What would Eleanor do? 'If You Ask Me' revisits Roosevelt's advice columns

Eleanor Roosevelt's advice column — "If You Ask Me" — ran from 1941, when she was still first lady, to her death in 1962. She's shown in October 1957.
Eleanor Roosevelt's advice column — "If You Ask Me" — ran from 1941, when she was still first lady, to her death in 1962. She's shown in October 1957.

"Advice columnist" is not a role that is usually listed under Eleanor Roosevelt's long list of achievements, but for over 20 years she wrote a popular write-in column, first for Ladies Home Journal and then McCall's magazine.

Roosevelt wasn't especially witty or psychologically acute in the role; unlike many of today's inspirational "life coaches," Roosevelt didn't invite her readers to accompany her on extended journeys of introspection.

Indeed, when a questioner wrote in 1944 asking what the president said to her when he proposed, Roosevelt firmly drew the curtains over that intimate subject by replying, "There are some things in life which one should be allowed to keep to oneself."

But one of the things Roosevelt did have going for herself as a counselor and dispenser of practical wisdom was the fact that she was so real. She clearly was not performing, nor winking at her readers; and she certainly wasn't checking in with a public relations team before weighing in on questions ranging from the death penalty (anti), birth control (pro) and how soon a widow might begin dating again after the loss of a beloved husband. ("Heavens above!" Roosevelt exclaimed in a column in 1946. "You can decently be seen with other men whenever you feel like going out again. This is your life ...")

Once upon a time in America, ordinary people turned to Roosevelt for advice, and as these columns attest, she repaid their trust with responses that are downright startling to read today because of how seriously she took even their most mundane problems.

Roosevelt's advice column was called "If You Ask Me," and it ran from 1941 — when, of course, she was still first lady — to her death in 1962. A selection of those columns has just been published in a book, also called If You Ask Me, edited by Roosevelt scholar Mary Jo Binker. As with "anything Eleanor" you have to wonder where she found the time to be a regular magazine columnist in addition to, among other things, writing her syndicated newspaper column, called "My Day," holding weekly White House press conferences, traveling around the country on behalf of New Deal programs and answering some estimated 130,000 letters a year as first lady.

The America that emerges through this 20-year sampling of Roosevelt's advice column is at once familiar and very long gone. We're still wrestling, of course, with arguments over civil liberties, national health care, the Electoral College and institutionalized racism and sexism. Roosevelt gamely weighed in on those "hot button" topics.

But then there are a whole slew of other letters here that come out of an America so earnest it almost seems like the product of a work of speculative fiction. Imagine being a young woman in 1949 and feeling that it was OK to write to Roosevelt to ask: "Do girls who refuse to neck ever get married?" Or the 19-year-old youth, a veteran of World War II, who asked in 1946 if he was too young to marry his sweetheart. (Roosevelt uncharacteristically waffled on that one.)

Although she was, by nature and upbringing, emotionally reticent, Roosevelt sometimes responded to the genuine need of her questioners with an openness that was rare then and almost unimaginable now. In 1954, she received a letter that read:

My sister eats her heart out about mistakes she made bringing up her oldest boy. She thinks you're a great woman, Mrs. Roosevelt, and I wish you could tell her a few mistakes you think you made when your children were growing up.

Roosevelt wrote a long response that, in part, contained these raw admissions:

I gave in and allowed one of my sons to be sent to boarding school. ... I did not have the courage to fight the family tradition. ... It was a serious mistake on my part. ...

I did too little for my three older children personally when they were babies.

As trivial a cultural artifact as an advice column may seem to be, Roosevelt's "If You Ask Me" columns reveal multitudes about the extraordinary relationship she forged with her fellow Americans, of all races, young and old.

There's something very democratic about this 20-plus-year monthly "conversation" of sorts that Roosevelt conducted on the pages of popular women's magazines. People felt they had a right to contact Roosevelt and she felt she had a responsibility to respond. And although "seriousness" was her hallmark as an advice columnist, I also get the feeling that writing these columns and, consequently, being more connected to the lives of everyday Americans gave Roosevelt great joy. Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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