No One Can Make You Feel Inferior Without Your Consent

Eleanor Roosevelt? Reader’s Digest? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a remarkably insightful statement about self-esteem that is usually credited to Eleanor Roosevelt, the diplomat and former First Lady:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

This is one of my favorite quotations, but I have not been able to determine when it was first said. One quotation dictionary claimed that the saying was in the autobiography “This is My Story” by Roosevelt, but I was unable to find it.

Did Eleanor Roosevelt really say this? Could you tell me where I can locate this quotation?

Quote Investigator: This popular aphorism is the most well-known guidance ascribed to Roosevelt. Quotation experts such as Rosalie Maggio and Ralph Keyes have explored the origin of this saying. Surprisingly, a thorough examination of the books the First Lady authored and her other archived writings has failed to discover any instances of the quote [QVFI].

Yet, the saying has been attributed to Roosevelt for more than seventy years. The earliest example located by QI appeared in the pages of the widely-distributed periodical Reader’s Digest in September of 1940 [RDFI]:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
Eleanor Roosevelt

Thus, from the beginning the phrase was credited to Roosevelt. However, no supporting reference was given in the magazine, and the quote stood alone at the bottom of a page with unrelated article text above it.

Recently, QI located some intriguing evidence, and he now believes that the creation of this maxim can be traced back to comments made by Eleanor Roosevelt about an awkward event in 1935. The Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration was invited to give a speech at the University of California, Berkeley on the Charter Day of the school. The customary host of the event was unhappy because she felt that the chosen speaker should not have been a political figure. She refused to serve as the host and several newspaper commentators viewed her action as a rebuff and an insult.

Eleanor Roosevelt was asked at a White House press conference whether the Secretary had been snubbed, and her response was widely disseminated in newspapers. Here is an excerpt from an Associated Press article [ERNC]:

“A snub” defined the first lady, “is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.”

She made clear she didn’t think the labor secretary fell within the category of the “snubable.”

Note that this statement by Roosevelt in 1935 contained the key elements of the quotation that was assigned to her by 1940. One person may try to make a second person feel inferior, but this second person can resist and simply refuse to feel inferior. In this example, the labor secretary refused to consent to feel inferior.

The precise wording given for Roosevelt’s statement varied. Here is another example that was printed in a syndicated newspaper column called “So They Say!” the following week. The columnist stated that the following was the definition of a “snub” given by Roosevelt [OWFI]:

I think it is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. First, though, you have to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Sometime between 1935 and 1940 some unknown person synthesized a compact and stylish aphorism based on the commentary made by Eleanor Roosevelt, and that statement was published in the Reader’s Digest. Roosevelt may have performed this reformulation herself, but currently there is no evidence to support that possibility [RDFI]:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
Eleanor Roosevelt

The next month, in October of 1940 the saying appeared as the first line of an editorial in a newspaper from Iowa. The words were placed between quotation marks, but no attribution was given [LPFI]:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”

That is a good thing to remember. If you feel uncertain of yourself, it is a good pointer to remember. If you feel uncertain of yourself, it is easy to make you feel inferior by making a slighting remark. But if you feel confident you can laugh it off.

At the end of October the maxim appeared freestanding in an Alaskan newspaper where it was credited to Roosevelt [FDFI]:

Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

In June of 1941 the aphorism appeared on a newspaper page dedicated to the topics of “Home, Church, Religion, Character” within a column titled “Sermonograms”. The words were credited to Eleanor Roosevelt [HNFI].

In February of 1944 the saying appeared in the widely-read syndicated column of Walter Winchell where it was again credited to Roosevelt [WWF1]. In February 1945 the maxim was repeated in Winchell’s influential column. On this second occasion Winchell employed a word from his specialized vocabulary, “Frixample”, in the introduction [WWF2]:

Mrs. F.D.R. can turn out punchlines with the best of ’em. Frixample: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”

The Yale Book of Quotations, an essential reference, contains a compelling precursor to the quote under investigation listed as a cross-index term. More than one-hundred years before the cites above, in 1838, the American clergyman William Ellery Channing said the following [YWEC] [SWEC]:

No power in society, no hardship in your condition can depress you, keep you down, in knowledge, power, virtue, influence, but by your own consent.

In conclusion, QI believes that Eleanor Roosevelt can be credited with expressing the core idea of this saying by 1935. Within five years the graceful modern version of the maxim was synthesized. QI does not know if Roosevelt or someone else was responsible for this. But QI does believe Roosevelt’s words were the most likely inspiration.

[QVFI] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 97-98, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

[RDFI] 1940 September, The Reader’s Digest, [Free standing quotation], Page 84, Volume 37, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)

[ERNC] 1935 March 26, News And Courier, Heart Balm Suit Ban Given Support By Mrs. Roosevelt, Page 7, Charleston, South Carolina. (Google News Archive)

[OWFI] 1935 April 2, Owosso Argus-Press, So They Say!, Page 4, Column 4, Owosso, Michigan. (Google News Archive)

[LPFI] 1940 October 10, Lake Park News, The Little Newsance: Editorial by Ardell Proctor, Page 7, Column 1, Lake Park, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)

[FDFI] 1940 October 30, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, [Free standing quotation], Page 2, Column 1, Fairbanks, Alaska. (NewspaperArchive)

[HNFI] 1941 June 6, Huntingdon Daily News, Sermonograms, Page 11, Column 2, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)

[WWF1] 1944 February 29, Augusta Chronicle, Walter Winchell: In New York: Notes of an Innocent Bystander, Page 4, Column 7, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)

[WWF2] 1945 February 25, St. Petersburg Times, Walter Winchell, Page 24, Column 7, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Google News archive)

[YWEC] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: William Ellery Channing, Page 143, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[SWEC] 1838 [Address delivered in Boston in September 1838], Self-Culture: An Address Introductory to the Franklin Lectures, Page 80, Dutton and Wentworth, Printers, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link