Eleanor Roosevelt was the first politically active First Lady in the history of American democracy. She supported the formation of the United Nation and was a delegate to the UN General Assembly from 1945 and 1952. Early on, she supported child welfare laws, equal pay and employment legislation, civil and women’s rights.
Name: Eleanor Roosevelt
Birth Date: October 1884 – November 1962
Job Functions: International Diplomat, Writer and Philanthropist, Social Activist
Known For: American First Lady, International Diplomat, Writer and Philanthropist
Eleanor Roosevelt came from a very wealthy but troubled family. Her father Elliot Roosevelt, the younger brother of Theodore Roosevelt was an alcoholic, addicted to opiates and suffered from depression. Eleanor’s mother Anna Hall Roosevelt was emotionally distant, superficial and cared a lot about image and appearances in upper class society and was dismayed by the way her daughter looked. During her childhood, Eleanor was made to feel unattractive, which did little for a child’s self-esteem and she suffered from a strong inferiority complex.
By the time Eleanor was 10 years old, both parents had died. In 1899 when she was fifteen, she was enrolled in Allenwood, a school for young women at South Fields, England. The French headmistress, Marie Souvestre, a free thinker – daughter of a well-known French philosopher and novelist – saw in Roosevelt what others from upper crust society couldn’t see. Souvestre was the first to see the intellect and compassion that Eleanor possessed, and nurtured them. She instilled in Eleanor and her other students, a sense of duty to society. During school breaks while Eleanor was enrolled in Allenwood, she travelled with Souvestre, learned about the world of art and was encouraged to think for herself.
Eleanor returned to New York in 1902 on her family’s insistence because they wanted her to participate in the New York social scene and make her debut at the Assembly Ball. Her fifth cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, began to court her because he was attracted by her compassion and caring attitude, and they got married in 1905. Eleanor’s mother-in-law Sara Delano Roosevelt lived next door to them and was an extremely domineering woman who she grew to resent.
In 1910, Franklin was elected to a seat in the New York Senate, then three years later he was appointed as assistant secretary of the navy in President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. In September 1918, during the fourth year of their marriage, when Eleanor was 33, she discovered that her husband was in love with her own young, beautiful personal secretary, Lucy Page Mercer. This was devastating to Eleanor and many of the self-doubts she previously had started to resurface. Eleanor’s confidence and pride were severely tested.
Franklin’s mother told him if he divorced Eleanor, and left his children, she would disinherit him. In addition, at the time, anyone with aspirations in politics who divorced could kiss their future career goodbye. Those were great motivators for Franklin to decline the divorce. Franklin’s indiscretion also liberated Eleanor and gave her the upper hand in the marriage. She told her husband she would remain in the marriage under two conditions: There would be no more sexual relations between them and he could no longer see Lucy Mercer. He agreed to the conditions.
During World War I, Eleanor organized Red Cross efforts and worked in military canteens. Eleanor came into-her-own during the 1920s and pursued a path of social and political activism. She had leadership positions in the following organizations in the 1920s and 1930s:
- League of Women Voters: An organization that promoted active involvement in government.
- Women’s City Club: Sought better working condition for women.
- Women’s Trade Union: Concerned with better working conditions for women. They sought maximum hours and minimum wages for women. Eleanor would occasionally picket a recalcitrant firm.
- National Consumers’ League: Focused on the welfare of consumers and workers.
- Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee
- Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
Eleanor developed friendships with many women activists, and with Molly Dewson they were instrumental in getting more women appointed to influential government posts.
In 1921, Franklin contracted poliomyelitis which resulted in paralysis of his legs. For the seven years of his rehabilitation, his political adviser Louis Howe and Eleanor kept him informed on the pressing issues of the day. She became Franklin’s surrogate, filling in for him at meetings, state inspections and public appearances. Eleanor supported Franklin fiercely even when his mother suggested that he retire from political life because of his disability.
Eleanor and her two friends Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman operated a non-profit Early American furniture manufacturing company out of a cottage that Franklin had built for her on their property. The organization provided jobs for unemployed workers. The three friends also bought Todhunter School in New York, a private school for girls from elementary to high school. Eleanor taught the older girls American History, current events and English Literature and took them on field trips to courtroom and into tenements so they could get practical knowledge.
Throughout the 1920s, Eleanor, Nancy Cook, Marion Dickerman, Caroline O’Day and Elinor Morgenthau advocated for public housing, unemployment insurance, child labour legislation, and the eight-hour workday.
In 1928, Franklin ran for governor of New York and won. Eleanor kept busy visiting hospitals, homes, and prisons on behalf of her husband and reported back to him. In 1932 Franklin ran as the Democratic presidential candidate and won against Herbert Hoover, and was inaugurated as the 32nd president of the United States on March 4, 1933. Eleanor was now First Lady and remained in that position for three terms until 1945 when Franklin died. She used her position of First Lady to champion her causes and secure social and political reforms.
- On the advice of her very good friend, journalist Lorena Hickok, Eleanor held weekly press conferences for women only. This ensured that media organizations had women on staff in Washington D.C. and that some of the news in the country was told from the perspective of women.
- Supported appointments of women to government positions. A big winner was Frances Perkins who was secretary of labor for Franklin’s administration.
- During the Great Depression, Eleanor felt it was government’s responsibility to assist the most vulnerable in society who were struggling. She traveled across the country observing the plight of the public. Eleanor made the administration accessible so people would write her and she would forward letters to the appropriate agencies or personally respond. She promoted and advocated for aid. Franklin’s administration instituted the New Deal in response to bring relief to those in need, and Eleanor had great influence on how it was shaped. She supported legislation to create the National Youth Administration.
- Through her newspaper columns and radio broadcasts, she became the voice for those in need, which included, working women, African Americans, youth and farmers.
- Created equal opportunities for women and made sure that there were appropriate jobs for writers, artists, musicians and theatre people.
- During World War II she made numerous trips overseas to visit soldiers to boost their spirits. She also visited wounded soldiers in hospitals.
- Worked with officials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and supported anti-lynching laws that her husband didn’t endorse because he was scared he would lose the votes of Southerners.
- In 1939 Eleanor resigned her membership from the Daughters of the American Revolution after they denied African American singer Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall. Eleanor also organized an alternate venue for the singer at Lincoln Memorial.
- In 1946, after Franklin had already died, Eleanor was appointed as a delegate to the UN General Assembly, a role she held until 1952. She was elected chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights. Eleanor travelled across the globe in support of humanitarian causes. Her most significant diplomacy involved the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. The previous day, Eleanor gave a speech, “On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” at the United Nations General Assembly, Palais de Chaillot, Paris.
Eleanor Roosevelt through her actions and influences effected change and her actions made a difference in the lives of others.
Lessons from Eleanor Roosevelt
- Being born into wealth doesn’t give you a free pass in life. Eleanor’s mother was a beautiful socialite and was dismayed that her daughter didn’t inherit her good looks. As a child Eleanor was made to feel very unattractive.
- A group of small, committed citizens can make a difference.
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Encyclopedia of World Biography
UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography
American Home Front in World War II
American Women Writers
Americans at War
Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History in America
Encyclopedia of the Great Depression
Great Depression and the New Deal Reference Library
West’s Encyclopedia of American Law
Women in World History
- Hazel Rowley, Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage (whisperinggums.wordpress.com)