If You Ask Me by Eleanor Roosevelt

If You Ask Me
by Eleanor Roosevelt

December 1948

 

You described Russia in the Ladies' Home Journal as the virile adolescent among nations, hence difficult to deal with, and said that we must show patience and wisdom. Having a teen-age daughter, I know what you meant. Now that the Russians talk and act as if they won the whole war singlehanded. How far should adolescents be allowed to boast and brag and take all the credit?

I think it is very good for adolescents to be told the exact truth, whether they are our own youngsters or whether they are a country like the U.S.S.R. People who brag know when they are bragging, and the U.S.S.R. knows quite well that singlehanded she could not have won the war. Just as youngsters need a firm hand, I rather think the U.S.S.R. needs a firm hand, but a just one.

 

I was disappointed in your answer to the lady who asked you to name ten books which one should read in order to be well educated. Those of us who married young and have spent our time cooking, cleaning and patching for our family are at a loss to know at this late date what to read to become more nearly on a mental level with our friends. We don't want to be quite so humble as to ask their opinion and create the very attitude we are aiming to prevent. It seems to me that there are some books without which one is not educated at all. One, of course, is the Bible. Can you tell me any others?

I can give you a list of books to read, but when you have read them, you will not be educated. All that a list may do, if you read the books, is to whet your curiosity, and start you reading more. If that happens, it will have served a purpose and you will be on your way to an education. Most of us feel we never are educated, we are just acquiring a little more knowledge all our lives.

I do not know what you read as a child. If you have never read Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, I suggest you do so and then pick out one or two plays of Shakespeare and read them. If you have never read any of the classics, I would read one or two of the old Greek plays like Oedipus in a good translation, and perhaps you might read Plato's Republic. In the field of fiction I think you could read two of Thackeray—Vanity Fair and Henry Esmond; two of Dickens—David Copperfield and Oliver Twist; two of Scott, though you might want to skip some of the long descriptions, which most of us did as children, and I would choose, I think, Ivanhoe and The Talisman. This may lead to your reading many more by these same authors.

If you are interested in history, it is a good thing to read biographies and also historical novels which are based on fact. I cannot name for you all the people, but some of the more recent biographers are Carl Sandburg, Claude Bowers, Arthur Schlesinger. Carl Carmer has written several interesting historical novels. There are also many good translations of foreign writers, and among the great novels of the world are War and Peace and Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy. I happen to like the French author Anatole France's books, but I don't know whether there are good translations. There are, of course, German writers that one should know, in the translations if not in the original, particularly some of the poets like Goethe and Heine. Everyone should read Dante's Inferno. In the Home Book of Verse you will find that you have many poems by different authors chosen by a gentleman who selected very well, and this may lead you to get full volumes of poems by the authors you like.

One could go on giving a list of books which would keep you busy, but what I have given you here, I hope, will prick your curiosity and start you off on a search of you own.

 

What is your opinion of the idea of teaching religion in the public schools?

I do not think that religion can properly be taught in public schools. We decided long ago to separate church and state. The public schools, being financed and run by the states, should not teach religion to children. That should be the responsibility of the home and the church primarily, though it may be possible in certain cases to work out some form of spiritual expression which is acceptable to all the children in a school. I feel, however, this should never be forced upon any of them.

 

What is the reason men of the North seemingly show lack of respect for women? Men do not tip their hats to women whom they meet on the street, neither do they rise from their seats when women come into the room. Southern men are more courteous. Why are Northern men not so?

You surprise me in your estimate of men in the North. I have never had a man greet me in the street without raising his hat, not do I find that they do not get up when a lady comes into the room. In informal gatherings when people are coming and going all the time, it might happen that a man did not notice that a woman had entered or left; but on any formal occasion, I have never known a man to remain seated.

On streetcars and busses, since women have begun to work under much the same conditions as men, I think the men feel that the women want to be treated in exactly the same way and there is no longer the feeling that they must treat them as though they were meeting on a social basis. Of course, I realize that there are young people who are not trained at home to have good manners and who may not be taught to raise their hats to ladies, or to get up when a woman comes into the room, and our schools do not teach manners as a rule; but it takes a very short period of contact with good manners to bring about a knowledge and understanding of the things which are expected of well-brought-up people. I have always found that the people of this country learn quickly.

Southern men, of course, have a tradition of chivalry toward women. Many of my forebears came from the South, as well as the many who came from the from the North, but as I go back through the family history, I find that, on the whole, the Southern men did not treat their women any better than the Northerners, and so while there may be more of a veneer attached to Southern manners, I think the basic kindliness which is the root of all good manners exists both in the North and in the South.

 

I am seventeen years old and my problem is that I live with my grandmother, who disapproves of my going with boys. The girls I chum with notice this, but I always say I don't care to go out with boys. What should I do? How can I show my grandmother that I can be trusted and that, like other girls of my own age, I enjoy going out with boys?

Talk the situation over with your grandmother. She is probably anxious to keep you from temptation, and conscious of the fact that you may not perhaps feel free to come and tell her how you feel and what you are thinking about, because there is a great difference in age between you. If she knows that you are telling her all about what happens and that you will talk over any problems that occur and that you will not do anything without talking it over with her first, I think you will find that she is quite willing that you should have the normal relationships that should exist among young people.

 

I have often heard it said that behind every great man is a great mother or wife. I am wondering to what extent that was true of the late Franklin D. Roosevelt. Did he have an inborn ambition to become the great leader he was, or to what extent were his aspirations nurtured and inspired by his mother and by yourself?

I think his mother had a great influence upon my husband, but his father's influence was very marked also. They did not specifically train him in leadership, but they gave him an all-around education and a great deal of general knowledge. His father gave him a sense of responsibility about the place in which he lived, the people in the neighborhood, the land, the stock and the employees with whom he worked.

His mother and her family had traveled a great deal, too, and had been in many parts of the world, and she stimulated him to interests in other countries. As far as I am concerned, I learned a great deal from my husband. I doubt if my influence was very important, except that I had a tremendous interest in certain concepts of social justice and I think our mutual play on each other was valuable in keeping before him the ideals which he held and which might have been obscured by his surroundings at certain times in his life.

 

I am a frightened and bewildered mother. Frightened because the radio and newspapers give us nothing to look forward to but atomic warfare. I cannot understand why this nation, founded by men fleeing from a government they thought wrong, can tell other countries what kind of government to set up. Isn't keeping communism from spreading in this country a big enough fight?

I think it would be well for all us to stop talking about keeping communism from spreading and talk about making democracy a success. If it is going to succeed, your part in its success will be in making your own surroundings thoroughly successful in the use of the democratic processes, both in everyday living and in the political and economic life of your environment. If enough people do this, the success of democracy will be self-evident.

We must bend every effort to create a successful democracy here, because we believe people have greater control themselves politically under a democratic system, and we are convinced that from the economic standpoint a capitalistic system with proper democratic controls can give people more opportunity and greater satisfaction than can a communist system.

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About this document

If You Ask Me, December 1948

Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962
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Ladies' Home Journal, volume 65, December 1948

Digital edition created by The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project

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