Advice and Activism: The Personal and the Political in Eleanor Roosevelt's If You Ask Me

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:50 AM
Chicago Ballroom VII (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Suzanne Kahn, Columbia University
Between 1941 and 1962, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an advice column for the most widely read women’s magazines in America. Part advice column, part political discussion forum, and part Roosevelt image-making machine, the column allowed readers to ask Roosevelt what they should do about their faltering marriages, how they should raise their children, and what to make of Washington politics. Readers floated public policy suggestions, got advice on government entitlements, and learned details about Roosevelt’s personal life.  Appearing at the center of women’s mainstream popular media, If You Ask Me provides an important window into the changing messages women received during the 1940s and 1950. In 1939 Time magazine dubbed Roosevelt an “oracle to millions of housewives.” In 1947 and 1949, Women’s Home Companion polls showed that she was one of the three women its readers most admired.

This paper explores how If You Ask Me’s monthly mix of personal information about Roosevelt, advice to women on how to handle their families, and political commentary created a forum that presaged the discursive modes of Second Wave Feminists. Roosevelt used the stories women told in their own questions and the stories she shared about her life to inspire political action. Not only did If You Ask Me use modes of discourse we associate with Second Wave Feminists, it also consistently brought issues into the realm of politics that we typically associate with the 1970s claim that the personal is political. Two decades before Second Wave Feminism began, If You Ask Me treated childcare, housework, and marriage as political as well as personal problems. This paper will ask if the style of discourse embedded in Roosevelt’s column and later taken up in feminist consciousness raising groups led to the politicization of issues like childcare and marital relations.