Episode 23

The UN Open Letter to the Women of the World, and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by Eleanor Roosevelt

Published on: 20th April, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today we will be covering two speeches by Eleanor Roosevelt that were delivered to the United Nations in the aftermath of World War 2. First, an Open Letter to the Women of the World, and second, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Roosevelt referred to the declaration in particular as being a new “Magna Carta” for humanity, and it truly was a revolutionary document that continues to be a reference point for international human rights. But before we dive into these remarkable texts, I want to introduce my reading partner for today, Lucy Allebest. Hi, Lucy, thanks for being here!

Lucy: Hi! Thanks for having me!

Amy: Lucy is my second daughter. A fun fact about my three daughters is that they all have different hair and eye colors. We call them our “neopolitan pack” because we have a chocolate, a strawberry, and a vanilla, and Lucy is our strawberry, with red hair and green eyes. She’s also about 5 inches taller than I am. So Lucy, can you tell us a little more about yourself?

Lucy: Of course! I am currently a senior in high school, which means much of my time is spent doing school work and college applications. But in my free time I enjoy writing, doing theatre,  especially Shakespeare, and learning about all things History. I’m also an excellent organizer, and I’ve been told I’m good at doing accents from all over the British Isles, but no I will not demonstrate. 


Amy: And then I like to ask my reading partners what Breaking Down Patriarchy  means to them, or why they wanted to be a part of this project.


Lucy: I was so excited to be a part of this project not only because I’m so proud of my mom for all of the work that she has put in, but also because I feel like it is my responsibility as a young woman to educate myself on what’s essentially my history. As someone who loves history and wants to study it further in college, I think it is crucial that I learn the stories of half of the human  population. I honestly feel let down by how little my public education has taught me about women’s history, and I can’t imagine it’s going to get dramatically better even in college. It seems like people don’t study women’s history unless they major in Women’s studies. So in order to fill in that huge gap in my knowledge of history and do what I can to resist the patriarchy which has always frustrated me, I was eager to take these first steps on my journey towards enlightenment and empowerment. 


Amy: Yes it’s true - I had you show me your AP US History textbook that one time to see how many women were in there, and it’s better than when I was in HS, but still for the most part they’re just sidelined in those special blue-highlighted paragraphs.


Lucy: Yeah, they’re like “fun facts!” I got the sense that my teacher was adding more material to the curriculum that wasn’t in the book. Which I was really grateful for, but at the same time when she would add extra stuff about women, I kept thinking, “why isn’t this in the text book?”

Amy: Well I should thank your teacher then, because you ended up knowing a ton more than I had ever learned about History in general, and about women’s history specifically. In fact that’s why I asked you to do this episode on the UN declarations and Eleanor Roosevelt - because one day you were talking about it and teaching me all kinds of things I had never heard before.


So before we get into the text, can you tell us about the author and the historical context that led to Eleanor Roosevelt writing these speeches?



Yes! Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884. Sadly, both of her parents and one of her brothers died when she was young. At 15, she attended school in London, then returned to the U.S., and when she was 21 years old she married her fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1905. The Roosevelts' marriage was complicated from the beginning by Franklin's controlling mother, Sara, and after Eleanor discovered her husband's affair with her secretary Lucy Mercer in 1918, she resolved to seek fulfillment in leading a public life of her own. She persuaded Franklin to stay in politics after he was stricken with a paralytic illness in 1921, which cost him the normal use of his legs, and began giving speeches and appearing at campaign events in his place. Following Franklin's election as Governor of New York in 1928, and throughout the remainder of Franklin's public career in government, Roosevelt regularly made public appearances on his behalf, and as First Lady, while her husband served as president, she significantly reshaped and redefined the role of First Lady.

Though widely respected in her later years, Roosevelt was a controversial First Lady at the time that her husband held office. FDR served four terms in office - this was before the two-term limit was put in place - making her the longest-serving first lady of the United States. She was often criticized for her outspokenness, particularly on civil rights for African-Americans. She was also the first presidential spouse to hold regular press conferences, write a daily newspaper column, write a monthly magazine column, host a weekly radio show, and speak at a national party convention. On a few occasions, she publicly disagreed with her husband's policies.

She advocated for expanded roles for women in the workplace, the civil rights of African Americans and Asian Americans, and the rights of World War II refugees. Following her husband's death in 1945, Roosevelt remained active in politics for the remaining 17 years of her life. She pressed the United States to join and support the United Nations and became its first delegate. She served in this capacity from 1945 to 1952. She also served as the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights and oversaw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Later, she chaired the John F. Kennedy administration's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. By the time of her death, on November 7, 1962, Roosevelt was regarded as "one of the most esteemed women in the world" and in her obituary The New York Times called her "the object of almost universal respect." 



Amy: And one more piece of context, which will help us understand these speeches is remembering the historical moment in which they were written.

Remember that World War 1, from 1914-1918, had been called “the war to end all wars.” The carnage that came with automatic weapons and chemical warfare was unlike anything human beings had ever done to each other before - by the end, 20 million people had died, and 21 million had been wounded. This loss of life collectively traumatized the countries involved to the point that people said that “God died in the trenches.” 

Can you imagine how veterans of World War 1 and their families must have felt as they faced another World War within their own lifetimes? 


And this time the human cost was absolutely staggering. By the end of World War 2, it had ended up being the deadliest military conflict in history. An estimated total of 70–85 million people perished, and an estimated 25,000,000 were wounded. 


Adding to the grief of death and injury, it was only gradually that the world learned of the full extent of the Nazi campaign against Jewish people (and others they deemed undesirable). After the war was over and the Allies entered the concentration camps, they saw the gas chambers and the mass graves, and learned of the “final solution” of genocide. 


It was in this context that the Allied countries banded together with other countries joining them, and made the goal of ending all war. They created the United Nations, and its first charter affirmed “faith in fundamental human rights, and dignity and worth of the human person,” and they committed all members to promote "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion". The first meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations was held in London in January, 1946. During this convention, Eleanor Roosevelt addressed a meeting of women and read to them an “open letter to the women of the world,” inviting them to sign the document. 


And this is a really cool moment on the podcast, because for the first time, we’re going to actually hear a clip of the document, read by the woman who wrote it. We looked for a clip of Virginia Woolf’s voice for last week’s episode, but there’s only one recording of her, and it’s not of her reading her work. So this will be really special to hear Eleanor Roosevelt herself. Here she is, reading the first part of the Open Letter to the Women of the World.


(Insert recording)


Amy: Isn’t that amazing to hear her voice? 


So now we’re going to read An Open Letter to the Women of the World, and make some comments as we go. It’s quite a short speech, and then we’ll go to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Lucy, do you want to start us off?


Lucy: Yes! The speech starts:


“This first Assembly of the United Nations marks the second attempt of the peoples of the world to live peaceably in a democratic world community. This new chance for peace was won through the joint efforts of men and women working for common ideals of human freedom at a time when the need for united effort broke down barriers of race, creed and sex.

"In view of the variety of tasks which women performed so notably and valiantly during the war, we are gratified that 18 women delegates and advisers are representatives from 11 of the member states taking part in the beginning of this new phase of international effort. We hope their participation in the work of the United Nations Organization may grow and may increase in insight and skill. To this end, we call on the governments of the world to encourage women everywhere to take a more active part in national and international affairs, and on women to come forward and share in the work of peace and reconstruction as they did in the war and resistance.”


I learned quite a bit about what the women actually did during the war in my US History class last year, and it was shocking. In previous wars such as the American Revolution and the Civil War, we really only hear about women contributing to the war effort by nursing wounded soldiers, sending information through letters, and sewing uniforms and flags. But in the Second World War when most of the men were gone, women took over literally every job that the men had done before. They were in factories welding huge metal parts for planes, manufacturing weapons, and actually ended up being more productive than the men had been. At their height, they were churning out 4,000 tanks and 4,500 planes per month. This is why we now look back on symbols like Rosie the Riveter; they weren’t just sending food and managing their family’s finances, they were wielding power tools and many were even fighting! There were several civilian organizations like the Women Airforce Service Pilots and Women’s Army Corps but others were officially in the military with the Coast Guard and Volunteer Emergency Service with the Navy. But of course it was very difficult to be a woman in these male-focused environments. There were very few opportunities for women of color, the women who were hired in factories during the war were immediately fired when it ended, and there were even cases where female pilots were killed by their male counterparts. Men would put sugar or rags in the women’s engines, acid in their parachutes, or slash their tires which led to forced landings and sometimes deadly crashes. It was all because they felt threatened by women entering what they believed to be their sphere. It takes a lot of insecurity and misogyny to risk sabotaging your own military for the sake of establishing dominance. As for the women at home, there were in total about 19 million women working and until the men came home, the role of women and the family was entirely reconstructed. When the men did come home, however, everything was restored to how it had been before. Women who had fought were not given veterans status until the ‘70s, the military made no official recognition of their contributions, and the expectation of the subservient housewife was firmly reinstated. 


Amy: Wow, that is so interesting. And like I said, I had never learned about it until you were talking about it while you were taking the class. But actually since then I’ve noticed it mentioned twice in different media: they talk about it on “Call the Midwife,” and they mentioned it on the show “Agent Carter.” So it’s great that that story is being told. 

Ok, here is the next part:

"We recognize that women in various parts of the world are at different stages of participation in the life of their communities, that some of them are prevented by law from assuming the full rights of citizenship, and that they may therefore see their immediate problems somewhat differently.”

This is such an important point. Even within our own country right now, even within my own circle of women, I personally know women who believe they should “obey” their husbands, not leave the domestic sphere, and who were raised to be “ladylike” and demure their whole lives. And I personally know women who were raised by feminist activist mothers and who are leaders in their careers and in every realm of their lives. And everything in between. I know women who have chosen to have no children, and I know women who have chosen to have 11 children, and everything in between. 

And that’s just among women I know!! In my class on International Women’s Health and Human Rights  - which is offered online on Coursera if anyone is interested - it’s taught by Anne Firth Murray, and it’s really an incredible class - we studied child marriage, where girls are married off at ages 12-16 to much older men. This is still very commonly practiced in some places. We studied female genital cutting, which is still very common in some places. We studied education rates in different places - there are so many girls in our world right now who have to drop out of school to help at home at age 11 and then get married and have babies every year with no birth control for the rest of their lives. Even just a few years ago, women in Saudi Arabia were still fighting for the right to vote and to get drivers licences. In some countries women put themselves in grave danger when they advocate for greater freedom - think of Malala Yousefsai. So anyway, I think it’s really wise that Roosevelt acknowledges the different circumstances that women find themselves in, within each country, and from country to country. And we women need to learn about each other’s situations, and to support each other, at whatever point on the path we are.


Amy: Ok, Lucy, can you read the next part?

Lucy: Yep!


"Finding ourselves in agreement on these points, we wish as a group to advise the women of all our countries of our strong belief that an important opportunity and responsibility confronts the women of the United Nations:—

"1—To recognize the progress women made during the war and to participate actively in an effort to improve their standard of life in their countries, and participate in the work of reconstruction so that there will be qualified women ready to accept responsibility when new opportunities arise.

This refers to the information I just shared about women’s advances (out of necessity!) during the war.

"2—To train their children, boys and girls alike, to understand world problems and the need for international cooperation....

"3—Not to permit themselves to be misled by anti-democratic movements now or in the future.

"4—To recognize that the goal of full participation in the life and responsibilities of their countries and of the world community is a common objective toward which the women of the world should assist one another."

Amy: If it weren’t for this history project studying all of these essential texts, I don’t think I would appreciate what a big deal those statements are. Especially #2 and #4 - Roosevelt says that we need to train boys and girls alike to understand world problems. She says men and women should have the goal of full participation in the life and responsibilities of their countries and the world community. This was written just a few years after Virginia Woolf!! Look how much has changed from the time of “separate spheres” and the “angel in the house.” Women just one generation prior to this were being actively discouraged and even prohibited from full participation in the life of their country! This is really amazing, and it seems to me that the war changed things drastically in the way that women saw themselves.

And of course #3 is important too - she says women should not allow themselves to be misled by anti-democratic movements. This is of course in the wake of a fascist dictatorship nearly overrunning all of Europe, and she calls on women everywhere to be educated, critical thinkers so they won’t be vulnerable to being deceived.


Amy: Ok, so next we have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights....

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About the Podcast

Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.