Eleanor Roosevelt talks about her work in the United Nations - her fears, struggles and triumphs, and in closing, touches on the work waiting to be done.
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen. First I would like to thank you very much for a very nice introduction. Then I would like to say how much I wish that I could speak to you in your language. It's always a marvel to me when people speak to me in my language, and I'm very much ashamed that I cannot answer in theirs. I will try, however, to speak as simply and as clearly as possible and if the women who primarily organized this meeting feel that they want to ask me questions afterwards about anything that is not clear, I will be delighted to try to answer.
I was asked to tell you a little about my work in the UN. I began to work in 1946 in London at the first meeting of the General Assembly. I was the one woman on the United States delegation. Now in the Indonesian Constitution women have equal rights with men and many of the things which are in the Declaration of Human Rights are also in the Indonesian Constitution. But all of us know that having something in the constitution of a country doesn't always mean that it actually happens just the way it's written down in the constitution.
In my country, women today in many ways have complete equality. They have equal opportunity for education. They can work in practically any field that they wish to work in. But for a woman to be named on a delegation to the UN I knew very well was an experiment. I knew very well that if I did anything wrong it wouldn't just be my failure, it would be all women who had failed. If I hadn't been able to do the work that was to be done, then they would say, "You see it's a mistake to name a woman because women aren't capable of doing such and such a thing." So I felt a very great sense of responsibility and I behaved with the greatest possible care during that first session of the General Assembly, not only with other delegates but with my own delegates.
It just happened that I was put on Committee Three. Committee Three in the General Assembly deals with humanitarian, cultural and social questions. And the first question that caused a great deal of argument was the question of whether people displaced through the war and at that time in camps in Europe should be returned to their countries of origin against their will. The Soviet delegates were saying that everyone should go back to the country he came from because if he did not want to go back it was because he had been a traitor to his country. Many of us knew that a great many people were out of their countries because the governments of their countries had changed. It was now no longer their country; it belonged to another government and it was a different kind of government. Therefore, a good many people did not want to go back to their countries of origin. And we argued for a long time that people should not be repatriated against their will. It came up finally in the General Assembly at the very last meeting in the report of Committee Three, and the Soviets spoke on the need for sending everyone back. Anyone who didn't want to go should be sent back to be tried in his own country, they said, because he must be a traitor. Well, there was a great deal of excitement in the United States delegation, because I had served Committee Three.
Nobody else knew anything about this question and I saw all the gentlemen putting their heads together and finally one of them came over to me and said, "do you think you could say something about this question?" I could see quite well that the idea that a woman was going to get up and speak to the General Assembly was a terrifying idea to all the men in my delegation. They were frightened to death. They thought, "Oh dear, she'll do something terrible; she'll say something she shouldn't say and it'll be awful. Nobody will be persuaded by her." But there wasn't anyone else who knew anything about it. So finally I got up and answered the Soviet delegate who happened to be the same Soviet delegate we have been answering ever since, Mr. Vishinsky. We stayed until nearly 2 o'clock in the morning and we won the vote, and people were not returned against their will. That has come up for discussion in every single meeting of the General Assembly since and we have always won the vote. That was my first experience and I assure you it frightened my own delegation more than it frightened anyone else, because they were so afraid the woman they had named was going to do very badly. So I tell you that to show you that when a woman is given work to do she is not doing it just for herself, she is doing it to establish the fact that all women can do a piece of work. Therefore it's very important that women are well trained for any work they undertake, and that they do not undertake any work until they themselves are sure that they know about the work they're going to do, and that they can keep learning so that they will be able to meet whatever is required by that work. I emphasize that because I have served on our delegation ever since that first meeting of the General Assembly, longer than anyone else in our delegation. The others have come in later, or they have missed meetings. I am the one person who has never missed a meeting, and I know more people probably in other delegations and more background on what happened in the past and what may happen than most of the other members. We usually have two women in our delegation. Usually we have an alternate who serves on some committee and gets a little of the knowledge that comes to us all in the great opportunity we have in the UN for meeting people from other countries and getting to know a little about their problems, the things that they are interested in and the things that affect them in their lives and in their homes.
Now in the spring of 1946 after the General Assembly was over and when all the machinery of the UN began to be organized, the Economic and Social Council named a preparatory commission. They called it a "nuclear commission," to consider the question of how a permanent commission on human rights should be set up, how the members should be named, how many members there should be and what their work should be. The Economic and Social Council named me as one of the members of that commission what met in New York in the spring of 1946 in temporary quarters at Hunter College.
Well, I was elected chairman of that preparatory commission
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