Roosevelt opens his speech with a paean to rural America and the “men of the soil, have hitherto made the foundation of lasting national life in every State…” But as much as he lauds the farms as the foundation of the country which allow the cities to exist, there is another foundation even more important to the country: properly-conducted family life.
But the Nation is in a bad way if there is no real
home, if the family is not of the right kind; if the
man is not a good husband and father, if he is
brutal or cowardly or selfish, if the woman has
lost her sense of duty, if she is sunk in vapid self-
indulgence or has let her nature be twisted so that
she prefers a sterile pseudo-intellectuality to that
great and beautiful development of character which
comes only to those whose lives know the fulness
of duty done, of effort made and self-sacrifice
It’s pure supposition, but it seems likely that Roosevelt learned his devotion to family life the hard way. In 1883, when his first wife, Alice, was pregnant with their first child, he spent the summer vacationing in the Dakotas and investing in cattle ranching. Upon his return, he returned to Albany for his third term in the New York Assembly, while Alice moved in with his mother in New York. He was convinced that his first child would be born on February 14, 1884, the day of his engagement to Alice four years earlier. As her term drew near, he remained in Albany and received news that his daughter had been born on February 12th. He was debating a reform bill and did not head for New York until he received a second telegram, telling him that his wife was gravely ill. He arrived home around midnight on February 13th, and discovered his mother dying of typhoid fever and his wife semi-comatose. His mother died shortly after his arrival, and his wife died 11 hours later.
Roosevelt goes on to describe the functions of husband and wife in the family.
There are certain old truths which will be true as
long as this world endures, and which no amount
of progress can alter. One of these is the truth
that the primary duty of the husband is to be the
homemaker, the breadwinner for his wife and children,
and that the primary duty of the woman is
to be the helpmeet, the housewife, and mother.
The woman should have ample educational advantages;
but save in exceptional cases the man must
be, and she need not be, and generally ought not
to be, trained for a lifelong career as the family
breadwinner; and, therefore, after a certain point
the training of the two must normally be different
because the duties of the two are normally different.
He does hasten to add that he is not describing “inequality of function” but rather for the “dissimilarity of function” and states that “on the whole I respect the woman who does her duty even more than I respect the man who does his.” This attitude, too, may have been learned the hard way, although his hypocrisy doesn’t seem to have caused him many qualms.
Teddy Roosevelt’s younger brother, Elliot (and Eleanor Roosevelt’s father) was a womanizer and heavy drinker, while Teddy was more Puritanical in his approach to life. He also had presidential ambitions early on in his career and was keenly aware of how the allegations (true) that Grover Cleveland had an illegitimate son almost derailed Cleveland’s quest for the presidency. (That’s a story worth reading about; most of what are considered “fact” cast Cleveland in an honorable light, and the mother of his child as a harlot or “easy” woman. In fact, it’s likely that she became pregnant after being sexually assaulted by Cleveland.) When a chambermaid employed by the Elliot Roosevelt’s became pregnant and claimed Elliot was the father, TR responded by working to see that Elliot was separated from his family by being institutionalized. By having his brother declared unfit or insane, Roosevelt hoped to contain the scandal. Although Elliot had given up drinking at the time (1891) and was living with his family in Europe, the pressure from TR led him to go off the wagon. His wife and young daughter, Eleanor, returned to the States, and Elliot only followed some time later after being placed in the enforced care of a doctor. In the States, two different courts declared Elliot both sane and competent, but the damage to his reputation was both public and extreme, and he agreed to TRs terms that he never see his wife or child again. He died in 1894 from complications after an attempted suicide. He was 34. (The story, told with a bit of tabloid flare)
Roosevelt continues his praise his praise of womanhood and shares his recognition that the duty’s of a mother are often under-appreciated and “the lives of these women are often led on the lonely heights of quiet, self-sacrificing heroism.” Despite his expressed respect, he can’t resist an admonitory moment:
Into the woman’s keeping is committed the destiny
of the generations to come after us. In bringing up your children
you mothers must remember
that while it is essential to be loving and tender it is
no less essential to be wise and firm. Foolishness
and affection must not be treated as interchange
able terms; and besides training your sons and
daughters in the softer and milder virtues you must
seek to give them those stern and hardy qualities
which in after life they will surely need. Some
children will go wrong in spite of the best training;
and some will go right even when their surroundings
are most unfortunate; nevertheless an immense
amount depends upon the family training. If you
mothers through weakness bring up your sons to be
selfish and to think only of themselves, you will be
responsible for much sadness among the women who
are to be their wives in the future. If you let your
daughters grow up idle, perhaps under the mistaken
impression that as you yourselves have had to work
hard they shall know only enjoyment, you are
preparing them to be useless to others and burdens to
themselves. Teach boys and girls alike that they are
not to look forward to lives spent in avoiding
difficulties but to lives spent in overcoming difficulties.
Finally, Roosevelt reaches the climactic moment of his speech. After praising women and warning women of their duties as mothers, he warns of one other danger that women must fend off.
There are many good people who are denied the
supreme blessing of children, and for these we have
the respect and sympathy always due to those who,
from no fault of their own, are denied any of the
other great blessings of life. But the man or woman
who deliberately foregoes these blessings, whether
from viciousness, coldness, shallow-heartedness,
self-indulgence, or mere failure to appreciate aright the
difference between the all-important and the
unimportant why, such a creature merits contempt as
hearty as any visited upon the soldier who runs
away in battle, or upon the man who refuses to work
for the support of those dependent upon him, and
who though able-bodied is yet content to eat in idle
ness the bread which others provide…
…The existence of women of this type forms one of
the most unpleasant and unwholesome features of
Then Roosevelt reacts to a recent article he had read where a clergyman had suggested family’s limit themselves to two children, in order to be able to provide “an opportunity ‘to taste a few of the good
things of life.'” Roosevelt is appalled and outraged by this suggestion.
That it also exists in
American life is made unpleasantly evident by the statistics
as to the dwindling families in some localities. It is
made evident in equally sinister fashion by the census
statistics as to divorce, which are fairly appalling;
for easy divorce is now, as it ever has been, a bane to any
nation, a curse to society, a menace to the home,
an incitement to married unhappiness and to immorality,
an evil thing for men and a still more hideous evil for
…The intelligence of the remark is on a par with
its morality, for the most rudimentary mental process
would have shown the speaker that if the average
family in which there are children contained but two
children the Nation as a whole would decrease in
population so rapidly that in two or three generations
it would very deservedly be on the point of
extinction, so that the people who had acted on this
base and selfish doctrine would be giving place to
others with braver and more robust ideals. Nor
would such a result be in any way regrettable; for a
race that practiced such doctrine that is, a race
that practiced race suicide would thereby conclusively
show that it was unfit to exist, and that it had
better give place to people who had not forgotten
the primary laws of their being.
The conclusion of the speech is a veritable call to holiness, only available to women and the responsibility of women.
The woman’s task is not easy no task worth
doing is easy but in doing it, and when she has done
it, there shall come to her the highest and holiest joy
known to mankind; and having done it, she shall
have the reward prophesied in Scripture; for her
husband and her children, yes, and all people who
realize that her work lies at the foundation of all
national happiness and greatness, shall rise up and
call her blessed.
Teddy Roosevelt’s first wife died of kidney failure. She had undiagnosed and untreated kidney disease that went unnoticed in large part because of her pregnancy. Despite that, Roosevelt calls for [white] women to provide a Quiverfull of babies, as their duty as women and Americans. It’s not fair to judge a historical figure by today’s standards, but the nature of patriarchy hasn’t changed much over the years. And that’s why we must continue to fight through the midterms and beyond.
Note: I wrote this post before going on vacation and will be taking a red-eye home Monday night/Tuesday morning. I may not be around until later in the day to respond to comments.
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