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Eleanor Roosevelt


America's most influential First Lady blazed paths for women and led the battle for social justice everywhere


When Eleanor Roosevelt journeyed to New York City a week after her husband's funeral in April 1945, a cluster of reporters were waiting at the door of her Washington Square apartment. "The story is over," she said simply, assuming that her words and opinions would no longer be of interest once her husband was dead and she was no longer First Lady. She could not have been more mistaken. As the years have passed, Eleanor Roosevelt's influence and stature have continued to grow. Today she remains a powerful inspiration to leaders in both the civil rights and women's movements.

But 13 years after her marriage, and after bearing six children, Eleanor resumed the search for her identity. The voyage began with a shock: the discovery in 1918 of love letters revealing that Franklin was involved with Lucy Mercer. "The bottom dropped out of my own particular world," she later said. "I faced myself, my surroundings, my world, honestly for the first time." There was talk of divorce, but when Franklin promised never to see Lucy again, the marriage continued. For Eleanor a new path had opened, a possibility of standing apart from Franklin. No longer would she define herself solely in terms of his wants and needs. A new relationship was forged, on terms wholly different from the old.

She turned her energies to a variety of reformist organizations, joining a circle of postsuffrage feminists dedicated to the abolition of child labour, the establishment of a minimum wage and the passage of legislation to protect workers. In the process she discovered that she had talents--for public speaking, for organizing, for articulating social problems. She formed an extraordinary constellation of lifelong female friends, who helped to assuage an enduring sense of loneliness. When Franklin was paralyzed by polio in 1921, her political activism became an even more vital force. She became Franklin's "eyes and ears," travelling the country gathering the grass-roots knowledge he needed to understand the people he governed.

They made an exceptional team. She was more earnest, less devious, less patient, less fun, more uncompromisingly moral; he possessed the more trustworthy political talent, the more finely tuned sense of timing, the better feel for the citizenry, the smarter understanding of how to get things done. But they were linked by indissoluble bonds. Together they mobilized the American people to effect enduring changes in the political and social landscape of the nation.

Nowhere was Eleanor's influence greater than in civil rights. In her travels around the country, she developed a sophisticated understanding of race relations. When she first began inspecting New Deal programs in the South, she was stunned to find that blacks were being systematically discriminated against at every turn. Citing statistics to back up her story, she would interrupt her husband at any time, barging into his cocktail hour when he wanted only to relax, cross-examining him at dinner, handing him memos to read late at night. But her confrontational style compelled him to sign a series of Executive Orders barring discrimination in the administration of various New Deal projects. From that point on, African Americans' share in the New Deal work projects expanded, and Eleanor's independent legacy began to grow.

She understood, for instance, the importance of symbolism in fighting discrimination. In 1938, while attending the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham, Ala., she refused to abide by a segregation ordinance that required her to sit in the white section of the auditorium, apart from her black friends. The following year, she publicly resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution after it barred the black singer Marian Anderson from its auditorium.

During World War II, Eleanor remained an uncompromising voice on civil rights, insisting that America could not fight racism abroad while tolerating it at home. Progress was slow, but her continuing intervention led to broadened opportunities for blacks in the factories and shipyards at home and in the armed forces overseas. Eleanor's positions on civil rights were far in advance of her time: 10 years before the Supreme Court rejected the "separate but equal" doctrine, Eleanor argued that equal facilities were not enough: "The basic fact of segregation, which warps and twists the lives of our Negro population, is itself discriminatory."

There were other warps and twists that caught her eye. Long before the contemporary women's movement provided ideological arguments for women's rights, Eleanor instinctively challenged institutions that failed to provide equal opportunity for women. As First Lady, she held more than 300 press conferences that she cleverly restricted to women journalists, knowing that news organizations all over the country would be forced to hire their first female reporter in order to have access to the First Lady.

Through her speeches and her columns, she provided a powerful voice in the campaign to recruit women workers to the factories during the war. "If I were of debutante age, I would go into a factory, where I could learn a skill and be useful," Eleanor told young women, cautioning them against marrying too hastily before they had a chance to expand their horizons. She was instrumental in securing the first government funds ever allotted for the building of child-care centers. And when women workers were unceremoniously fired as the war came to an end, she fought to stem the tide. She argued on principle that everyone who wanted to work had a right to be productive, and she railed against the closing of the child-care centres as a short-sighted response to a fundamental social need. What the women workers needed, she said, was the courage to ask for their rights with a loud voice.

For her own part, she never let the intense criticism that she encountered silence her. "If I ... worried about mudslinging, I would have been dead long ago." Yet she insisted that she was not a feminist. She did not believe, she maintained, that "women should be judged, when it comes to appointing them or electing them, purely because they are women." She wanted to see the country "get away from considering a man or woman from the point of view of religion, colour or sex." But the story of her life--her insistence on her right to an identity of her own apart from her husband and her family, her constant struggle against depression and insecurity, her ability to turn her vulnerabilities into strengths--provides an enduring example of a feminist who transcended the dictates of her times to become one of the century's most powerful and effective advocates for social justice.


Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), wife of the thirty-second president of the United States, was a philanthropist, author, world diplomat, and resolute champion of liberal causes.

Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on Oct. 11, 1884, into an economically comfortable but troubled family. Her father was Elliott Roosevelt, the younger brother of Theodore Roosevelt, a future president of the United States. Although handsome and charming, Elliott was plagued by frequent mental depressions and by alcoholism. Her mother, beautiful but neurotic, was preoccupied with the family's image in upper-class society and embarrassed by Eleanor's homeliness. Eleanor's father entered a sanitarium for alcoholics when she was a child. When Eleanor was 8 years old, her mother died, and she and two younger brothers went to live with their maternal grandmother in New York. Shortly thereafter the older brother died, and when Eleanor was not yet ten, she learned that her father was dead. Her grandmother sheltered her from all outside contacts except for family acquaintances.

Eleanor Roosevelt began discovering a world beyond the family at Mademoiselle Souvestre's finishing school at South Fields, England, where she went at 15. Mademoiselle Souvestre taught a sense of social service and responsibility, which Eleanor began to act upon after her return to New York. She plunged into social work, but soon her tall, handsome cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, began courting her. They were married in March 1905. She now had to contend with a domineering mother-in-law and a gregarious husband who did not really understand his wife's struggle to overcome shyness and feelings of inadequacy.

Beginnings of a Public Career

Between 1906 and 1916, the Roosevelts had six children, one of whom died in infancy. The family lived at their estate at Hyde Park, from which Franklin pursued his political ambitions in the Democratic party. He served a term in the New York State Senate before President Woodrow Wilson appointed him assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913. Although Eleanor did much Red Cross relief work during World War I and even toured the French battlefields shortly after the armistice, she remained obscure.

A major turning point in Eleanor's life came in 1921, when Franklin contracted polio and permanently lost the use of his legs. Finally asserting her will over her mother-in-law (who insisted that Franklin quietly accept invalidism), Eleanor nursed him back into activity. Within a few years he had regained his strength and political ambitions. Meanwhile, she entered more fully into public life. Speaking and working for the League of Women Voters, the National Consumers' League, the Women's Trade Union League, and the women's division of the New York State Democratic Committee, she not only acted as Franklin's "legs and ears" but began to acquire a certain notoriety of her own. During Franklin's New York governorship she saw the last of her children off to boarding school and kept busy inspecting state hospitals, homes, and prisons for her husband.

President's Wife

Roosevelt's election to the presidency in 1932 meant, as Eleanor later wrote, "the end of any personal life of my own." She quickly became the best-known (and also the most criticized) First Lady in American history. She evoked both intense admiration and intense hatred but almost never passivity or neutrality.

Besides undertaking a syndicated newspaper column and a series of radio broadcasts (the income from which she gave to charity), she travelled back and forth across the country on fact-finding trips for Franklin. She assumed the special role of advocate for those groups of Americans - working women, blacks, youth, tenant farmers - which Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal efforts to combat the Depression tended to neglect. Holding no official position, she felt she could speak more freely on issues than could Roosevelt, and she also became a key contact within the administration for officials seeking the President's support. In short, Eleanor became an intermediary between, on the one hand, the individual citizen and his government and, on the other, the President and much of his administration.

Of particular concern to her was securing equal opportunities for women under the New Deal's work relief projects; ensuring that appropriate employment for writers, artists, musicians, and theater people became an integral part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program; promoting the cause of Arthurdale, a farming community built by the Federal government for unemployed miners in West Virginia; and providing work for jobless youth, both white and black (accomplished under the National Youth Administration, set up in 1935). Much more than her husband, she denounced racial oppression and tried to aid the struggle of black Americans toward full citizenship. Largely because of her efforts, African Americans, for the first time since the Reconstruction years, had reason to feel that the national government was interested in their plight.

World Figure

As the United States moved toward war in the late 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out forcefully in favor of the adminstration's policy of aiding antifascist governments. She accepted an appointment as deputy director in the Office of Civilian Defense. She applied herself diligently to her new job but proved inefficient as an administrator and resigned in 1942 in the face of growing congressional criticism. That was her first and last official position under Roosevelt. Once the United States formally entered the war, she made numerous trips to England, Europe, and the Pacific area to boost troop morale and to inspect Red Cross facilities.

After Roosevelt's death in April 1945, Eleanor was expected to retire to a quiet, uneventful private life. By the end of the year, however, she was back in public life. President Harry S. Truman appointed her American delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. As chairman of the Commission, she worked the other delegates overtime to complete the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. She remained in her post at the UN through 1952. She became the target for virulent right-wing attacks during the presidential campaign of that year. After the election of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, she gave up her UN post, but continued to work for international understanding and cooperation as a representative of the American Association for the United Nations.

During the last decade of her life Eleanor Roosevelt travelled to numerous foreign countries, including two trips to the Soviet Union, and authored several books. She continued to articulate a personal and social outlook which, while never profound and sometimes banal and obtuse, still inspired millions. But by the early 1960s, although she had accepted three new government appointments from President John F. Kennedy (delegate to the U.N., adviser to the Peace Corps, and chairman of the President's Commission on the Status of Women), her strength was waning. She died in New York City on Nov. 6, 1962.









This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008