Abbot Independent Scholar Theo Baker ’22 Depicts Eleanor Roosevelt as an Activist Ahead of Her Time

The 1940’s was not only the age of shirtwaist dresses, atomic bombs, and World War II, but it was also the time of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Although widely known for her husband, former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theo Baker ’22 explored the independent legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt during his Abbot Independent Scholar Presentation this past Friday.

Taking the opportunity of President’s Day to explore a more hidden narrative, Baker discussed Eleanor Roosevelt’s story. He reinforced the importance of acknowledging the stories of political figures with different identities, especially due to the demographics of the United State’s political history.

“On Presidents Day, we celebrate 45 white men and 1 Black man. There is very little diversity in the image of power that we have. Eleanor Roosevelt is a person who really broke the mold, and sort of broke into politics in a way that she really was not supposed to. On a day where we celebrate so many straight white men, it’s important to talk about how even in the past that narrative has been different,” said Baker in an interview with The Phillipian.

During the presentation, Baker detailed the life of Roosevelt and her childhood traumas. Both of her parents passed away in her early childhood, leaving Roosevelt to raise her younger brothers. While married to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she discovered her husband was having an affair with the secretary she hired, Lucy Mercer. However, according to Baker, Roosevelt was also theorized to have another lover—journalist Lorena Hickok—who she exchanged frequent affectionate letters with.

“[Eleanor Roosevelt’s] life is a lot more interesting than the picture we have. She was a lesbian in a time period where that was not acceptable. She was thoroughly abused and thoroughly traumatized and still somehow staked her own place. She battled misogyny on a day to day basis, as much as any person in the 20th century did. Remembering Eleanor for her story, as an individual… is a really important task,” said Baker.

Despite her struggles, Roosevelt was an integral part of her husband’s presidential campaign. Baker emphasized the independent role that Roosevelt took in Former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaign. According to Baker, Eleanor Roosevelt’s independence took immense courage and played an important role in gaining political traction for Former Vice President Henry Wallace.

“Armed with a single sheet of notes… Eleanor Roosevelet entered a hostile convention floor with the goal of unifying the party behind her husband’s [Vice President] pick. She stepped on stage and delivered a powerful address that was later single handedly credited with saving her husband’s political blunder and securing his third term. In just six minutes, she overwhelmingly turned the tide. A convention floor about to riot was shocked into silence… and then hours later voted in near unison for [Former Vice President] Wallace, who was received well by newspapers the next day,” said Baker.

Attendee Maggie Qi ’24 expressed that they enjoyed learning about Eleanor Roosevelt’s own journey. According to Qi, Baker framed Roosevelt through her activism, research, and work ethic, rather than her role as First Lady.

“I feel like it deviated from the narrative of her being the wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt and [focused] more on Eleanor Roosevelt herself, her legacy, what she did as an independent woman… She’s often in FDR’s shadow and this

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takes on her own personality outside of being the first lady and how she also at the same time, [used] that status to empower herself,” said Qi.

Prince LaPaz ’24 admired Eleanor Rooselvet’s ambition and search for agency. According to Baker, Roosevelt was an active member of her community, as she replied to many of those who wrote to her. She also had her own podcast and wrote every day for 30 years.

“[Baker] talked a lot about this—emphasizing how hardworking she was. We talked about her 1000 words every single day for 30 years, six days a week. Then she was doing podcasts all the time. She was talking to people… I think it was like 3am or something like that. She stayed up like that every single day writing handwritten letters to every single person… And [Baker] also said that once she starts talking to someone, she [talks] with them until they die. It’s like she wrote right back every single time and I feel like I should be able to take away from her hard work in this and work harder,” said LaPaz.

According to Baker, Eleanor Roosevelt sacrificed a lot in order to influence change in the United States. Even when her marriage faced divorce, Roosevelt continued to work on her podcast and public relations. Attendee Kian Burt ’24 noted the extent of the influence of Roosevelt’s sacrifices.

“One thing specifically that stood out to me was the fact that even though there [was] an oppressive precedent, or precedents for a divorce, she decided to stay there [with Roosevelt] for the sake of having the influence to make change in America. And that was [a] very powerful message,” said Burt.

Attendee Amina Hurd ’23 offered a modern lens on what she took away from Baker’s explanation of Eleanor Roosevelt’s distinct patriotism. According to Hurd, although American patriotism is currently focused on a division, Roosevelt encouraged a sense of unity.

“Eleanor [Roosevelt] was a patriot, right. She did a lot of things for America and to motivate the American public… Right now I feel like being American and believing strongly in these ‘American values,’ promotes more of a divide…Being American really became about distinguishing yourself from this other and working against this other to try to kick this other out, or to build a wall to stop this other from coming in. I think a lot of the difference between Eleanor Roosevelt’s patriotism and patriotism today is that for Eleanor, she was working towards unity, and now [American patriotism] is about working towards unity of a certain population and division from this other,” said Hurd.

In addition to his Abbot Independent Scholar presentation, Baker has been working on a novel titled “First Woman.” The plot revolves around Eleanor Roosevelt and explores her role as the arguable first female president. Although he does not have a release date specified, he shared a short excerpt from his book during the presentation, which is available on MediaSpace to Andover students.