It's Up to the Women


By Eleanor Roosevelt

Introduction by Jill Lepore

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“Eleanor Roosevelt never wanted her husband to run for president. When he won, she . . . went on a national tour to crusade on behalf of women. She wrote a regular newspaper column. She became a champion of women’s rights and of civil rights. And she decided to write a book.” — Jill Lepore, from the Introduction

“Women, whether subtly or vociferously, have always been a tremendous power in the destiny of the world,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in It’s Up to the Women, her book of advice to women of all ages on every aspect of life. Written at the height of the Great Depression, she called on women particularly to do their part — cutting costs where needed, spending reasonably, and taking personal responsibility for keeping the economy going.

Whether it’s the recommendation that working women take time for themselves in order to fully enjoy time spent with their families, recipes for cheap but wholesome home-cooked meals, or America’s obligation to women as they take a leading role in the new social order, many of the opinions expressed here are as fresh as if they were written today.



Jill Lepore

IN the fall of 1932, when Eleanor Roosevelt was teaching American history at a high school for girls, editing a magazine called Babies—Just Babies, and helping her husband in the last weeks of his run for president of the United States by making a gazillion campaign stops—a speech here, a photograph there—the Associated Press assigned a political reporter named Lorena Hickok to follow her around. "She is, to use the expression of one of her friends," Hickok wrote, "a whirlwind." Roosevelt wore "ten dollar dresses," refused the protection of the Secret Service, borrowed friends' cars so she could drive herself, and on Sundays scrambled the eggs herself, at the table, in a chafing dish. "THE DAME HAS ENORMOUS DIGNITY," Hickok telegrammed the AP one day. "SHE'S A PERSON."

That November, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won forty-two out of forty-eight states in one of the most lopsided elections in American history. His wife celebrated, but she was a reluctant first lady. "Eleanor Roosevelt was a new phenomenon in America politics," writes Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor's most exhaustive biographer. Born in New York in 1884, Eleanor Roosevelt was orphaned as a child. She married in 1905; FDR was her fifth cousin. The marriage was an unhappy one. In 1914, while ER was raising the couple's six children, FDR began a passionate affair with his social secretary. Eleanor wanted a divorce; Franklin believed a divorce would ruin his career. They stayed together. She began regularly speaking in public in 1921, after he was struck with polio and she appeared in his stead. By the 1920s, she'd become a major figure in Democratic politics, just at a time when women were entering political parties. In 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the National American Women's Suffrage Association reinvented itself as the League of Women Voters. "The only way to get things in this country is to find them on the inside of the political party," said Carrie Chapman Catt. Roosevelt took that advice to heart, becoming a leader of the Women's Division of the New York State Democratic Party while her husband campaigned and served as governor of the state. By 1928, she was head of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee.

Eleanor Roosevelt never wanted her husband to run for president. When he won, she told friends she might divorce him rather than lose her independence to the honorific role of first lady. "I shall have to work out my own salvation," she said. She decided to reinvent the role. What should a "first lady" really do? Not host parties, she thought. She went on a national tour to crusade on behalf of women. She wrote a regular newspaper column. She became a champion of women's rights and of civil rights (in support of racial equality, she was the most outspoken member of her husband's administration). And she decided to write a book. She called it It's Up to the Women. She announced her plan in January 1933, two months before her husband's inauguration. "Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who has been one of the most active women in the country since her husband was elected President, is going to write a 40,000-word book between now and the March inauguration," the Boston Globe announced. "Every word will be written by Mrs. Roosevelt herself."

To say that Roosevelt's act of writing this book was shocking hardly covers it. In 1933, women rarely spoke in public, held very few public offices, and had barely begun voting. During one of FDR's reelection campaigns, supporters of his opponent wore buttons that read, "We Don't Want Eleanor Either." And yet her own supporters were legion. In September 1933, reporter Rita S. Halle watched Eleanor Roosevelt at a conference about how to help the needy through the winter. The first lady told a story about an evicted family sleeping in a house with no windows against the rain, and the baby had gotten sick and died. Halle wrote of ER: "Despite a lithe, graceful figure, she is not beautiful. She does not charm by her personal appearance. Yet, as she spoke, the wearied audience uncurved its collective spine until, all over the large room, men and women were sitting forward on their chairs in intent response to the magnetism of her simple sincerity."

That's a fair account of It's Up to the Women, too, with its earnest charm and flinty steadiness. In giving advice about getting through hard times, Roosevelt called on her study of the past. "There have been other great crises in our country and I think if we read our history carefully, we will find that the success of our nation in meeting them was very largely due to the women in those trying times," she wrote. The Hartford Courant called it, accurately enough, "a book of general counsel and advice on pretty well everything, from dish-washing to high diplomacy." In chapters on everything from what to cook for dinner to how to make a family budget (spend no more than 38 percent on food and 25 percent on rent), Roosevelt urged women to care for their children and their husbands but not to stint on taking care of business and thinking about politics. Vote, and get a job if you can, she told women. As for children who complain about their mothers working outside the home, and, equally, for husbands who might complain about their wives: "They have a right to expect that if they have a problem she will listen to it, but they have no right to expect that she will give up that which she loves and which is constructive and creative work, because they would like to have her home at five o'clock instead of at six o'clock." The "really new deal for the people," Roosevelt said, had to do with women awakening "to their civic duties."

Reviews of the book ranged from politely dismissive to politely outraged. In a column titled "Mrs. Roosevelt's Book," the Christian Science Monitor called it "a wholesome, pleasant, kindly effort." "Mrs. Roosevelt has always been an independent thinker," the Chicago Tribune averred. "Her typewriter has developed no inhibitions since its journey to the White House."

It's Up to the Women was the first book Eleanor Roosevelt wrote. It would not be the last. She hammered at that typewriter, year after year, telling the story of her life and urging women to enter politics for decades before, at the end of her public life, she chaired JFK's Commission on the Status of Women. "Can a woman ever be president of the United States?" she asked in an essay published in Cosmopolitan in 1935. Not soon, she thought. But someday. Meanwhile, there's no end of important work to be done, by everyone.

JILL LEPORE is the Kemper Professor of American History at Harvard and a staff writer at the New Yorker.


THE title of this book will suggest the thought which I have in mind in writing it—namely, that we are going through a great crisis in this country and that the women have a big part to play if we are coming through it successfully.

There have been other great crises in our country and I think if we read our history carefully, we will find that the success of our nation in meeting them was very largely due to the women in those trying times. Upon them fell a far heavier burden and responsibility than any of us realize.

Undoubtedly, for instance, the women who landed from the Mayflower faced in that first winter in the stern New England country the first great crisis in the development of our nation. When we look through the old houses still standing and learn from contemporary documents and letters of the conditions under which the Pilgrims of New England lived and the part they played in conquering starvation and the wilderness, we will give to the Pilgrim mothers at least as much credit as to the Pilgrim fathers. What those hardships meant, how bitter and desperate they were, we have only to look at the inscriptions on the monument at Plymouth, naming those who died that first terrible winter, to realize. This was a real battle in which many women and children paid with their lives for their heroism. I think it is equally true that the Revolution itself would never have been won unless women had been able to bear the hardships and privations, and carry on the work of their homes while the men fought for freedom.

And in that later crisis, of the war between the states, we get a vivid picture in a short story by Dorothy Canfield* of how it was "up to the women" to carry on while the men were fighting at the front. The description of a woman who farmed the land, planted the garden, got in the hay and tended the stock while her husband fought to free the slaves and preserve the Union, is made particularly poignant by her answer when asked what she did when she heard her husband was killed at Gettysburg, "I went on hoein' my beans. But I ain't mindin' tellin' you that I can't look at a bean-row since, without gettin' sick to my stomach!"

The women know that life must go on and that the needs of life must be met and it is their courage and their determination which, time and again, have pulled us through worse crises than the present one. The present crisis is different from all the others but it is, after all, a kind of warfare against an intangible enemy of want and depression rather than a physical foe. And I hold it equally true that in this present crisis it is going to be the women who will tip the scales and bring us safely out of it.

Many of us are afraid because we have lost pleasant things which we have always had, but the women who came over in the Mayflower did not have them, neither did the women who farmed in the uplands of Vermont during the Civil War. Perhaps we need again a little of the stern stuff our ancestors were made of. In any case, it will do us no harm to look at ourselves somewhat critically in relation to some of the problems that confront us to-day.



PRACTICALLY every woman, whether she is rich or poor, is facing to-day a reduction in income. Sometimes I think the most troubled people I know are the very rich, especially many of them who have grown up in idle luxury. They have never known what it was to deny themselves anything that they really wanted, and now they have to learn to do it cheerfully and without a feeling of martyrdom. Their fathers and husbands have always been able to give them, not only what they needed, but many pleasant things which seemed necessary to those who had really nothing to do, and who therefore felt they must have many luxuries in order to provide variety in what would otherwise be very dull existences.

It is not really necessary to go to the mountains for winter sports, or to seek a summer climate in the south in mid-winter, or in summer a comfortably cool climate in some far-away mountain range or on some sea coast, but if you have done these things all your life, to give them up seems a real hardship.

If a maid has always answered a bell when you rang it, if you have never sewed except to give your idle hands some occupation, it is somewhat disconcerting to find that you have to wait on yourself and that your sewing must serve some useful purpose such as mending a frock or darning your stockings.

I have a theory that the people who have had a great deal and who have the right kind of stuff in them, are the ones who most readily adjust themselves to doing without certain material things. This theory, however, only holds good where the people have had sometime in their lives an opportunity to live simply so that they have made the discovery that the luxuries of life are not really essential to happiness. These women who have lived in this luxurious fashion, and who do not have back of them at least the traditions of early ancestors who had education and some appreciation of the value of mental qualities, and yet who disciplined themselves and were inured to hardships, are frightened to-day and are making their husbands and fathers feel that because they have lost the ability to give them as much materially, they have ceased to be successful. Sometimes they do not even seem to realize that the men are as bewildered and as lost as they are. The men have likewise grown dependent upon their pleasures, perhaps not quite to the same extent, but still it is a rude change for them also. They, too, have gauged their success by how much money they could make. Therefore between such husbands and wives there arises the specter of failure.

Sometimes I think these are the most pathetic people in the world. Even love is an uncertain satisfaction with them, for to grow, love must really give.

When giving is too easy or is purely a matter of giving material things, it ceases to bring real happiness. Writers have often tried to show in poetry and in books how hollow was the relationship which existed between people where wealth had become so great that they depended largely on paid service and very little on each other for comforts or pleasures. The family has been pictured over and over again as gradually drifting apart and this theme is prominent to-day in the literature of every land.

Two people must really do things for each other and when things are done entirely by paid attendants, love is very apt to fade out of the relationship. The only thing that remains is the satisfaction of their mutual comfort, and that is not much foundation for happiness just now since they realize that any day they may lose all these comforts and pleasures. They have nothing more permanent to fall back upon.

All this is made doubly difficult because these women, never having learned how to work, are suddenly faced with the fact that they have no idea of how to take care of themselves. The mere thought that their husbands' earning power is cut down and may vanish entirely and their heretofore assured income may melt into thin air, fills them with apprehension. Instead of being helpful, the woman's own unhappiness and fear makes her add to the man's fears, thereby leaving the man less capable of meeting his difficulties.

I know one woman who, when she found her husband had used poor judgment and had done unwise things, started in on a campaign to make him realize how extremely wrong he had been not to consult her before he had made these mistakes. She talked to all their friends and they agreed with her that he had made mistakes, which many of them had made and which most men in these times had made, but she would only tell him how right they thought her judgment was and how very wrong, therefore, his judgment had been. The result was that the household grew daily more and more unhappy until finally even the little children realized that their father was in some way playing an inadequate rôle. This did no one any good and certainly did not help the man to recover his own self-confidence, and use better judgment, nor did it really help the woman to forget her losses and disappointments.

Another woman I know happens to be more or less alone in the world. She had been left a fair-sized fortune and found it extremely easy not only to live a life of luxury, but because she had wide interests and sympathies, she used her fortune to help many other people. She took the advice of others as to her investments and when hard times came she found that many of these investments sank to rather low levels, but she realized that her advisors had done their best. She did not berate them, she simply curtailed her own pleasures and luxuries in order to continue what she had been doing for other people, and she worked all the harder for certain things which she had started to develop herself, and which had been looked upon as unprofitable hobbies. To such good purpose did she work on these hobbies that they became her main source of income and they have enabled her so far to stand the strain of other losses. Hers is a spirit which would never blame other people and pull them down because she for a time had to face unusual hardships.

These women of wealth, however, will always be, on the whole, a small group and they certainly do not represent the larger group of our countrymen.

Leaving aside in this discussion the very present and distressing question of unemployment, most of the women in the country are women who are living on moderate-sized incomes, mostly earned, with few investments to take into consideration beyond perhaps the ownership of a small house or apartment. These women, many of them, have worked and most of them are willing to work again if they can get work. On the whole they are less afraid, though with each wage cut they have to make changes in their way of living and changes which do vitally affect their entire lives. It may not mean actually less food, but it does mean cheaper food. It means less help if they are accustomed to a maid; it means fewer movies; and if they have a car, it means fewer Sunday trips. It means endless little economies and constant anxiety for fear of some catastrophe such as accident or illness which may completely swamp the family budget.

Fundamentally we see repeated here on a larger scale many of the things we found in richer homes. The happy home will be the one in which the woman is not considering that her husband's success is measured by his salary. As long as the families are free from actual want, if the women can realize that happiness lies within and not without, if they can manage to recreate enjoyment in some of the simpler pleasures which our thriftier ancestors in other countries enjoyed, and which they brought with them to this country; if they can learn to make it a game to get the most out of their dollars and above all to spend their money for those things which they really want, then they will have real success.

It seems to me that we do not really give much thought to what we want out of life, and the development of this thought is one of the things which we can get out of the present depression. We should be able to realize that making up our minds as to what gives us the greatest amount of pleasure and then working for it, is one of the satisfactions of life. Drifting along is easy to do but if we want to see a real pattern in our lives, we must take the trouble to sit down and think out not only what we want for ourselves but what we want for our families. In the past when we did this our wants were chiefly for material things, bigger and better houses, more entertainment, more food, better clothes, etc. Perhaps in the future we may think up some new wants which will not cost more money but which will cost a little more effort. It might be well if we thought a little about doing things which would develop in our children new resources and interests in life. I am often struck by the fact that the members of our younger generation, whether they are rich or poor, feel that to have a good time they must go out and spend money. When life was simpler and there was less money to spend, youth stayed at home and made its own diversions. They found interests in themselves and in their surroundings, which now they haven't time to develop. It may be a happy day for us when an evening at home is not considered wasted, but is looked upon as an opportunity for developing a hobby or cultivating a friendship.

I consider one of the most successful women I have ever met, a woman who was left a widow with five children, four girls and a baby boy a little over a year old. All she had in the world was a rather delightful roomy old house, near a nice old country village, with a mountain at the back and a meadow all around it, and a Carnegie pension of less than one hundred dollars a month.

She took her children to the old house. They attended the village school, and she served on the school board. Her school must have been a fairly good one, for her children all won scholarships at two of the best colleges in the country. They worked their way through. They brought their friends home for week-ends and they had more friends and more fun in a simple way than many of the rich boys and girls in their class. And yet she never had a maid. She and her children did all the work on the place. There were always plenty of books and plenty of good plain food, but very little else. All her children are fine characters and to me she is the outstanding example of what real success in life means.

Of course, the real advantage in having little money is that families draw closer together; they have to depend upon each other and they have to do things for and with each other and the result is that the clan spirit grows. I am sure that that spirit is an essential thing to foster in this country just as much as in Scotland.


  • "Eight decades after the Great Depression, American women are facing yet another test of courage and ingenuity. Eleanor Roosevelt's advice to women living through the world's greatest economic crisis remains relevant, comforting, and, for all of its practicality, profoundly inspiring."—Amanda Foreman, bestselling author of Georgiana and A World On Fire
  • "In l933, Eleanor Roosvelt launched her first book to galvanize an urgent movement for democracy, peace and freedom. As fascism threatened the world, she believed women's activism would save the future... This book, bold and vividly written, is needed NOW!"—Blanche Wiesen Cook, Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay College and author of a prize-winning three-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt
  • "It's Up to the Women challenges us anew to foster community, adhere to the highest standards of ethics, raise fearless children with a concern for the world, and embrace and act on the notion that it is 'the attitude of women towards changes in society [that] is going to determine to a great extent our future in this country.' Inspiration for the work ahead is found here, in wise advice for women in the 1930s."—Julia Stasch, President, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
  • "This must-read primer by America's greatest first lady is so much more than quaint, decades-old history. [It's Up to the Women] powerfully reminds us of how much women have achieved since Eleanor's time-and how much more must be done to secure the level playing field she advocated. Ably reintroduced by the brilliant Jill Lepore, this book is as timely now as when it first appeared in the depths of the Depression.. . . What Eleanor advised women then remains truer than ever today: our mission will only be fulfilled when 'we can say we never saw a wrong without trying to right it.'"—Jennifer J. Raab, President, Hunter College and founder of Roosevelt House at Hunter
  • "Whatever the topic, Roosevelt's advice is insistently practical... wholesome and heartening."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Inspirational at times, It's Up to the Women is also deeply practical...The foundational message rings as loudly as it did nearly a century ago: that women 'have always been a tremendous power in the destiny of the world.'"—John Williams, New York Times Book Review
  • "Roosevelt writes passionately about work-life balance-among dozens of other push/pull matters of the heart and mind. Her book is a reminder of how long we've been grappling with equality, justice and social responsibility inside and outside our homes....Read through the lens of 2017 perspective, her words offer a set of guiding principles that seem almost prescient."—Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune
  • "Roosevelt was writing to the women caught in the grip of the Great Depression. But her words echo across time. It is up to the women..."—Lyz Lenz, The Rumpus
  • "An eclectic assortment of wisdom...Even by modern standards, It's Up to the Women still yields plenty of good, common sense advice for women and men alike, on everything from health to parenting to doing one's civic duty."—Mental Floss

On Sale
Apr 9, 2019
Page Count
256 pages
Bold Type Books

Eleanor Roosevelt

About the Author

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was an American politician, diplomat, and activist. She was the longest-serving First Lady of the United States, holding the post from March 1933 to April 1945. She made Gallup’s list of “People that Americans Most Widely Admired in the 20th Century,” and Time‘s “The 25 Most Powerful Women of the Past Century.”

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