It's Up to the Women
By Eleanor Roosevelt
256 pages, $23
By Stephanie Shapiro
Nearly 85 years later, Eleanor Roosevelt's tips for Americans trying to get through the hard times of 1933 hold up fairly well. Many still are practical, despite the differences in our times and hers.
Her husband was not yet sworn in for his first term as president when she announced her intention to write a 40,000-word book. Her goal was to help people she had seen during the presidential campaign who were desperately in need of basic advice. She saw poverty so dire she could only describe its victims as living like animals in subhuman conditions.
"It's Up to the Women" is her guide to living a decent life during "the present emergency." She can be imagined gathering notes for each fairly short chapter and writing them from scratch, each about a different subject: budgets, family health, women in public life and a strong pitch for recreation in the best of times or the worst of times.
She takes a practical approach and even provides a week's worth of sample menus for a family of six. This part did not work out well, but the rest of the book does. The problems: Tuesday's dinner of Hot Stuffed Eggs calls for only five hard cooked eggs. What to serve the sixth person is not mentioned, unless perhaps in a cryptic suggestion that the tender leaves of cabbage may be chopped and put in a sandwich for the 2- or 3-year-old child. No chicken nuggets. The sad part is that some children in the world probably are hungry enough to enjoy a raw cabbage sandwich. Who concocted these feasts?
The menus and recipes came from the New York State College of Home Economics at Cornell University, and Roosevelt assures us, "They have been worked out under the direction of experts on home economics and will serve as a sample for balanced, inexpensive home rations."
The Creamed Spaghetti with Carrots instructs the cook to cook the spaghetti until tender, for about 25 minutes, not the 7 to 9 minutes recommended these days. For Friday's Creamed Codfish, the hapless homemaker must make do with one cup of salt codfish split six ways, skimpy rations even for the depth of the Great Depression. But these difficulties are the exception, not the rule.
Perhaps the demands of her many obligations tempted Roosevelt to skimp on proofreading and trust to the home ec experts, just for this one section, truly the only one where her advice falls short. Every other topic is examined from many angles, with the only discrepancies occurring where history has not kept up with her wishes, as in her support for paid parental leave. Otherwise, this is a handy little guide, written in plain English, with useful tools.
She suggests budgeting for household expenses using percentages of income, rather than specific amounts of money: 38 percent for food, 25 percent for housing. The figures are based on averages of actual spending at the time. They easily can be adjusted for current conditions. She also reminds cash-strapped householders that some repairs are beyond the ability of the home owner, so don't forget about budgeting for maintenance.
She casts a cold eye at the kingmakers of her day, pointing out that they encouraged women to run for public office with no chance of winning. She suggests other ways to learn the political ropes, and who knew better than she how to advance in politics? She won people over by "the megnetism of her simple sincerity."
Harvard history professor Jill Lepore's introduction sketches the author's life and her place in history. Born in New York City in 1884, Eleanor married her fifth cousin, Franklin, gave birth to six children in 10 years and by the 1920s was a formidable force as head of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee. She already had led the New York State party's women's division.
Lepore does not overplay the dysfunctional family young Eleanor was born into or the even more dysfunctional one she married into. Lepore even may be forgiven for a breathless 1932 quotation from AP reporter Lorena Hickok: "The dame has enormous dignity."
Lepore does skip over the daily letters 10 and 15 pages long written by "the dame" to Hickok. The romance led to Hickok leaving the Associated Press. She became an investigator in a federal department and frequent dinner guest at the White House.
Whiffs of scandal touched both Roosevelts, with Franklin also having extramarital dinner guests and Eleanor's male bodyguard, 12 years younger, joining the group. All seems to have remained civilized, under the disapproving eye of Sara Roosevelt, Franklin's mother, who insisted on living with the couple and running the household, to Eleanor's chagrin.
Here and there in "It's Up to the Women," she looses a gentle barb or two that could be interpreted as relevant to Sara Roosevelt or others who underestimated the "ugly duckling." But all in all, she seems to have learned from the many unfortunate events in her life, gladly passing lessons on to the rest of us in this handy little manual.
Despite the interpersonal complications added to the Great Depression, clouds of war rising in Germany and Japan and social change overflowing from the Roaring Twenties, Eleanor Roosevelt kept her wits about her. This book is as practical a handbook for running a household in difficult times as possible.
It even predates Social Security, and with no food stamps and no government giveaways of surplus cheese, the creamed spaghetti and creamed codfish seem less, well, unappetizing. Just about anyone can learn something practical here. She explains term life insurance, how to work out child care with no money, how to earn respect despite working as a domestic.
Yes, today has its own set of challenges, but Eleanor Roosevelt saw the world clearly enough when she chose the title. With all due respect to our brothers, husbands, colleagues, there are times when "It's Up to the Women" to at least lend a hand.
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.