The Unstoppable Eleanor

It’s nice to take a break from the mayhem of the moment and reflect on the mayhem of days gone by. I have a piece in this week’s issue of TIME about Eleanor Roosevelt—a First Lady ahead of her time (and ours). I was struck by what she managed to get away with—close friendships with pacifists, lesbians and men half her age, an apartment in the Village, a role shaping U.S. policy on segregation, the military and education, among other things.

I’m not saying it was easy; the woman was under surveillance by her own government and she lost as many battles as she won. But she and her husband did pull it off for 12 years. And then, after he died, she became even more influential—at the UN, the NAACP, in her six-days-per-week nationally syndicated column (which reads like a blog, but not a terrible one), and on and on.

I do think that the cliché is true: No other First Lady resembles Eleanor Roosevelt so much as Hillary Clinton. Both were smart, ambitious, guarded women with charismatic husbands who could not be trusted around attractive women. Both were workhorses who cared about policy as much as politics. And both were more powerful after their husbands’ presidencies were over. One difference is that Hillary Clinton was more honest—she did not try to hide her influence. And she was probably less powerful in the White House as a result.

It’s ridiculous to predict Michelle Obama’s tenure this early on. But reading the histories of First Ladies, I did notice how almost every one is alleged to have “broken the mold” at one point or another. Michelle Obama already “broke the mold”—just because of her skin color. I suppose the reason for this neverending mold-breaking is that there really is no mold for First Lady. It’s a job without a mandate or a mission. So each woman reinvents it, like it or not. So far, Michelle has two things in common with Eleanor: They both planted gardens a the White House, and they both made a point of being a citizen of Washington, DC—the city, not the theme park. But these are early days…

GeneralAmanda Ripley