Exchange served as a model for the establishment in Washington, D. C., of a self-help exchange, though it has developed differently to fit the needs of a different community. In 1939 this exchange gave work to between 600 and 680 people a month. In 1939, 422,554 hours of work were provided. It is interesting to see the ways in which those workers spent the scrip earned: 181,524 pieces were spent for meals and bread; 103,553 pieces for clothing and such household supplies as sheets, towels, and table linen; 27,354 for furniture and furniture repair; 15,884 for fuel; 13,023 for shoe repair; 10,547 for barbering and beauty-shop services.

In that list of scrip spent, which represents hours of labor, is the tale of the possibility of getting a new job. If you can get something to eat, even if it is not entirely adequate, if you can get new clothes and have your shoes repaired, and go to a barber or a hairdresser, you can start again on the job-hunting business in the frame of mind, which gets a job. Self-help, like WPA, is something to tide us over until the nations of this world solve their economic problems and recognize the fact that no civilization can possibly survive which does not furnish every individual who wishes to work a job at wages on which he can live decently.

I grew up in an era when I remember hearing many people say with some contempt that this or that individual felt the world owed him a living. The idea was that the individual in question was unwilling to work and that, therefore, society had no obligations toward him. I am inclined to agree with the idea, but we are up against a different problem now.

Most of the people who are out of work are ready and willing to work. You and I can pick-out, of course, individuals who like to live on other people's labor and who perhaps have to be forced to work. The great majority of people who are not ill or too old are ready and anxious to work, however, and in this curiously complicated civilization, which we have created through the centuries, there is no work for them to do. We ought to change that old saying and say that a civilization and an economic system which does not recognize its responsibility to answer this question of how work at a living wage can be furnished every individual, should be held in as great contempt as we used to hold the individual who had the attitude that he could go through life effortlessly and expect the world to look after him.

The self-help cooperative has no use for anyone who is not willing to do a good day's work, but the cooperative has this advantage- every age is served alike. In different parts of the United States self-help has been a spontaneous response of workers to prolonged unemployment. Both in Richmond and in Washington, D. C., it was initiated by people who saw that it might solve certain difficulties and wished to make a demonstration of what could be done; so that in these two instances it has not sprung up so clearly from the people themselves.

I have seen it, however, with curious vitality, spring up in places where you would expect to find utter discouragement and loss of all initiative. Such things as this have happened: unemployed workers have borrowed idle tractors and asked near-by farmers if they would take their labor for unsold potatoes. It is just going back to the early days of America and using mother wit and neighborliness to keep alive.

During the last seven years, for the first time, these sporadic efforts of idle workers have been systematized and certain precise economic aims and definite techniques of operation have been worked out, and in certain of these the Government has supplied funds with which to buy necessary tools; Self-help cooperatives should be looked upon as a protection for industrial workers who are subject to the present extremes which require in many industries at times a maximum of employment and at other times throwing great numbers of people back on their own resources. In another field, the Farm Security Administration, an effort has been made to help the small farmer provide himself with a broad base of real income by expanding his productive activities so as to supplement his cash income in good years and in bad years to make him more self-sustaining.

THE LAST Government grants to these self-help cooperatives were made in 1936, and 125 exchanges are still in existence and going strong. The essential activities are always the production of food, the cutting of fuel wood, and the making of clothing, but many other things have been done in different parts of the country, such as dairying, poultry raising, fishing, plumbing, carpentry, baking, operating cafeterias and beauty shops, and repairing automobiles, radios, and shoes.

The Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia, was based on much the same barter idea which furnished the springboard for nearly all self-help cooperatives, and have never forgotten a delightful story I heard told at a luncheon a year ago by Robert Porterfield. He told of looking out of the window and seeing a man and his wife and a cow standing outside the theater. Shortly the man came in and inquired how much milk would be needed for a ticket to the show. He was told and went out and brought the milk in. Mr. Porterfield asked if the farmer's wife was not to be allowed to attend also, and he answered, "Sure, but I ain't doing her milking for her."

So you see, everybody must do his own work, but the cooperative spirit, which underlies the whole movement, is valuable education for a democracy. Every day you work you realize that you cannot work for yourself alone, but all the other workers must be producing too in order that you may barter for what you wish and need. The more you help the others, the more you really gain yourself. Good doctrine to inculcate in the citizens of a great democracy!

It seems foolish to have to repeat that the cooperative does not compete with factory production, but it is necessary to say so over and over again apparently. Industry has at times been fearful lest these self-help groups might become a menace, but, after all, they need these workers at times and they need workers who have skills and who are accustomed to work with good equipment.

IN A WAY, the running of a self-help exchange is insurance for industry that its workers will not come back rusty and have to be reeducated in their work when they are needed. What they produce in the exchange is for consumption among themselves. With no income they could not buy from the outside. If they were not working in the exchange, they would be a complete charge upon the community.

This would not perhaps be serious if it meant that you could take care of them through relief in the cheapest way possible for a short time and that then they would return at the call of industry to their usual jobs, but that is not what happens as a rule. If they are idle, they are underfed. Their families lack food, a decent home, and a chance for recreation, and so disintegration begins. A young criminal may develop in a family, which has never had that kind of a blot before; some of the children may develop tuberculosis. When a worker is called back. His background, his own condition, unfits him to be of any value.

This is the thing, which too few people think about, when they count the cost of giving men and women work in self-help exchanges or even on WPA or any place, which is not the usual form of employment in either urban or rural localities.

I do not see how it is possible to study the results of the self-help exchanges without being anxious to see this work supported and extended. True, there have been some failures, frequently because of lack of leadership or lack of knowledge on the part of the community or group working out their particular community problem. We need to give more study and thought to helping people to help themselves, and that is why I hope that communities all over the United States will take an interest in self-help cooperatives.

To learn more about Eleanor Roosevelt's writing and the "New Deal" additional photos, this article and much more.

Hear Mrs. Roosevelt speak, (Real Player file)

"The only way to obtain peace in the world is to work cooperatively toward that end." (April 6, 1937)

In her years as an outspoken first lady and delegate to the United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most respected women in the world. She was a symbol of the new role women were to play in the world, and her major legacy, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, remains an ideal to which the world still strives. The niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, she married her distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt in 1905. After Franklin fell ill with polio in 1921, she became involved in Democratic politics, and her activities helped stimulate and renew her husband's political interests.

In 1932, New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt was elected to the White House, and Eleanor began her 12 years as first lady. Not one to live by convention, she was the nation's first openly political first lady, working tirelessly as a defender of equal rights and opportunities for the nation's poor and dispossessed. Beginning in 1936, she wrote a nationally syndicated column called "My Day," which addressed many of the pressing political issues of the times. She often traveled alone on behalf of her disabled husband and was a much sought-after speaker.

After President Roosevelt died in 1945, his successor, President Harry Truman, appointed her as a delegate to the newly formed United Nations. From 1946 to 1951 she was chairman of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. On December 10, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly unanimously adopted her commission's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sought to establish basic criteria of civil rights for all the people of the world. Roosevelt left the U.N. in 1952 (returning temporarily in 1961) and continued to be active in politics. She died in 1962.

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