10/08/2013 04:16 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Role of Government

As we grapple with a Congress that seems to represent everything except the will of the people, we should look back in history to see what lessons can be learned from the past.

Fifty years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: "Our trouble is that we do not demand enough of the people who represent us. We are responsible for their activities...we must spur them to move imagination and enterprise in making a push into the unknown; we must make clear that we intend to have responsible and courageous leadership. It is not so much the powerful leaders that determine our destiny as the much more powerful influence of the combined voices of people themselves."

Eleanor Roosevelt would not be silenced. But today I believe she would be astonished that we are still waging fights for women's equality, civil rights, the impoverished, and human rights. She also would be amazed that her home in Val-Kill in Hyde Park, NY is closed due to the shutdown of the government because it is an historic national landmark. She would have seen this shutdown as a failure on the part of the government to follow the will of the people.

As an astute politician, she saw the legislative process as a way to enact change. President Roosevelt took the helm of the presidency in 1932 during the Great Depression. Many of his accomplishments were ideas championed by his wife, who was not afraid to use her influence to initiate legislation and create new laws.

It was Eleanor Roosevelt who successfully increased the number of women appointments in the Roosevelt Administration, created youth programs through the establishment of the National Youth Administration and befriended black leaders fighting for civil rights. She fought for better housing and the support of the arts through the Federal Arts Projects, a precursor of the National Endowment for the Arts. She championed workers' rights and lobbied for the National Labor Relation Act demanding workers receive a living wage.

She never saw Congress as an adversary and was not afraid of lobbying its members for bills that would help the unemployed, create affordable housing, and establish a safety net for those approaching old age. Many times she was successful, but when she wasn't she waged a war in the arena of public opinion that pushed legislators to consider her proposals.

One way to honor her legacy is to recognize those who work on issues she believed in. These include advocacy for the needy, social and racial justice, and human rights. That's why the Eleanor Roosevelt Leadership Center established the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medals in 1987.

On October 13th, we will recognize six individuals who best exemplify her spirit by speaking out on important issues.

Gloria Steinem continues to play a leadership role in the crusade she began in the 60s for women's rights. U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and his wife Marcelle have championed healthcare reform. Educator and human rights activist Glen Johnson, Hudson Valley Credit Union Executive Mary Madden and philanthropist/preservationist Joan Davidson have all worked tirelessly to help people and communities have a better life. What these individuals and Eleanor Roosevelt have in common is that they are not afraid to take a stand when they encounter injustice in society and take steps to initiate change.

During these turbulent times for the country, we recall Mrs. Roosevelt's words: "One's philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility."

We need to implore our elected offices to make difficult choices. That's what Eleanor Roosevelt saw was necessary to move a country out of the Great Depression on to a better future.

Sometimes we need to look to the lessons of the past in order to understand the challenges of the present. Eleanor Roosevelt offered a blueprint for change that benefitted all Americans. She fought for that 50 years ago. We should continue that fight today by calling our elected officials and letting our voice be heard.

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