Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), social activist, United States representative to the United Nations (1945-1953; 1961), and wife of 32nd U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt had an active public career before and during her marriage and continued to maintain a high profile after her husband’s death. Unlike any previous first lady, she held regular news conferences, wrote a daily newspaper column, represented the president and nation on foreign and domestic trips, and spoke out on a wide range of social issues. She was also the nation’s most prominent white opponent of racial discrimination in her time. A lifelong champion of poor and marginalized people, her impact was so broad, both during and after her husband’s presidency, that President Harry S. Truman famously called her the “First Lady of the World.”
Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, in New York City, the first child of Anna Hall and Elliott Roosevelt. Her father, a businessman, came from a distinguished, wealthy, and politically active New York family with roots in the city’s earliest colonial settlements. Her mother was a descendant of the Livingstons, a family that was equally rooted in the political history of colonial New York and Revolutionary America. Eleanor’s mother, Anna, was one of the most beautiful women in New York high society, and this made young Eleanor feel insecure about her plainer appearance. Anna died of diphtheria when Eleanor was eight years old. Eleanor’s father, a handsome man-about-town, died of alcoholism less than two years later. The orphaned Eleanor, insecure and self-conscious, was subsequently placed in the care of her maternal grandmother, Mary Hall.
When Eleanor was 15 years old her grandmother sent her to the Allenswood Academy in London, England. For three years, under the tutelage of Marie Souvestre, Eleanor developed lifelong interests in politics, social causes, history, and literature. Eleanor later asserted that Souvestre was one of the most important influences in her life. A confident, well educated, and socially conscious Eleanor returned to the United States in 1902 to make her debut in New York society. She joined various social reform organizations, including the National Consumers’ League, which sought to improve working conditions for women, and volunteered as a teacher in settlement houses (charitable establishments that offered social services to the urban poor).
In the summer of 1902, while riding on a train, she met Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her fifth cousin once removed. This chance encounter soon blossomed into a romance, and they were engaged in November 1903. At their wedding on March 17, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor’s uncle, gave the bride away. The wedding was front-page news in the New York Times.
|III||MARRIAGE AND POLITICAL ACTIVISM|
Franklin’s mother, Sara, had discouraged the romance, maintaining that the couple was too young to marry. After their marriage she exerted a strong influence on her son and daughter-in-law, choosing and decorating their house and hiring their servants for them. Over the next 11 years Eleanor gave birth to six children, one of whom did not survive infancy. Meanwhile, Sara moved the family to a townhouse adjacent to her own in New York City, with doors connecting the two households on each floor. When not in the city, Eleanor spent time at the family estate at Hyde Park, New York, always under the critical eye of her dominating mother-in-law.
In 1911 Eleanor and Franklin moved to Albany after Franklin won a seat in the New York State Senate. Unlike Eleanor’s uncle Theodore Roosevelt, who was a Republican, Franklin was a progressive Democrat. Two years later, in 1913, the family moved to Washington, D.C., when President Woodrow Wilson appointed Franklin, an up-and-coming young Democrat, to be assistant secretary of the navy.
When the United States entered World War I (1914-1918) in 1917 Eleanor focused her bountiful energy on work for the Red Cross, Navy League, and other volunteer organizations. As she had been before her marriage, Eleanor was once again a social activist. Exploiting her social position as the wife of a cabinet undersecretary, she successfully lobbied for an investigation into shortages in a government hospital treating veterans suffering from shell shock (now referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder).
During the war Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair with her own social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Eleanor offered to divorce Franklin, but the couple reconciled. A divorce at that time would have destroyed his political career. By most accounts, however, the intimacy of their marriage was lost forever. Drawing strength from this marital crisis, Eleanor increased her activism and political involvement, while building a separate social and professional life, especially with her close friends Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman.
In 1920 Franklin ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket headed by James M. Cox. Eleanor campaigned furiously for the Cox-Roosevelt ticket, but it was defeated by Republican Warren G. Harding and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge. The following summer Franklin was diagnosed with poliomyelitis, a viral disease that caused permanent paralysis to his legs. He did not return to politics until 1928, when he ran successfully for governor of New York.
During this eight-year period Eleanor became more prominent than her husband, commuting from the family home in Hyde Park to New York City, where she was a leader of the League of Women Voters, the National Consumers’ League, and the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee. She wrote for and helped edit the Women's Democratic News, published articles in a number of national journals, and was chair of the women’s delegation to the platform committee at the Democratic National Convention of 1924. She campaigned vigorously for Democratic candidates and toured New York State to oppose the gubernatorial candidacy of her Republican cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Overcoming her natural shyness, Eleanor became a skilled public speaker and effectively used the new media of the day, radio. With her friends Cook and Dickerman, she built a country home for herself, known as Val-Kill, on the Roosevelts’ Hyde Park estate. In 1927 she helped Dickerman purchase Todhunter, a private girls’ school in New York City, where Eleanor began teaching three days a week.
In 1928 New York governor Al Smith, who was running for president and therefore did not seek reelection as governor, pressed Franklin to accept the Democratic nomination for governor. Franklin, undergoing therapy on his legs, was reluctant, and some of his closest advisers urged him to decline the offer. At the last minute, and with Eleanor’s help, Smith persuaded Franklin that it was the right move. Franklin narrowly won the election. Eleanor’s support for Franklin’s candidacy was not unequivocal, as she foresaw that Franklin’s election would diminish her own political autonomy. She was no longer free to speak out on all the issues that concerned her and she hated the confined, small-town, provincial atmosphere of Albany. In an extraordinary move for a woman of her social class at that time, Eleanor spent most of her weekdays in New York City, remaining active in various social causes and teaching part-time at Todhunter, and often spent time at her beloved stone house at Val-Kill. At the same time she remained a close adviser to her husband, and persuaded Franklin to appoint Frances Perkins as the state’s secretary of labor. Perkins went on to hold the same position during Franklin’s presidency, thereby becoming the first female Cabinet member.
Franklin’s election as president of the United States in 1932 forced Eleanor further away from grassroots political action, and even from policymaking positions. She disliked Washington, D.C., which she found only slightly less provincial than Albany. Moreover, she feared that the role of first lady would be a confining one. “I never wanted to be a president’s wife,” she privately declared just after the election.
At the time of Franklin’s election Eleanor was an independent journalist, making money from a monthly column in Woman's Home Companion and from radio broadcasts, where she regularly spoke out on controversial political issues. She sat on the boards of numerous political and social organizations. A thoroughly modern woman, she drove her own car and in effect ran her own life.
After the election, and at Franklin’s request, she resigned her leadership positions, but not her membership, in the Democratic Party, the League of Women Voters, and various other political and civil groups. She also agreed not to discuss politics in her magazine columns. Meanwhile, Franklin spurned all her offers to work for him: as an assistant, a personal secretary, or even in opening and sorting his mail. Nevertheless, the indomitable new first lady continued to make news and be in the public eye. Two days after Franklin’s inauguration she held her first news conference, announcing that she would hold weekly meetings with female reporters. In her monthly magazine column she asked readers to write her about their problems, needs, and views. Within a year more than 300,000 people had responded. In 1935 she started a daily syndicated newspaper column called 'My Day,' and in 1937 published her enormously successful autobiography This Is My Story.
Eleanor’s activism and independence created some controversy. She proved to be an easy target for critics of the president and the New Deal, a series of federal programs designed to lift the country out of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Her independence particularly infuriated conservative men, who were angered by her refusal to accept their view of a woman’s place in society. Her willingness to meet with average, hungry, destitute Americans during the depths of the depression made her the focus of many administration critics, who condemned her as a bleeding-heart humanitarian ready to spend tax dollars on the unemployed.
For most Americans, however, Eleanor provided a welcome display of genuine caring during a time of great national crisis. She lobbied her husband’s Cabinet to provide greater relief for women and to develop special programs to help destitute youths. She also had a hand in the creation of the Works Progress Administration, which created work projects for the unemployed, and the associated Federal Arts Project, Federal Writers Project, and Federal Theater Project to help unemployed artists, scholars, writers, and actors.
Most important of all, Eleanor Roosevelt was a strong advocate for African Americans, protesting bitterly and loudly against racial discrimination within all levels of the federal government. She successfully lobbied for equal payment of federal aid money to blacks and equal administration of federal programs. In 1935 she became the first white resident of Washington, D.C., to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation’s most important civil rights organization. She visited Howard University, one of the nation’s premier black colleges, escorted by a black honor guard. Photographs of Eleanor at Howard stunned Southern whites, but in the end had little effect on her husband's support in the South, where whites overwhelmingly voted for him.
Eleanor was also an outspoken opponent of racial segregation. Eleanor’s most visible attack on segregation involved the black opera singer Marian Anderson and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), a patriotic organization to which Eleanor belonged. In 1939 the DAR refused to allow Anderson, an internationally renowned singer, to perform in its Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Eleanor denounced the DAR’s action in her newspaper column, resigned her membership in the DAR, and helped arrange to have Anderson hold an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
During World War II (1939-1945) Eleanor visited troops in Europe and the South Pacific and served briefly as assistant director of the U.S. Office of Civilian Defense. Most importantly, faced with war and growing controversy, she did not stop lobbying for racial justice, equating segregation and racism in the United States with the fascism the nation was fighting abroad. She led an investigation into discrimination against black women in the military and continued to push to make lynching a federal crime. In the years after the war she served on the national board of directors of the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Indicative of her support for African American rights, in the 1950s the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist vigilante group, offered a reward for her murder.
|V||ON HER OWN|
Franklin died on April 12, 1945. In the following years, Eleanor remained active in the Democratic Party, always supporting liberal factions, but declined to run for public office. A lukewarm supporter of Franklin’s successor, Harry S. Truman, she accepted Truman’s appointment as U.S. representative to the United Nations (UN) in 1945, a position she held until 1953. From 1946 to 1951 she was chair of the UN Human Rights Commission. Under her leadership, this commission wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and she played a critical role in its unanimous adoption in 1948.
In the early 1950s she was one of the first prominent Americans to denounce Senator Joseph McCarthy and his overzealous witch-hunt for alleged Communists in the U.S. government. She was also a strong public advocate of birth control and an articulate opponent of public aid to parochial schools.
In 1960 Eleanor Roosevelt reluctantly supported John F. Kennedy for president. She was critical of Kennedy for not being strong enough on civil rights and for his past close ties to McCarthy and his refusal ever to speak out against him. In 1961 Kennedy appointed her as U.S. representative to the UN and made her chair of the National Commission on the Status of Women, a position she held until her death on November 7, 1962, at the age of 78.
Eleanor Roosevelt single-handedly redefined the role of the president’s wife in U.S. society, and is considered by many to have been the United States’s first modern first lady. For her tireless support for the nation’s least powerful people, especially women, African Americans, and the poor, she became one of the most beloved American public figures of the 20th century, and remains a hero to many Americans today. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (1961) contains her previously published works This Is My Story (1937), This I Remember (1949), and On My Own (1958).