In Eleanor Roosevelt’s correspondence, there is a short story entitled “Eleanor for President.” It was sent to her in 1945 by an admirer, a Miss Harris from Defiance, Ohio. The carefully typed pages describe a pair of women sharing a coffee and cigarette break. Both of their husbands are away in the war, and Margie tries to console Mary, who is distraught that hers may not come back. Their conversation turns to a recent article by the First Lady urging women to enter government. “Do you think we will ever have a woman President?” asks Mary. Margie responds, “Sure we will someday. When women wake up to themselves.” Her choice for chief executive is, of course, Eleanor. She proclaims, “Do you think for one minute, F.D.R. would be where he is today, if it weren’t for her?”
Wilkie campaign button
This little story strikes me as unusual. Although Roosevelt’s correspondence is full of admiring letters from women across America, her public activities were often controversial, including the numerous political stances she took that differed from her husband’s. When Wendell Wilkie ran against FDR in 1940, his campaign had buttons that read “We don’t want Eleanor either.” My own grandfather was known to refer to Roosevelt disparagingly, as “THAT woman!” In spite of Margie’s optimism, the author of the tale recognizes what bold statements her fictional character has made, adding, “She sure had been laying it on the line.” Eleanor herself had suggested that a woman president was unlikely in a column she wrote for Cosmopolitan in 1935. Over seven decades later, there are multiple women running in hopes of winning the 2020 election, yet America has still not had a female president, not even another controversial First Lady.
Theodore Bilbo, Mississippi Senator
The next item in Mrs. Roosevelt’s correspondence, filed immediately after the story, is a handwritten song entitled “The Bilbo Bill,” sent by a man from Washington, D.C. The song supports the 1939 bill by Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo to have African Americans removed to Liberia. Although Bilbo associated with African American activists who supported similar ideas, he was a member of the KKK, and his ultimate goal was to create a white America. The song’s chorus reflects the Senator’s ideology:
Black will be Black—White will be White
But that don’t mean that they must fight.
The U.S.A. is not the place
In which to breed a mongrel race.
The music, which resembles a Stephen Foster minstrel tune, by is marked “With pep (Hill-billy style).” The songwriter was undoubtedly an amateur, as his lyrics are overly repetitive—the word “mongrel” appears three times. They are in no way as clever as those for the song “Listen, Mr. Bilbo,” written by Robert and Adrienne Claiborne in 1946 (sung here by Pete Seeger), critiquing the Senator’s nativist stance:
Yes, you don’t like Negroes, you don’t like Jews;
If there is anyone you do like, it sure is news.
You don’t like Poles, Italians, Catholics, too;
Is it any wonder, Bilbo, that we don’t like you!
Listen, Mr. Bilbo, listen to me
I’ll give you a lesson in history
Listen while I tell you that the foreigners you hate
Are the very same people made America great.
Eleanor Roosevelt with Marian Anderson
No letter survives to explain why “The Bilbo Bill” was sent to Eleanor, who was known for her egalitarian ideals and had joined the NAACP in 1934. For musicians, the most famous example of Roosevelt’s putting her beliefs into practice was her resignation from the DAR when it denied its concert hall to renowned soprano Marian Anderson. Bilbo had backed the New Deal, but he was publicly critical of Eleanor. Around the time the song was written he suggested that she be sent to Liberia to be the leader of the African Americans he wanted to deport. Perhaps the song’s composer merely wanted to rub this in the First Lady’s face. Later, when Harry Truman nominated Roosevelt for the United Nations, Bilbo cast the only vote opposing her. After accusations that Bilbo had prevented African Americans from voting when he was reelected in 1946, the Senate refused to seat him, but he died before the matter was resolved.
While it’s tempting to portray the story proposing female political equality as on the right side of history and the bigoted song on the wrong, this would be an oversimplification. “Eleanor for President” has a third character, Julie, Margie’s African American servant. Julie is also excited by the prospect of having Eleanor as president, yet she is described with mammy stereotyping: “big black eyes popping out of her fat round face” and “big fat body wobbling back and forth as she walked.” Margie—or her creator—looks for change in the White House, but doesn’t recognize the need for it in her own fictional kitchen.
“The Bilbo Bill” may seem even farther away from 2019 than the smoking WWII wives, yet both offerings to Roosevelt reflect the white supremacist rhetoric ingrained in American culture, rhetoric which has been resurgent in the “send her back” chants. Eleanor told a friend that she believed that with sufficient power, Bilbo could be similar to the Nazis who created concentration camps. She did not underestimate how dangerous a flamboyantly racist politician might be.