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How FDR’s Secretary Helped Influence The New Deal

History By
Credit: Harris & Ewing Collection (Library of Congress)
(Harris and Ewing Collection – Library of Congress)

When historical lists of powerful, influential women in Western politics are compiled, one name is consistently left out: Marguerite LeHand. She wasn’t a president or prime minister, and never held an elected political office, but her role as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal secretary was vital to the success of the New Deal, and thus vital to America’s success throughout the 20th century.

Credit: Bettmann / Contributor

In addition to her on-paper job as FDR’s secretary, LeHand (nicknamed “Missy”) exerted control over many of his day-to-day affairs, including who got an audience with him. She also supervised staffers, assisted with speechwriting, and acted as a sounding board for the president’s thoughts and ideas (a brainstorming process he referred to as “intellectual work”). In this way, she was a confidant and an unrecognized advisor to the president, a role best summarized by her impact on the New Deal.

LeHand, a lower-class Boston native who believed strongly in the ideas behind the New Deal, helped FDR strengthen his relationship with Catholic voters (a valuable voter block then, as now) and soothed administrative tensions at key points during the legislative process. She also introduced FDR to Thomas G. Corcoran, who would become one of the New Deal’s most passionate supporters and lobbyists. The relationships she facilitated between the president and his allies, and her judgement in doing so, furthered a lot of FDR’s legislative goals and softened opposition to them, efforts for which she has long gone uncredited.

Credit: Bettmann / Contributor

LeHand suffered a debilitating stroke in 1941, which caused her to leave the White House early, and while she and FDR never visited again before her death in 1944, they exchanged letters and he paid for some of her medical bills. Upon his death in 1945, it was discovered that he’d willed LeHand half of his estate (although he’d outlived her). The Roosevelt family still pays for the upkeep of LeHand’s burial plot, and her gravestone bears an inscription from FDR: “She was utterly selfless in her devotion to duty.”

For more on LeHand’s role in the Roosevelt White House, read Politico‘s story here.