(b.Oct. 11, 1884, New York City - d.Nov. 7, 1962, New York City)
For the first one hundred forty-four years of the presidency the first ladies were generally little more than appendages to the president. This does not mean that there were never any first ladies who were great women with many accomplishments to their credit; however, seldom did the finest first lady exceed the prominence of her chief executive husband whom overshadowed her. In 1933, this was all to change when Eleanor Roosevelt became first lady of the United States. More than merely the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt was a distinguished public figure in her own right. A humanitarian, diplomat, social reformer, and author, her work in behalf of youth, blacks, the poor, women, and the United Nations surpassed her twelve years as first lady in establishing her as one of the most important women of the 20th century.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born into a family of both esteem and affluence in New York City. Her father Elliott Roosevelt (a brother of Theodore Roosevelt, the future 26th President of the United States) came from the famous Dutch landowning family who had settled in New Amsterdam in the 17th century. Her mother, the former Anna Hall was descended from the Livingston clan who played a crucial role in the founding of the United States as well as the statehood of New York. She was called Eleanor from the beginning and rarely used her first name.
Eleanor's childhood was a dreadfully unhappy one. Her father was an alcoholic who was disowned by his family. Her mother, renowned for her beauty, was distant from her daughter whom she nicknamed "Granny" because she seemed to her old-fashioned. After Anna Roosevelt died of diphtheria in 1892, Eleanor, age eight, was raised by her maternal grandmother. She rarely saw her father thereafter, and he died of drink in 1894 when she was ten. These traumatic experiences affected Eleanor for life and she would harbor a constant yearning for unconditional love.
Spending winters at Grandmother Hall's brownstone in New York City and summer at Tivoli-on-the-Hudson, Eleanor was educated by private tutors until 1899. In that year the fifteen-year-old was sent to Allenswood, a finishing school on the outskirts of London. This would mark a turning point in Eleanor's adolescence. The school's headmistress Mlle.Souvestre, an energetic and erudite woman associated with literary, artistic, and political circles, took a personal interest in the shy lonely orphaned girl. Through her guidance Eleanor blossomed into an articulate and confident young woman. Eleanor would accompany Mlle. Souvestre on her holiday travels and served as deputy to her classmates. When eighteen-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt returned to New York and her crème de la crème society she had something about her that set her apart from it.
Going to work as a social worker in the East Side slums, Eleanor also taught dance and literature classes to the poor at a settlement house. Unlike those in her class that never thought twice about the less fortunate, Eleanor took a hands-on approach with her deep concern for such people. It was also in 1902 that she became reacquainted with her sixth cousin once removed whom she knew in childhood, Franklin Delano Roosevelt from Hyde Park, New York, then a twenty-year-old junior at Harvard. A strikingly handsome and debonair young man, Eleanor was wooed by his affectionate overtures and they soon began a courtship. Theretofore, Franklin had led a sheltered life owing to his domineering mother Sara Roosevelt, however, through Eleanor he would find a measure of independence. After she took him on her rounds through the run-down East Side tenements, Franklin was awakened to life's other side. His mother resented their courtship deeply and after they became engaged in 1903, she carried him off on a Caribbean cruise in hope of dissuading him. This only caused Franklin's love for Eleanor to grow stronger and she waited for him as well. Following his return, on March 17, 1905, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, twenty-three, and Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, twenty-one, were married at her aunt's townhouse in New York City. Her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt gave Eleanor away, thus the wedding received national attention.
Despite the marriage, the willful Sara Roosevelt was not about to let go of her son and while Eleanor and Franklin were honeymooning in Europe, she purchased for them a New York townhouse next her her own and furnished it herself-in scoffing display of her lack of confidence in her new daughter-in-law's ability to set up housekeeping of her own accord. Accepting this arrangement was a bitter pill her Eleanor to swallow, but she did not want to make waves for fear of hurting her marriage. Indeed, Eleanor would relinquish much of her independence during the early years of her marriage. At this time, while Franklin was working in a New York law firm, Eleanor would wait on her mother-in-law and spend much time in the New York society that she had always been wary of.
Eleanor would experience motherhood during this period as well. She and Franklin had six children: a daughter Anna (1906-1975); and five sons: James (1907-1991); Franklin Delano, Jr. (died of pneumonia at three months, 1909); Elliott (1910-1990); Franklin Delano, Jr. (1914-1988); and John (1916-1981). In the raising of her own children Eleanor would often submit to her mother-in-law, who doted on her grandchildren just as she did on Franklin. As a result Eleanor would come to feel distant from her children-something she would come to regret deeply. As a father, Franklin proved a fun companion to his children, as they would often go swimming, sailing, and sledding together. However, as the serious issues of parenting go, he was less than effective.
In 1910, Franklin, who had become interested in politics, was elected as a Democrat to the New York State Senate, representing the ironically predominantly Republican Dutchess County. The Roosevelts then moved to Albany, through which Eleanor gained some independence from Sara's grasp, was able to be more of a mother to her children, and became interested in politics herself (she frequented the state legislature sessions). Eleanor became friendly with many of her husbands fellow legislators and acted as hostess to the Democratic caucuses held in her own living room-which for her was a "welcome political chore."
In 1913, the newly elected President Woodrow Wilson appointed one of his strongest advocates, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The Roosevelt family relocated to Washington, D.C., and an even larger as well as diverse political and social atmosphere. There latter Eleanor was able to transcend with World War I and America's entry to it, during which she volunteered for the Red Cross in the hospitals, at the local canteen, and supervising the knitting of woollies for the Navy (that her husband became a household name for his administration of). This activeness and leadership in civic affairs that Eleanor demonstrated put her back on the road to individuality; a road she had not seen since her days as a social worker in New York City.
In 1918, Eleanor suffered a devastating blow to her marriage when she discovered love letters between Franklin and his social secretary Lucy Mercer. Bravely, she confronted Franklin, demanding that he end the affair and she would file for divorce. Franklin heeded her warning, however, their marriage never fully recovered and hereon Eleanor would be even more determined to be her own woman. Nonetheless, in the presidential election of 1920, she took an active role as a political collaborator for Franklin in his unsuccessful run for the vice presidency. Additionally, Eleanor became involved in the League of Women Voters as vice president of the New York branch, the Women's Trade Union League as a member, and the Women's Division of the Democratic Party as a member. Through this work she was able to fight for many controversial issues of the day, such as the right of women to vote (gained in 1920), better working conditions for women, and women's rights in general.
Eleanor and Franklin's marriage would be tested again in 1921, when while vacationing at the Roosevelt summer home on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, Franklin contracted polio that left his legs paralyzed. His mother urged him to retire to Hyde Park and become a country squire. But through Eleanor's steadfast encouragement Franklin gradually returned to politics stronger than he had even been before and with Eleanor as his inseparable right arm. For this role Eleanor was coached by Louis Howe, her husband's secretary, from whom she learned the art of public speaking, overcoming her shyness in the process. Franklin's political comeback was confirmed in 1924, when he publicly appeared on crutches at the Democratic national convention to nominate Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York for President- a spectacular return for which he was indebted to Eleanor.
Although she was Franklin's political surrogate Eleanor did not diminish as an individual. In 1926, she was co-founder of a furniture factory in Val-Kill, N.Y. to aid the unemployed. This industry was later expanded in scope to encompass pewter and weaving work. Franklin, who in that same year bought 1,200 acres in Warm Springs, Ga. (which included a pool of mineral water in which he would go swimming to soothe crippled legs), was impressed with Eleanor's initiative and encouraged her and her friends Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman to build a stone house to use as living quarters. Through this Val-Kill became Eleanor's own little haven where she could pursue her own interests as well as live her own life. Indeed, she was far more at home at Val-Kill than at Hyde Park, where because of Sara she never truly felt comfortable.
In 1927, Eleanor and Marion Dickerman purchased Todhunter, a private school for girls in New York City. Recalling Mlle. Souvestre and how she had helped her, Eleanor took an active role in the school as both assistant principal and a teacher of history and government. In both capacities-especially the latter-Eleanor found much enjoyment and was surprisingly adept without a college degree.
When Franklin was elected Governor of New York in 1928, Eleanor remained determined to maintain her pursuits that made her an important civic leader. Still, as her state's first lady she was significantly active: answering letter from New York residents, performing inspections of state institutions, and traveling the state on fact-finding mission for Franklin. Each of these tasks that Eleanor performed would give Franklin the groundwork for the progressive legislation that enabled him to win reelection in 1930 and become a front runner for the Democratic nomination in the presidential election of 1932. Inasmuch as Eleanor fought the entrapment of the governor's mansion, in these four years she did much to mold her husband's career for a greater accomplishment as well as her own.
In 1932 when Franklin won the presidency, Eleanor viewed the upcoming White House with apprehension. Having been away from the Washington scene for twelve years, understandably she dreaded losing all that she had worked for to make a name for herself. Yes, Eleanor Roosevelt could never have imagined that when she became first lady on March 4, 1933, that she would become responsible for the role of first lady never being the same again.
As first lady Eleanor held weekly press conferences exclusively with women reporters as a way to not only discuss current issues, but to promote jobs for women in the media. She traveled on the lecture circuit to explain the objectives of the New Deal, Franklin's program to provide recovery from the Depression. In this Eleanor became a major attractions she performed such public speaking on the radio as well. (Hence, she had come a long way as far as public appearances were concerned). Beginning in 1935 she wrote a daily syndicated column called "My Day" in which she addressed issues of concern to her. While Eleanor also performed rudimentary tasks of a first lady such as hostess to White receptions and state dinners, her aforementioned work luckily overshadowed such mediocre duties of her position.
Eleanor was particularly concerned with the affects of the Depression on America's youth. She asserted that the economic turmoil left young men and women unable to either begin or complete formal education, without jobs to compensate, and without essential occupational training in either case. She persuaded Franklin to create a program to aid rural and urban youth, both male and female. Formed in 1935, the National Youth Administration (NYA) provided financial aid to students in high school, college, and graduate school, and job training to young people who were out of school. Eleanor took an active role in the NYA as adviser to its administrators and spokeswoman for the program.
Eleanor's work in behalf of the younger generation brought into association with the American Youth Congress, an organization made up of young intellectuals who advocated civil rights, housing, and jobs-all of which were issues of concern to Eleanor. Though the AYC had strong communist ties, Eleanor worked closely with them until 1939 when the AYC supported the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact. By this time she was seriously committed to anti fascism and saw that agreement as appeasement.
Eleanor took an active interest in the subject of civil rights for black Americans. Being a Democrat, Franklin needed to approach the subject pragmatically since his party was dominated by Southerners who were often both segregationists and white supremacists. Eleanor however was very open in her approach: she worked closely with the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women and she was instrumental in the creation of the integrated Southern Tenant Farmers Association in 1934 and the Southern Conference on Human Welfare held in Birmingham, Ala. in 1938. But perhaps it was Eleanor's resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939, in protest against the group's barring the black singer Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall that was her greatest act in behalf of the racially discriminated.
Although Eleanor supported, as well as was instrumental in Franklin winning reelection to a second term in 1936, she had initial misgivings about his running for an unprecedented third term in 1940, for she felt the presidency needed revitalization to be effective. However, she came to accept Franklin's decision and vigorously supported him to victory.
By this time World War II had begun and the United States was in a precarious situation. While Eleanor herself deplored violence she soon realized that it was the only alternative to stopping the rise of fascism across the globe. During the Spanish Civil War she implored Franklin to lift the arms embargo against the Loyalist forces and after Franco's victory at Madrid she felt she had not been persuasive enough. After France fell to the Nazis in 1940, she backed Franklin's moves toward rearmament of the United States. Then in 1941 Franklin appointed Eleanor assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), in which capacity she would oversee civilian volunteer participation and community organization in behalf of the war effort. For Eleanor this was a personal triumph as well for this was her first position as a public official. It was unfortunate that once the United States entered World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan later that year, Eleanor endured scathing criticism for her appointments to the OCD. This came from ultraconservative isolationist members of Congress who alleged Eleanor was appointing affluent liberals whom although they outwardly supported United States participation in the war, actually desired to avoid the draft and by working for an administrative agency such as the OCD could be exempt. Rather than prolong the controversy which could come back to haunt Franklin who appointed her, in addition to jeopardizing the war effort, Eleanor tendered her resignation.
The OCD failure in actuality permitted Eleanor to contribute to the war itself in terms of troop morale. In October 1942, Eleanor became the first first lady to travel abroad solo and to fly the Atlantic when she visited U.S. troops in Great Britain, who greeted her by shouting: "Hi, Eleanor." Then in 1943, she visited U.S. troops on the front line in the South Pacific and would maintain a correspondence with many afterward. Despite this hands-on work, Eleanor never developed any liking for war and constantly feared for her sons who were serving in World War II-which in fact was why she took such a personal interest.
In September 1944, Eleanor accompanied Franklin to Quebec, where he discussed with Winston Churchill the plans for the final defeat of Germany and Japan. Here Eleanor spoke in favor of the Morgenthau Plan which outlined the dismantling of German industries and transforming the country into a pastoral paradise. This plan never saw fruition. It was also in this year that Eleanor once again backed Franklin in his successful bid for a fourth term.
Eleanor's twelve years as first lady and her forty year marriage came to a simultaneous end on April 12, 1945, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at Warm Springs at the age of sixty-three. At the time Eleanor was in Washington and immediately flew to Georgia where upon her arrival her grief and devastation was deepened by learning that Lucy Mercer Rutherford was with Franklin at his death, that despite his promise he had resumed the affair at some point, and that her daughter Anna had been assisting her father in covering it up (it would be years before Eleanor fully forgave Anna).
Eleanor would look back on her marriage with rue: "He might have been happier with a wife who was completely uncritical. That I was never able to be, and he had to find it in some other people. Nevertheless, I think I sometimes acted as a spur, even though the spurring was not always wanted or welcome." Through it all Eleanor never stopped loving Franklin nor being proud of him. Upon notifying her sons, who were fighting overseas, of their father's death she said: "He did his job to the end as he would want you to do."
Eleanor Roosevelt departed from the White House having charted a whole new frontier for future first ladies. As far as her public life was concerned she figured that the "story was over" and openly expressed such feeling. Eleanor would prove to be quite mistaken in her assumptions for as she had always been more than simply Franklin D. Roosevelt's wife, she was to be more than simply his widow.
In December 1945, President Harry S. Truman appointed Eleanor as a delegate to the first United Nations General Assembly that was held in London. In this she was assigned to Committee III that dealt with humanitarian, social, and cultural issues- each of which she was more than qualified to deal with. Through this she helped women world leaders gain proper recognition as UN delegates.
In 1946, Eleanor was appointed by Truman, chairwoman of the UN Human Rights Commission, an eighteen member panel that was part of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Eleanor's most notable accomplishment in this position was drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, 1948. This stated that all people are born equal in dignity and rights of life, liberty, security of person. That everyone has equal protection under the law and freedom of thought, conscience, speech, religion, and peaceful assembly. That all people can choose their employment, have the right to decent working conditions, protection against unemployment, and to form unions. All people have the right to participate in the governing of their nations. And above all no person can be denied any of these rights and freedoms on the grounds of race, color, sex, birth, or any other status beyond personal control.
The Declaration was an intermingling of the Bill of Rights, the United States Constitution, as well as the constitutions of several other countries. Through the Declaration, Eleanor was able to carry on Franklin's legacy by applying the Four Freedoms he set forth in 1941, as being what any settlements after World War II should be made according to. These freedoms were of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear. Although Franklin did not live to see the end of World War II, Eleanor kept his vision alive and in unison with her own.
Eleanor took each one of the latter documents and with the Declaration's second article addressed the issues of race, creed, and color on an international basis. Hereon, Eleanor Roosevelt was established as both a modern-day constitutionalist and a world leader.
Eleanor had enormous sympathy for the Jewish refugees from Europe who were victims of the Holocaust. She had long ago outgrown the anti-Semitism prevalent in the upper crust New York society she was raised in, and as a UN delegate saw herself in a position to do much work for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. And it was through Eleanor's effort-along with many others-that the state of Israel was established in 1948.
During her tenure with the UN Eleanor attempted to cooperate with the Soviet Union, however, she was met with difficulty when they viewed the Human Rights Declaration as a sign of weakness instead of goodwill. Afterward she resolved that the only effective way to deal with the Soviets was with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, she visited the Soviet Union on goodwill trips in 1957 and 1958.
Foreboding that she would find president-elect Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, difficult to work with, Eleanor resigned from the United Nations in 1952. But since her heart was still in the institution and its work, Eleanor remained active as an unofficial ambassador traveled to the Middle East, Asia, and Europe in addition to the Soviet Union.
Eleanor continued to be active in the Democratic Party, and supported Adlai Stevenson for president in the 1952 and 1956 elections. After he declined the nomination in 1960, Eleanor reluctantly backed John F. Kennedy, for he had failed to oppose McCarthyism.
These years of "semi retirement" afforded Eleanor the opportunity to write her memoirs. She had already written an autobiography when she was first lady, This Is My Story (1937); she treated the Roosevelt presidency in This I Remember (1950) and her own later work in On My Own (1958).
In 1960, medical tests revealed Eleanor to be suffering from aplastic anemia. Her condition improved enough for her to accept President Kennedy's reappointment to the United Nations as a delegate to the General Assembly in 1961. On familiar terrain she encouraged the president to negotiate, albeit cautiously, with the Soviet Union (the Berlin Wall had just been constructed), she opposed the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and presided over the Commission on the Status of Women. During 1962 she worked on what was to be her final book Tomorrow Is Now (published posthumously 1963), in which she praised Franklin for his pragmatism in social reform, stating that while she wanted change fast, he always knew what he wanted.
Bothered by a persistent fever, Eleanor entered the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City on Sept. 26, 1962. She was ultimately diagnosed with bone marrow tuberculosis, but insisted on returning to her New York apartment for out-patient treatment. Here on Nov. 7, 1962, Eleanor Roosevelt lost the battle and died at the age of seventy-eight. She was buried next to Franklin at Hyde Park.
President Kennedy paid tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt by calling her one of the great ladies in the history of this country. In lieu of her worldwide influence that was the least that anyone could say in eulogy of her. For Eleanor Roosevelt was a woman of vigor, vision, and benevolence. She fiercely stood up for what she believed in. She opened her arms to both a husband who needed encouragement and enlightenment and to scores of the downtrodden and destitute. She broke the mold for all first ladies to come and opened numerous opportunities for women in general. Her influence has yet to fade from the scene.
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