Eleanor McGovern: Pioneering political spouseEleanor McGovern, the wife of a trailblazing political figure, blazed a path of her own for political spouses.
By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an updated version of a story that originally published Jan. 26, 2007, in The Daily Republic.
Eleanor McGovern, the wife of a trailblazing political figure, blazed a path of her own for political spouses.
She was a Woonsocket native and became the wife of former U.S. Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., whom she began dating in 1940 while both were students at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell.
During her husband’s unsuccessful 1972 run for the presidency, Mrs. McGovern broke from the traditional role of the candidate’s wife by making solo campaign appearances and sharing her own thoughts on the issues.
“I was determined to help with George’s career, not only by taking responsibility for the family, but by contributing ideas,” she wrote in “Uphill,” her 1974 memoir. “In fact, I never considered it ‘George’s’ career — it was ‘ours.’”
Former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who knew the McGoverns more than 40 years, said Mrs. McGovern “set the standard for political spouses.”
“I think what most people came to realize about Eleanor is how committed and how passionate she was,” Daschle said. “She shared George McGovern’s deep passion for progressive public policy and for many of the great issues of the day that you heard him espouse. You could talk with her directly and be every bit as moved by her passion as you would be by his.”
The McGoverns had five children: daughters Ann, Susan, Teresa and Mary, and a son, Steven.
In 2006, both George and Eleanor McGovern were honored by luminaries from around the country at the dedication of DWU’s George and Eleanor McGovern Library and Center for Leadership and Public Service. Mrs. McGovern was too ill to attend the ceremony. She had been under hospice care at the couple’s second residence in Montana.
Former President Bill Clinton, who was a McGovern campaign staffer in 1972, was the keynote speaker at the library dedication.
“For more than 60 years, Eleanor, so brilliant and beautiful, has been by your side,” Clinton said that day in reference to Mr. McGovern, “speaking out for children, for families, for larger lives for women, both of you bravely sharing the challenges and pain of the alcoholism so many of us have had in our own families, the disease that claimed your beloved daughter Terry and led to your powerful moving memoir about her struggle and fundamental goodness; for that, too, we have much to thank you.”
“Terry” was the nickname of the McGoverns’ daughter, Teresa, who died in 1994 after a lifelong struggle with alcoholism. Her brother Steven died in 2012 of a condition also linked to alcoholism.
Clinton phoned Mr. McGovern the day Eleanor died, according to USA Today founder and McGovern contemporary Al Neuharth, who also phoned Mr. McGovern.
Neuharth, an Alpena native, knew Mrs. McGovern when she was Eleanor Stegeberg, a “very pretty and peppy” cheerleader for the Woonsocket Redmen.
“I always thought she was the young first lady of Woonsocket, and I considered her the first lady of South Dakota,” Neuharth said. “And I thought she would’ve been a great first lady of the United States.”
Mr. McGovern has often said his wife was crucial to his success as a politician. In his 1977 autobiography, “Grassroots,” he wrote of the prowess she displayed on the campaign trail.
“She handled with intelligence, skill and good humor countless interviews on radio, television and in the press,” Mr. McGovern wrote. “We never had to brief her on the issues. She did her own research, improvised her own speeches and delivered them with such effectiveness that people in all parts of the nation were warmed by her presence.”
Mrs. McGovern was born Eleanor Fay Stegeberg on Nov. 25, 1921, on a farm near Woonsocket.
At the age of 12, her mother died. Mrs. McGovern and her twin sister, Ila, assumed the care of their younger sister and all household responsibilities. They and their father had to work hard to maintain their farm through the Great Depression.
In her memoir, she recalled dust storms that were “like the end of the world.” She and her twin sister climbed into a stock tank to cool off during unbearably hot summer days and wrapped heated irons in newspapers to warm their bed during bitterly cold winter nights.
“I grew up among people who never lost hope for a tomorrow when the rains would come, the winds would die away, the crops would flourish, the prices would be right, and the drought and depression would be over,” she wrote.
In high school, she was on the debate team and once competed against — and defeated — her future husband, George. She was the salutatorian of the Woonsocket High School class of 1940.
After her high school graduation, she enrolled at DWU. Because of financial pressures, she left college after one year to work as a legal secretary. Years later, DWU awarded her an honorary doctorate.
During her time at DWU, she began dating Mitchell native George McGovern.
“Eleanor was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen,” Mr. McGovern told The Daily Republic in 2003. “Sometimes you begin with physical attraction, although that’s not always what draws you. Then you begin to discover other things.”
One of the first “other” things Mr. McGovern noticed was a test result. As freshmen, he said, all students were administered a general-knowledge test. According to Mr. McGovern, he and the Stegeberg twins had the three highest scores.
Soon, Mr. McGovern decided to ask Eleanor Stegeberg on a date. Their romance turned serious one spring day as they strolled across campus.
“George took my hand — it was the first time anybody held my hand,” Mrs. McGovern told The Daily Republic in 2003. “A lot of these young people that go so fast today, they miss the thrill of just holding hands.”
They married Oct. 31, 1943, while he was preparing to serve overseas as a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II. Mrs. McGovern gave birth to the first of the couple’s five children while he was away.
After the war, Mr. McGovern finished his education, taught briefly at DWU, and commenced a nearly 30-year political career that climaxed in his winning the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. He lost the general election to incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon.
Mrs. McGovern’s first real foray into solo campaigning was in 1962, when Mr. McGovern fell ill and was bedridden. She traveled the state during the last month of the campaign and helped win the first of his three Senate terms.
Her solo campaigning continued during Mr. McGovern’s presidential campaign, during which he became known for his opposition to the war in Vietnam. Besides supporting his candidacy, she spoke frequently on the topics of children, families and the roles of women.
She considered herself part of a new breed of political wives, and she worked to counteract what she called “male chauvinism” in politics. DWU’s biography of Mrs. McGovern says “her high profile permanently transformed public perception of the role and value of political spouses.”
The great heartache of Mrs. McGovern’s life was the death of Teresa, who was intoxicated when she fell into a snowdrift in Madison, Wis., and died of hypothermia.
“The saddest time in our married life was when we lost our middle daughter,” Mrs. McGovern told The Daily Republic in 2003. “We never have gotten over that.”
Outside of politics and family life, Mrs. McGovern devoted much of her life to serving others.
She provided in-home education for parents of underprivileged infants and young children in Washington, D.C., as a volunteer for the Child Development Center; was a member of the Women’s Democratic Club; served on the boards of directors for Dakota Wesleyan University, the Psychiatric Institute Foundation, the Child Study Association, the Erickson Institute of Chicago and Odyssey House of New York; and was a development officer for the Child Development Associates Consortium. Mrs. McGovern and her family established the McGovern Family Foundation in Washington, D.C., to receive and disburse funds for research on alcoholism.
Bob Duffett, president of DWU, said Mrs. McGovern embodied the university’s motto, “sacrifice or service.”
“That’s kind of a backward way of saying that if you don’t serve humanity, if you don’t serve your community, if you don’t serve God, you sacrifice all of value,” Duffett said. “That I think is the legacy of Eleanor McGovern, who is a very significant embodiment of what we hope Dakota Wesleyan University will do to the hundreds of students that we have here.”
Students at DWU became familiar during the decade of the 2000s with the sight of the McGoverns and their large Newfoundland dog, Ursa. The couple’s house, on McGovern Avenue, was near DWU’s McGovern Library.
The McGoverns split their time in their later years between Mitchell and Montana, and Mr. McGovern kept up an active schedule of appearances across the country. The McGoverns were always avid readers, and their Mitchell home was strewn with books. The walls were lined with paintings and eye-catching photographs of Mr. McGovern with people such as John and Robert Kennedy. The McGoverns also said they were “hooked on pro football,” especially the Washington Redskins.
Daschle said Mrs. McGovern leaves an important legacy for the nation.
“She was one of the pioneers, I think, that left an indelible mark for women, for spouses, for mothers, and I think that she will always be remembered for her unique contribution,” Daschle said. “Not many people have contributed as much as Eleanor McGovern.”
Eleanor McGovern died Jan. 25, 2007, of heart failure at her home in Mitchell. She was 85.