The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project is a university-chartered research center associated with the Department of History of The George Washington University

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The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project
Questions and Answers about Eleanor Roosevelt

Question: Why is ER often called "FDR's eyes and ears?" Is it a complete description?

Answer:

In the mid-twentieth century, women leaders, especially those who were married to powerful men, were seen as accessories to power. In the Roosevelts' case, both knew that FDR's paralysis made him especially vulnerable to accusations of weakness and hen-pecking. However, they also understood the value that ER brought to political discussions and worked to find a way to justify her behavior in ways that complemented (rather than detracted from) FDR's image.

In the early years of their courtship, FDR accompanied ER on visits to the slums associated with New York's garment district. In the early years of his political career, ER often accompanied FDR on his inspection tours of military installations and veterans' hospitals. After polio struck FDR, his paralysis made it difficult to enter many buildings and, as he preferred not to be seen in a wheelchair, FDR often sent ER to inspect hospitals, prisons, asylums, and other government institutions and programs. Soon both Roosevelts used the term "eyes and ears" to justify ER's incessant travel and inspections. In short, she gained influence by downplaying her influence.

ER became an expert at probing deeply into the conditions she observed and in providing FDR with detailed reports. But she was always her own "eyes and ears" as well and used the facts and impressions she gathered on these tours to inform her impressions of policy and social services. She then used this information to lobby for specific social policy and in educating the public through her writings and lectures.