Women Who Inspire Change: Eleanor Roosevelt

Ellen Chesler, IPPF Council Member

Preparing to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt made her way to the organization’s imposing new headquarters on Manhattan’s East Side. The occasion on March 27, 1958, was a small, scarcely noticed ceremony to release a guide for community-based action on human rights. There, in the hope of rekindling interest in the landmark document that had been forged under her skillful leadership, she uttered several sentences that have become among her most famous:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

Mrs. Roosevelt’s remarks tacitly acknowledged that the once bold vision she and others had put forth for a postwar world governed by collective security arrangements and grounded in a doctrine of universal human rights transcending the sovereignty of nation states was in trouble, a casualty of Cold War politics. If she quietly despaired of state recognition and enforcement of international human rights, however, her conviction that progress could be made instead among families and local communities, where habits of tolerance and of democratic citizenship are first imbued, was not just born of idealism. Even as the mainstream human rights agenda appeared to founder in the years following World War II, incremental steps were taken by the United Nations to broaden accepted definitions of how rights are constituted and codified in communities around the world—especially with respect to the rights of women, a matter in which Mrs. Roosevelt had long taken special interest. In this still formative but potentially significant dimension of the human rights revolution, Mrs. Roosevelt had good reason to feel some encouragement.

Women’s rights first came to be understood as fundamental human rights through the determined efforts of a small group of women from around the world who came together at the dawn of the United Nations and insisted that sex discrimination be part of the conversation. Uncovering these developments is a necessary corrective to a still nascent historiography of the larger human rights enterprise that has so far, by and large, ignored them.

This essay is excerpted from The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women's Rights.

Ellen Chesler, PhD, is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a member of the Advisory Committee of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. Among other works, she is coeditor with Wendy Chavkin, MD, of Where Human Rights Begin: Health, Sexuality and Women in the New Millennium. This essay on the historical foundations of women’s human rights draws on Chesler’s introduction to that volume.

Photo credit: Jeff Kubina

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