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Mary Jo Binker on Eleanor Roosevelt and Advice for Future Historians

“You know what I love about Eleanor Roosevelt and the thing that I try to emulate the most about Eleanor Roosevelt? She had tremendous zest for life and for new experience and that animates me.”

Mary Jo Binker, Editor of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, recounts her favorite qualities about the beloved first lady. As I would later come to understand, Roosevelt seemed to be a driving force in Binker’s life- one that would ultimately motivate her to become her the accomplished historian she is today. Here’s what Ms. Binker had to say about how history has animated her life and how it hopes it can do the same for the coming generations:

Can you tell me a little about yourself and how you got involved in the history world?

Well, I’ve always been interested in history and when I was a freshman in college, two history professors talked to me about actually changing my major because, at that time, I was majoring in journalism and communication. I turned them down and I often think about that. You know, that they saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. So I went on, I finished, and my first career was in advertising and public relations and journalism. Then after I was married and had a child- I was in my forties- I decided to go back to school. I went back and got my masters in American History at George Mason.

You mention that you were a journalism major, do you find that there are a lot of connections between academics in history and people in journalism?

Yes, I think that’s very true. Very often, I think it’s because the skill set is so similar, you know? You’re both dealing with information, you’re dealing with packaging of information in different formats. Journalists often times are focused on a story that their following, but journalists are often readers- many journalists have an interest in history- and so I think there are a lot of natural connections between journalist and historians who are both interested in the evidence. And what does the evidence show? And what can you make of the evidence?

Going off of two things you mentioned, you said that journalists are really focused on the story and on your website you mention that you are a “storyteller,” so how does this relate? Can historians also be story tellers?

Oh, totally!

And if they are, how is it different than a journalist’s story?

Well I think that historians definitely can be story tellers. They should be story tellers! I think how it differs from journalism is that sometimes historians have more room to tell a story. They have more room to tell a nuanced story. Journalists are often on a deadline and they often report on an unfolding story, day by day. Impeachment is a perfect example. You only know as much as you know by the end of every day when you’re a journalist. Whereas when you’re a historian, you’re looking at something that is far enough back that you can begin to see the whole picture, not necessarily all of it because history itself is unfolding too and different generations ask different questions. But, you have a more complete picture of the evidence so you can tell a more nuanced story, usually in a longer space, although not always. Journalists have to write short. Historians can write long. So you can look at something and you can look at it from some different angles and so you can also be more critical. Historians can be more critical than a journalist. A journalist has to be a little more dispassionate, you have to put “on the one hand, on the other hand." Whereas a historian is making an argument. They’re saying, “look this is the evidence and this is what I think the evidence means."

So what would you say to people who claim history cannot have a point of view and that history is void of opinion because “facts are facts”?

Facts are facts, that is true. You know, the American Revolution happened, right? Those are the facts… but what did it mean? That’s the historian’s role, to talk about the meaning that comes out of those events. How did that event move a society forward or backward?  What was the impact of the revolution on the people who lived there? What was the impact of the revolution on the British? And within those parameters you can say, what was the impact of the revolution on women, what did it mean for women? What did it mean for people of color? What did it mean for the growth of the country? If the revolution hadn’t happened?

You seem to be doing a lot of that with the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers. We know the facts, we know about her life, we know the facts about the presidency we know she was a first lady, but I think what you all are doing is providing a different angle. Could you maybe elaborate on that a little?

What the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers does […], is when you work as a documentary editor, you assemble a group of documents from different repositories, and then you look at those documents, and you make a selection from those documents, and then you take those documents and you put them together in chronological order and then you annotate those documents. In other words, you put footnotes, you put endnotes, you explain maybe the background of a particular document. But, the document itself is the thing that the scholar or the student should focus on. All we’re doing is providing background so that you, the scholar or the student, can look at the document and make your own determination as to what you think the evidence means. That’s a little bit different than a historian even telling the story because the historian would take those documents that I have collected and annotate, but then he or she is going to take them and move them in a different direction. They’re going to make an argument on the basis of those document and different people are going to make different arguments. My job as a documentary editor is not to say “that argument is the right argument or this argument is the better argument,” it is simply to lay out the material in a form so that another scholar can tell that nuanced story.

So I had some questions prepared for you about how we can make teaching history better, or more accessible to students, so do you think that would be the first step? Doing something, like what you do, by providing people with the right resources to then let them make their own decision?

Yes. I am a big believer in using primary source documents in the classroom because I want you to have the most direct experience possible with the past. I don’t necessarily want it to filter through me, but I want you to connect with the person on the page. So, I think using primary source documents is very important and I think that’s a way to generate interest and enthusiasm among students. The other thing I think that is also really good, and if you can do it would be great, is to take students to historical sites. I like to think that there’s a residue of energy there that you can connect with if you’ve got some historical imagination. You can take somebody to Mount Vernon! Well, how many different stories can you tell about what happened in Mount Vernon? You can think about George Washington and you can think about him in his military and political careers, but then what about the enslaved people? What story are they telling? If you’re going and looking at those buildings and looking at how they were living, what their daily life was like, what they had to do day to day, there’s a connection that you can make there. If you go and you stand on that beautiful outdoor area, where there are all those chairs, where it leads down to the river and you think about how that’s George Washington’s view. What did he see? And what in his imagination did he see beyond that? So taking people to a place, visiting a place is very evocative and a way to encourage people's interest.

That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Well think about people who go to Civil War battlefields. They’re looking for that connection.

Then what would you is your favorite period in history or favorite part to study?

Well, you know, I really love the period of Eleanor’s life. She was born in 1884 and she lived until 1962, so that encompasses a huge chunk of American history. You can talk about the Progressive Era, you can talk about WWI, you can talk about the Roaring 20s and what that was like, The Depression, WWII, the Cold War. So there’s that… I think those years. I really like the 30s and 40s because you can see the beginnings of our modern society. Franklin Roosevelt harnessed the power of radio, mass communication and to study his presidency is to see in embryonic form our modern presidency and so I think that’s very interesting. On the other hand, I think it’s incredibly interesting to study the period after the civil war, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era, which is a little bit later, because you see people grappling with a whole new set of circumstances. Southerners have lost their property because now the slaves are free. Their whole financial and social order is completely overturned because now there are people who were formerly enslaved now competing with white southerners for the same jobs, advancement, for education for all the things we think of as very normal to life. Watching people grapple with, and looking at the emotion of that, and the memory of that, and how does memory affect that I think is fascinating.

The way you just described Reconstruction sounds a lot like the narrative people use to describe today, with white privilege and white people starting off farther than some of their counterparts. Do you think learning history would be easier or more relatable if you talked about it in connection with today’s circumstances?

I think this gets to the question of “does history repeat itself?” and I think that’s not exactly right… in my humble opinion. I think you can say that human nature is surprisingly consistent across time. Technology changes. But certain kinds of circumstances pose different challenges. We’re living now in a very wired world, whereas in Reconstruction certainly they didn’t have, so you can’t make a one-for-one correlation. But I think what you can do is, you can look at how people reacted to events and you can look at, one of the things I think is really interesting about history, is what we chose to remember and what we chose to forget  and who gets to make those decisions. Looking at that and thinking about what happened in the past and what happens in the future, what happens when you hang on to a memory? Is that a good thing or is that a bad thing? How does that memory keep you either moving forward or does it keep you stuck in the past? And that is the kind of question that you can pose today. It is just as valid as it was 150 years ago. That is where history can be useful.

Okay, so I will pose that question right now. You said that it is interesting to see what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget, and relating it to the work that you do, I see that often we forget women in talking about history. So what do you think about this younger generation trying to rename history “her-story”? Plus, how do we incorporate women into the narrative more than we have in the past?

I think this gets to two issues: the people who are underrepresented in history- women being one group, minorities being another- and what to do about difficult and painful memories. Here, I am thinking about the controversies over the statues, the Civil War statues. They were actually put up after the war, and many of them during the Jim Crowe era. So, I remember talking with a historian friend of mine who happened to be African American and I posed the same question to him. He said you know, “we got to name it and claim it." By that I think he meant we have to take our history as a whole and we have to tell a story that’s about all of us – good and bad. We’re the people who, in our history, after the war with the Marshall Plan, we rebuilt Europe. They used our money to rebuild Europe. Winston Churchill called that “the most unsordid act in history,” so you can put that on the positive side of the ledger. On the other hand, we exterminated a lot of indigenous people and we did that in the name of westward expansion, and colonizing the country, and exploration, and all of that. We had this idea “manifest destiny." It was our idea to go from coast to coast. Okay but…we exterminated those people. We took their land and then we turned around and enslaved another group of people to work that land. Those are not good things, so those go on the not-so-good side of our ledger. The point of it is, you can’t say we’re a good people or a bad people. It’s not about making a moral judgement. It’s about saying, oh, we’re a flawed people! We’ve done all these things. We’ve done good thing in the world and we’ve done bad things.

So where does “naming it and claiming start”? Does it start in the classroom, or does it start in everyday life?

I think it starts in both places. I don’t mean to give a fast answer, but I’m a parent, I raised a child, and I tried to give him an understanding of the world as it was and the world as it is. Then when he went to school, he learned other parts of that. I think as a parent you want to keep an eye on your child’s education. You want to know what they’re learning. My nose was in his history books. I am trying to figure out, what do you know? And what do you need to know? And can I fill in those gaps? Now, I’m a history nerd who’s also a parent. The average parent might not do that.

So is it then up to the parent to educate themselves?

I think partly, yeah. All of education- education in general- should be a lifetime pursuit- really and truly. We're the ones who’ve made it into this “you start in preschool and end in graduate school and the once you get your degree you’re done and you don’t need to know anything else." That’s a distortion. A proper education goes on all your life- that’s a very Eleanor thought. A proper education does go on all through your life, you’re always constantly learning or should be constantly learning. You should be constantly challenging yourself to learn I think. If you’re not, you’re not getting everything out of life that you could be getting out of it. You’re taking up space but you’re not really contributing to the whole picture. 

History is a great tool for that. I talk to a lot of people in my age bracket and a lot of them spend a lot of time watching television, of one kind or another. One set of talking heads, as opposed to another set of talking heads. I don’t have a lot of time to watch TV. Basically what I do, I read couple of newspapers and I read history. It is really, pretty remarkable that when I get in a conversation with somebody, I’ve got a lot to contribute because I can say… well look, from a historical perspective, this, this and this are playing into whatever the situation is. Have you considered this from that angle? Because of this, this, and this.

So does being historian or knowing about history give you a leg up in having these kinds of conversations?

I think so. I’d like to think so. I sometimes meet with people and I’m taking them around Washington and they say to me, “talk to my kids, I really don’t know anything,” and I feel like there’s so much of our history that has a bearing on what we’re doing now and how perceive what happening is now that not to know it, is to really deprive yourself of the full picture. It’s really shocking and its sad in so many ways.

So we have room to grow?


With that, I think I can ask the final question. What’s your favorite thing about Eleanor Roosevelt? I know you could go on for hours…

You know what I love about Eleanor Roosevelt and the thing that I try to emulate the most about Eleanor Roosevelt? She had tremendous zest for life and for new experience and that animates me. I want to be engaged with what’s going on around me. Kyla’s been so great to let me be a little bit a part of your [history] class, and I, like Eleanor, love to connect with young people. I love to work with young people because I feed off your energy, I feed of your ideas. There’s just so much to learn to grow to explore in that sweet spot where you’re coming into all of that. It’s exciting to really share that. So I think that’s one of my most favorite things about Eleanor.