A new book by Angela Beauchamp, a lecturer in Film History and department administrator in the Film & Digital Arts program at The University of New Mexico, examines First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s record as one of the most important women of the 20th century and her role as a television broadcasting pioneer. Eleanor Roosevelt on Screen: The First Lady’s Appearances in Film and Television, 1932–1962 was published in November.

Angela Beauchamp

Beauchamp recalled her introduction to the former First Lady. During the mid-1970s heyday of the television mini-series, Eleanor and Franklin appeared on ABC in January 1976 with a sequel the following year, Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years.

“At the time, I was an 11-year-old girl watching from my living room in Indiana and actively searching for role models outside my small town. The mass market paperback of the biography written by Joseph Lash on which the mini-series was based is the oldest book I still own, tattered cover barely attached, and my memories of reading it on the school bus and reaching up to put it into the top shelf of my locker each day are still vivid. I latched on to the forward-thinking activist Eleanor Roosevelt and have never let go.” 

Years later, while writing about portrayals of women in biographical films and docudramas, Beauchamp saw not only representations, but actual footage of Eleanor on TV.

“After realizing that no one had done significant research on her moving image history, I dove in. Eleanor’s life had so many dimensions that her savvy use of the brand-new medium of television has been previously overlooked by scholars.”

Roosevelt recognized the power of film and television, especially as educational tools to reach young people. She was the first woman to host major public affairs broadcast television, with Today with Mrs. Roosevelt (1950) and Mrs. Roosevelt Meets the Public (1950-51) weekly on NBC. Albert Einstein made his first TV appearance with her. The series Prospects of Mankind aired monthly on National Educational Television, the precursor of PBS, from 1959 to 1962. In between, she played a significant media role during the Cold War and often appeared in guest spots to promote the United Nations, favored candidates, and progressive issues, talking with Ed Sullivan, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Mike Wallace, and Edward R. Murrow. 

“In the context of my book, she is a wonderful example of someone using the media to make the world a better place. She was the first woman to host major public affairs broadcast television, and she did this in an effort to advance the causes of world peace and the rights of women and the politically marginalized. I’ve always been astounded with what she was able to accomplish, largely resisting the trivialization or sexualization that plagued most women in the 1930s through the early 1960s. I observed that she and the rest of the Roosevelt team portrayed Eleanor’s work in gendered terms, allowing her to enter the public world of men as a less threatening wife and mother ‘do-gooder,’ rather than the skilled political force we now know her to be. They preempted some of the criticism of an activist Eleanor by couching everything she did in terms of an extension of FDR and merely a wife and helpmate, or Franklin’s eyes and ears in the context of his limited mobility, not a woman with ambitions of her own.”

The First Lady was intimately involved in promoting the New Deal philosophy and its programs and was part of a savvy Roosevelt political team that used mass media to shape the opinions of the public in the United States and abroad from 1933 to 1945. She was already a master of print and radio communications, writing a syndicated daily newspaper column (8,000 in total), 500 articles, and 27 books in her lifetime. She started her own radio program in 1932, even speaking to the nation following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor before FDR’s own address.

“Eleanor often said that she had faith in the people of the United States to make the right decisions if they were educated on the issues and problems facing us and the world… She felt that people absorbed valuable information from television without even recognizing it, exposing them to issues and enabling greater participation in politics. Discussions of race, labor, women’s rights, youth, and the Soviet Union were just some of the topics she broached on air. As our initial delegate to the United Nations and Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the UN and international relations made up her primary concern throughout the 1950s.”

The audience for her book is much broader than that of the typical film and television history because Roosevelt’s works spans the 1930s through the early 1960s and is intimately tied to politics, Beauchamp said, noting that readers interested in mid-century American history, women’s history, and film and television history will enjoy the book. 

“I consider Eleanor Roosevelt to be the most important American woman of the 20th century. She gave voice to others who were often not allowed the opportunity to be heard and advocated for civil rights, worker’s rights, and human rights on an international stage. She led in a way that respected individuals and their struggles, encouraging everyone to take part in the full life of their country. Hers was a distinctive style of persuasion and respect, not disregarding one’s political opponent, but educating all in the interests of every participant. She demonstrated these techniques as the primary author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as a television host and moderator. I’ve learned a lot about how to lead from her example. UNM’s Staff Council isn’t the UN, but sometimes I’ve pulled out some Eleanor tricks,” Beauchamp said.

Eleanor Roosevelt on Screen: The First Lady’s Appearances in Film and Television, 1932–1962 is available from McFarland.