CLIO TALKS BACK: Guest Blog: Eleanor Roosevelt and her tea table

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Eleanor Roosevelt and her dog Fala
After more than a decade as First Lady during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) embarked on a new life as a widow and a new career as a humanitarian leader. President Truman appointed her to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations.

In the course of the 1946 General Assembly meeting in London, Eleanor learned important lessons about the role of gender in politics. Appointed to Committee Three (humanitarian, educational, and cultural questions), she discovered that it had the potential to become one of the most important committees. In that committee she took a leading role in drafting the U. N. Declaration of Human Rights.
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Eleanor with a copy of the Declaration of Human Rights

Like so many other women in history, Eleanor Roosevelt understood that many issues could best be discussed and resolved around a table, in her case a tea table. In this excerpt from her autobiography, she explains how she navigated:

“During the entire London session of the Assembly I walked on eggs. I knew that as the only woman on the [U.S.] delegation, I was not very welcome. Moreover, if I failed to be a useful member, it would not be considered merely that I as an individual had failed but that all women had failed, and there would be little chance for others to serve in the near future.

“I tried to think of small ways in which I might be more helpful. There were not many women on the other delegations, and as soon as I got to know some of them I invited them all to tea in my sitting room at the hotel. About sixteen, most of them alternate delegates or advisers, accepted my invitation. Even the Russian woman came, bringing an interpreter with her. The talk was partly just social but as we became better acquainted we also talked about the problems on which we were working in the various committees. The party was so successful that I asked them again on other occasions. I discovered that in such informal sessions we sometimes made more progress in reaching an understanding on some questions before the United Nations than we had been able to achieve in the formal work of our committees.

“As a result, I established a custom, which I continued throughout the years I was connected with the United Nations, of trying to get together with other nations’ representatives at luncheon or dinner or for a few hours in the evening. I found that often a few people of different nationalities, meeting on a semisocial basis, could talk together about a common problem with better results than when they were meeting officially as a committee.”

Source: Eleanor Roosevelt, The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992; orig. ed. 1961), pp. 305.