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Martha Burk Headshot

Let Eleanor Speak For Herself -- Fix The FDR Memorial

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Co-written by Robin Gerber, author of Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way

We were glad to read that the historically misleading quote on the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial will be replaced. Now it's time to trot over to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, a short walk away. Since President Clinton dedicated the FDR memorial in 1997, a sexist, insulting inaccuracy has marred an otherwise magnificent addition to D.C.'s landscape.

The FDR memorial, a sprawling tribute to the 32nd President, sits along the edge of the Tidal Basin. Visitors walk through four outdoor 'rooms,' representing FDR's four terms in office. Bronze statues, granite walls etched with quotes and inventive water features evoke FDR's contribution to American life. In the last room stands Eleanor Roosevelt, the only First Lady to be honored in a presidential memorial. Good as far as it goes -- which isn't very far.

Eleanor stands in a prim pose, in a niche with the United Nations symbol on the wall behind her. After Eleanor's death, President Truman appointed her to the first delegation to the United Nations, an organization which meant a great deal to both her and Franklin. At the United Nations, Eleanor had what she considered her greatest triumph. As chair of the Commission on Human Rights, she helped draft and pass the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That document has been called the Magna Carta of our time.

Eleanor also had quite a bit to say about foreign affairs including three books on the United Nations (two were co-authored), and one called India and the Awakening East. As early as 1928, Eleanor penned "Governor Smith" and "Our Foreign Policy" for Ladies' Home Journal. Dozens of articles, lectures and speeches followed until her death in 1962.

Considering the 17 years Eleanor lived after her husband's death, it is possible that she said and wrote more about foreign policy than he did. Yet, as you stand in front of Eleanor's statue at the FDR memorial, she has nothing to say. The prominent quote, etched into the wall next to her contains Franklin's words, not hers. While this is insult enough, it is made even more offensive by the false impression the quote creates for visitors. The proximity of Franklin's words to Eleanor's statue leads visitors to attribute the quote to her.

Eleanor who, no matter how sick or tired she was, would not let her husband write one word of her daily "My Day" column, stands mute within the memorial's imposing walls. How did this happen? In a call to the office of the architect, Lawrence Halprin, we were told that the scheme of the memorial called for every quote to be from FDR, so attribution was unnecessary, and this is explained in the visitor guide.

In addition, after disability groups protested that FDR's disability was being hidden in the memorial, a statue of him in a wheelchair was placed in the plaza just outside the memorial's entrance. A quote from Eleanor is etched above it, with attribution. Halprin's office seemed unconcerned that Eleanor's quote outside the memorial does nothing to dispel the false impression inside.

Unlike the architect and planners of the FDR memorial, Franklin knew better than to try to silence his wife. When warned that Eleanor was becoming too active in public affairs, Franklin said, "I can always say that's my wife, and there's nothing I can do about her."

No doubt Martin Luther King Jr. , who Eleanor knew well, would agree that it's time we let Eleanor speak for Eleanor.