If You Ask Me by Eleanor Roosevelt

If You Ask Me
by Eleanor Roosevelt

May 1941



"Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: What can I do? I feel that the women and girls of this country ought to be doing something just as well as the young men, but I don't know just what to do. I am nineteen and my young man has just gone to camp, and it doesn't seem right for me to sit at home and go around doing the same things I have always done."

Granted that a year of service for boys is finally satisfactorily adjusted, I personally hope that a year of compulsory service will also be considered for girls. I do not, of course, think of girls as taking the same training, or doing the same kind of work that the boys will probably do, nor do I think of them serving in camps. However, just as there are boys whose interests and capacities vary, so have girls varied interests and capacities. I think the opportunity should be offered to girls to work and train themselves along many different lines.

To be specific, I think of girls doing their year of service, in large part, in their own communities. For instance, they could obtain training in a local hospital during part of the year. In this way not one, but two things might be achieved. The girl would be getting something which would be valuable in her own life in the community later on. The hospital would be better able to meet the needs of the community because of the service which she could give. I have seen many a woman facing an illness of a husband or a child with trepidation because she did not even know how to take a temperature or what an ear syringe looked like. A little early training in sanitation, home nursing and diet would make a great difference in the health of the nation as a whole.

I should like to see set up, in the schools, highly efficient courses in home economics. The schools could be used as laboratories by providing free hot lunches for every child, or the girls could run school cafeterias by way of practice in properly feeding groups of people. This again would achieve a double end by improving the health of the children of the community, and by giving the girls the knowledge and experience which would help them to raise the standards of their own future homes.

I know of a community in which cooking for the nursery school was the first time that some of the mothers had any intimation that such things as cold coffee and pancakes were not desirable diets for one and two year old children.

This course should teach buying and cooking for large numbers. Such preparation might be valuable in cases of evacuation of people, either because of fire or flood or disaster of any kind, even including war.

In order to vary the training, some girls could work out budgets for different income levels and run an ordinary sized family on such budgets as part of their training. Of course, you may say that for some girls, who are never actually going to cook the meals for their families later on, this kind of training would not be useful. I insist that it is useful training for any girl, even if she never cooks another meal in her whole life. It gives a girl a sense of self confidence. Further, it makes her better able to judge other people's work when and if she is later an employer. If a girl is going into business or one of the professions, it trains her in the planning of her time and in the handling of people. Both these things are important, no matter what she does during the rest of her life.

In rural areas, farm-management courses in schools would be valuable. I believe that a sense of the value of co-operation could be learned through such courses. For example, gardens could be grown co-operatively for the hot school lunches. Every person in the community could feel that she was contributing in this way toward the better health of the children in her community. I have seen projects of this kind used to increase the practical knowledge of the use of co-operatives. I think this would be of value to people in urban as well as rural areas.

I can imagine that some girls might want mechanical training of some kind, which might be better acquired in resident centers such as the National Youth Administration has already set up. That would, of course, be optional; but if a girl wished to go there, she could obtain training for a job, in case of an emergency, ordinarily filled by a man. And there is mechanical work suited to a woman's ability in many peacetime industries.

As a matter of fact, I saw ten girls on an NYA project in Boston, Massachusetts, who were learning to make some parts for trucks for the use of the city government. I was told that a larger project was being set up where girls would be taught how to assemble these machines before they went to work on them. There was certainly nothing beyond the physical ability of any girl in this work; and with the opportunities opening up in the future, an increase in mechanical skill seems to me wise for girls if they are interested in this type of training. Many a housewife would find it extremely valuable and economical if she could make small repairs in her own home. And I have seen women who were handier with tools than some men!

I can hear some of my young friends, particularly those so influenced by certain political beliefs, bringing up the question as to why this year's service should be compulsory. They would claim that this is a Fascist or Nazi scheme leading us straight to the system of German work camps. I feel that these young people, and even some of the other people who think the same way, are ignorant of the principles of democracy.

Thomas Jefferson himself believed in a compulsory school law. We have accepted that compulsion as an ideal ever since the public-school system was originally established. In fact, the idea that education belonged solely to the privileged class is one of the beliefs which democracy has attempted to destroy. If we compel our children, for their own good, to go to school, I see nothing undemocratic in giving the people of the country an opportunity to decide at the polls whether they believe a year's service at a given age for the boys and girls of the nation would be of value to them as individuals and to the nation as a whole.

I believe that girls, if it is decided to require of them a year of service, should be placed on exactly the same footing as men, and they should be given the same subsistence and the same wage.

Of course, if a girl lives at home, what is allowed the boys as subsistence in camps should be allowed to the home for the girl's subsistence, and she should receive the same cash remuneration which the boys receive. The difference in the type of service rendered makes no real difference, and they are entitled to remuneration on the same basis as the young men.

This year of service should give us an opportunity to check on the health of our girls also, and we should be able to remedy defects which might have been overlooked in the preceding years.

It should also give girls a good opportunity for understanding what democracy really means. Girls are the potential mothers of the future generation, and with a full realization of what democracy means, what its obligations and responsibilities are, they can teach the children at home to supplement what is taught, or what we hope will be taught, in our schools.

This year of service should give our girls new friends and a wider knowledge of the people who make up this country. They will learn to co-operate in work and in play.

All of this could be accomplished on a voluntary basis, but it would not be. My main reason for believing that it is important to have this year of service compulsory is that I believe so much in the value of knowing many sides of our national life. While I know quite well that there are a good many of our young people who would gladly volunteer for this year of service, I also know that there are a considerable number who would not volunteer. They constitute the very group who force the majority of the nation to make the opportunity for training and education compulsory.

Another important reason why girls should give a year of service to our country is that through so many years we have been constantly increasing our placid acceptance of what the men in our country provided, and that frequently includes their participation in government and their defense of us in wars. Wars today are back where they used to be, and women stand side by side with the men.

Our forefathers fought a daily fight for the preservation of their hard-won liberty. The women of the pioneer days stood side by side with their husbands, shared every hardship, and were often left to fight the battle of life all alone.

We accepted our freedom as a gift from the pioneers and from heaven, and yet it is more than evident today that there are constant assaults on our liberty, perhaps not the least of which is our own apathy. If we wish democracy to survive we must be constantly alive to the many-sided battle we wage.

Take the question of freedom of religion. That was established in our Constitution. It made our country a haven for persecuted people, but feeling runs high today—against Roman Catholics in certain sections, and against Jews in other places. We are a nation of many races and yet there is feeling against the Negroes. I have heard different derogatory names applied to various other racial groups, and this scorn of different races is tied up closely with religious intolerance. All intolerance is based on fear, and fear is usually a lack of understanding. The elimination of these threats to our freedom requires a continuous battle on our part for the principles of democracy.

I feel, therefore, that young people who have worked and played and lived together in groups in communities or in camps for the period of a year will understand one another better throughout their lives.

There would be no strikes, for instance, in which the public would not know on which side it stood, and would not speedily force a conclusion through the weight of public opinion. The fear which now seems part of the psychology of the young people, as well as of the older generation, would speedily depart from their consciousness. They would realize how little real security there is in the world unless we create it, and that that security is bound up with the better co-operation which must exist between all individuals in the community, in the state and in the nation.

In the case of a real emergency such as we are facing at present, of course, older people and even young people below draft age should be willing to render whatever services they are qualified to give, but today I am not discussing what I consider home defense for an emergency period. I am writing of what I consider participation in home defense should be as we look at the future. It should include training for our girls, and a thorough understanding on their part of democracy as a way of life. This will lead to the determination to hand on this democracy to their children, not as a permanent, static thing, but as an ideal to grow as future generations grow, and they will continue to strive for something better for all of us.

About this document

If You Ask Me, May 1941

Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962
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Ladies' Home Journal, vol. 58, May 1941

Digital edition created by The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project

Digital edition published 2014-2016 by
The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project
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