Mary Ann Glendon

National Humanities Medal


A career spent in law and human rights led Mary Ann Glendon to her most recent book, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"I have come to see the story of Mrs. Roosevelt and her colleagues as one that gives encouragement to those of us who want to believe, with the authors of the Federalist Papers, that human affairs need not forever be governed by force and accident--they can be affected to some extent by reflection and choice," says Glendon.

In connection with her teaching and writing in the human rights field, Glendon became curious of what the declaration's framers thought, yet found very little written on 1948, when the document-modeled, in part, on the Bill of Rights--was being drafted. During her research, she discovered another gap, this one concerning the role of Eleanor Roosevelt.

"She considered her work on the resolution to have been the greatest achievement of her long and remarkable public life," says Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University. "Diplomatic historians, however, have given short shrift to her role, and most of her biographers leave off with the death of F.D.R. Yet the years 1945 to 1953, when she served in the U.N., were when she really came into her own as the most admired woman in the U.S. and in the world."

Glendon's book illuminates Roosevelt's role in framing of the U.N.'s Declaration of Rights while also looking at Roosevelt's public life after her husband's death. "The more I learned about the challenges she faced, the more my admiration for her grew," Glendon says. "My conclusion is that her role in the framing of the U.D.H.R. was similar to George Washington's at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Others did the actual drafting, but it was Roosevelt's prestige and personal qualities that carried the day."

Writing the book was not Glendon's first exposure to Eleanor Roosevelt. As a freshman at Mount Holyoke College in 1956, Glendon saw Roosevelt speak at a lecture at a nearby campus. "It was a great experience seeing her," says Glendon. "She was certainly among the most distinguished female figures at the time."

Her sophomore year, Glendon transferred to the University of Chicago, where she decided to study law. "A professor from the law school gave a lecture about Plato," Glendon recalls. "I thought, 'what a wonderful world law school must be if it has such creatures in it. They talk about Plato there.' I was attracted initially by the speech then after I started classes, I realized that I enjoyed law for its own sake."

Glendon earned her bachelor's and law degrees from the university. She practiced law in Chicago from 1963 to 1968. Glendon became a professor at Boston College Law School in 1968 and began teaching at Harvard in 1987. In 1995, she served as Pope John Paul II's emissary to the Beijing Women's Conference, the first woman to lead a Vatican delegation.

Glendon's books explore a range of legal perspectives. Her titles include The New Family and the New Property; Abortion and Divorce in Western Law, Comparative Legal Traditions; The Transformation of Family Law; Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse; and A Nation Under Lawyers.

Glendon finds that her students continue to want to talk about the big questions: What is the human person? How do we use our specialized disciplines, such as law, in the service of a deeper understanding and a more humane society? "I find myself still coming back to the questions that Plato raised for us," says Glendon. "What is the good life, how do I live it?"


About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.