Rough, gruff, tough-guy Teddy. Always ready for a fight or a brisk hike. Carry a big stick, Roosevelt. Macho mustachioed man. We know all these perspectives of Teddy, but do you know this one…
Theodore Roosevelt, supporter of equal rights.
Let’s be honest: American history isn’t always pretty, and especially when Teddy was in office, the country was in a particularly ugly growing phase. Racial equality was next to none, the nonsense of white supremacy reigned heavy over immigrants and natives alike, and a married woman had about as many rights as a child.
Teddy was ahead of his time in his views on women’s rights. In fact, his college thesis was on the “Practicality of Giving Men and Women Equal Rights.” In it he debated for equal rights in marriage, even going so far as to say a woman shouldn’t be required to take her husband’s last name! In 1883, sitting on the New York State Assembly, Teddy introduced corporal punishment for men who beat their wives. When he served as police commissioner in New York, he hired more women in the precinct and made sure that male law-breakers were punished as often as females. During his run for President for a third term, he was the Progressive ‘Bull Moose’ party candidate, which welcomed women as equals into their midst. He was paramount to getting the vote for women’s suffrage onto the ballots both in 1913—when it failed—and 1917, when it passed.
As a Republican President, Roosevelt endorsed the party’s belief that all men are equal, and that unfair treatment of a person based on their skin color is unconstitutional. Under his term, many Asian immigrants especially were migrating to the U.S. Though Teddy didn’t take any exceptional action in favor of furthering racial acceptance with his Presidential power, he consistently tried his best to guide the public toward a more accepting, united America by example. As he once said, “This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.”
In 1901, Roosevelt invited professor and spokesperson Booker T. Washington over to the White House for advice. After a few hours of conversation, the President invited Mr. Washington to dine with him. Innocent enough, right? So what stirred up an outage amongst the public at the simple dinner? Well, Mr. Booker T. Washington happened to be a Black American. The heavily racist Southern states were appalled at Roosevelt’s choice and his political standing suffered majorly because of the dinner. Did it sway him? Well, he never invited Mr. Washington back, but he definitely didn’t apologize for the dinner or his fine company.
Teddy’s views on equality evolved over the course of his life. As Progressive “Bull Moose” party candidate, he publicly endorsed equal rights for women, as well as better job conditions for the working class. Before the American public was ready to accept complete equality, President Theodore Roosevelt led by example, striving to do what was right when the right thing to do was unclear and unpopular.