The Roosevelt women
Last Wednesday, I wrote about the two US presidents who were in the White House during the American colonial occupation of the Philippines: Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (often referred to simply as FDR). Both presidents are the focus of an excellent documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” currently running on Netflix.
Today I will write about two Roosevelt women. “The Roosevelts” documentary gave prominent coverage to Eleanor Roosevelt’s life and work. Despite a troubled marriage to FDR, she stood by her husband and was able to push him for more liberal agendas, especially around welfare programs and civil rights. Her political influence was so strong that even after FDR’s death, the Democrats, FDR’s party, continued to consult her.
She was also called on to help start the United Nations. First scoffed at as a token figure, she proved herself firm and shrewd, navigating the perilous waters of international diplomacy, including the growing tensions with the Soviet Union.
But she’s most remembered for her key role in getting a Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948. That declaration is now taught in our schools, but, sadly, is violated more
often than observed.
Eleanor was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt, who had a daughter who was also remarkable, but is only mentioned occasionally in the documentary. This is Alice, who has been described as the first celebrity presidential daughter, a favorite target of mass gossip. She drove, smoked and spoke her mind. Tough Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”
Of relevance to the Philippines, she was part of a top-level delegation sent out to Asia by her father in 1905. The trip was intended to show off American global power, with stopovers in Japan, Hawaii, China, Korea and the Philippines, which the United States had just annexed seven years earlier. The delegation had 83 people, including the US secretary of war William Howard Taft, later to become US president, and 23 congressmen, seven senators and various government officials and businessmen.
In Japan, the delegation negotiated to get Japan move toward ending a war with Russia. The United States offered to allow Japan to continue its occupation of Korea while Japan would not touch the United States’ gem in the Pacific, the Philippines. The peace treaty between Russia and Japan won Theodore Roosevelt the Nobel Peace Prize.
Excerpts from Alice’s diaries are online (google “Alice in Asia”), from which we learn of the itinerary, which included Manila, Cavite, Bulacan, Iloilo, Bacolod, Zamboanga, Jolo and, on the way back to the capital, Cebu, Tacloban, Legazpi and Sorsogon, all in all taking 26 days.
Alice’s diaries note the architecture (“a little disappointing, it did not have for me the charms of the Spanish-American houses”), house lizards “of all sizes and shapes,” dancing the rigadon (sic). She sat through many banquets and speeches (“long-drawn, same, inevitable”) and Taft pestering her, presumably during boring moments, if she was engaged to congressman Nicholas Longsworth, who was also part of the delegation, to which she would reply “More or less, more or less.” She later married the congressman.
In Sulu, the Sultan gave her a pearl ring and asked if she could stay and become his wife, because his people wanted her to.
There’s a little-known historical footnote to the trip. Macario Sakay and his rebel force, who continued to fight the Americans even after the official end of the Philippine-American War, had apparently planned to kidnap Alice. That plan was thwarted because the delegation dropped a visit to Baguio, where the kidnapping would have taken place. Imagine the furor such a kidnapping would have caused if it happened, especially for a trip that was so clearly intended to show that the Americans had full control of PI (Philippine Islands).
Although a Republican like her father, Alice’s political views became more liberal with age. There is the story of an incident in 1965 when a taxi driver confronted her chauffeur: “What do you think you’re doing you black bastard?” The chauffeur kept quiet but Alice retorted: “He’s taking me to my destination, you white son of a bitch.”
She had access to US presidents all her life, loving John Kennedy and snubbing Jimmy Carter, who admitted wondering, “which was worse—to be skewered by her wit or to be ignored by her?”
There were presidents, too, who banned her from the White House: Taft because she supposedly buried a voodoo doll representing the new first lady in the White House garden before leaving, and Woodrow Wilson because she cracked an off-color joke about him.
Shouldn’t we be writing, too, about our women in Malacañang—presidents, first ladies, daughters, granddaughters?
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