Eleanor Roosevelt – The First Lady


On October 11, 1884, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born to a well established family in New York City . Her father Elliott Roosevelt was President Theodore Roosevelt’s younger brother and her mother Anna Hall was a descendent of the Livingstons, a distinguished New York family (FDR Library). Eleanor’s mother, who was a beautiful woman, was ashamed of her daughter’s looks and and for this called her “Granny”. Her mother’s remarks on her appearance had negative affects on young Eleanor leaving her a shy and deferential girl, always wanting to please, well into her adult years. (Chosen Leaders and Their Researchers) But her father did not criticize her for her look. He always called her his “little Nell”, and Eleanor had deeply loved him although he was heavily addicted to alcohol (First Lady Biography: Eleanor Roosevelt). Both her mother and father died when she was a child and since the death of her mother she lived with her grandmother Mrs. Valentine G. Hall, who was not a loving woman, in Tivoli, New York. (FDR Library). In 1899 her grandmother sent her to Allenswood, a girls’ boarding school in England. “It was there that Eleanor, under the tutelage of the progressive Madame Marie Souvestre, began to gain some assertiveness. Souvestre chose Eleanor as her personal traveling companion in Europe and introduced her young pupil to the lifestyle of an independent woman”.

She returned to New York in 1902, when she was at age18 (Eleanor Roosevelt 1884-1962 ).

In 1905, when she was 20, she married her fifth cousin Franklin Roosevelt, “a suitable match for a woman of her class. But Franklin’s overly-protective mother soon began to extend her control over her new daughter-in-law. “I was beginning to be an entirely dependent person,” Eleanor said, “someone always to decide everything for me.” Even after Eleanor had borne six children, her mother-in-law still largely dominated over her family life”. Although Eleanor Roosevelt came to symbolize the independent and politically active woman of the twentieth century, in early stages of her life she shared the Victorian femininity found in other women of her class. “I took it for granted that men were superior creatures and knew more about politics than women did, and while I realized that if my husband was a suffragist I probably must be, too, I cannot claim to have been a feminist in those early days.” Even when she married Franklin Roosevelt she knew a little, if nothing, of politics, being unable to explain the difference between America’s national and state governments (Chosen Leaders and Their Researchers).

In 1915, President Wilson appointed Franklin under-secretary of the Navy and the Roosevelts moved to Washington. By then Eleanor was a mother of three boys and a girl; Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, 1906, James Roosevelt 1907, Elliott Roosevelt 1910, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. 1914.the other son of the family, John Aspinwall Roosevelt, was born just the next year, 1916 (First Lady Biography: Eleanor Roosevelt). But 13 year after her marriage, she resumed the search for her identity and just then she was shocked by a realty; her husbands affair with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s social secretary (Goodwin, 1998). This shock changed the direction of her life a great deal. Although she continued her marriage based on Franklin’s promise to never see mercer again, their relationship was never like before. She tried to reduce her dependence on her husband and to form a new personality for herself. But history and personal events combined to propel Eleanor to change from a feminine figure to a feminist political activist.

Woman activities, which was part of the general movement of the Progressive era aimed at purifying the corrupt world of men in the new urbanized and industrialized society. “Considering it a social duty, Eleanor joined such organizations” .To make up for the emotional failure she had suffered in her marriage, “she became closer to a group of individualistic, assertive women friends who traveled in various political and reform circles. Among them were Marion Dickerman, Nancy Cook, Lorena Hickok, and Frances Perkins — all women whose independent careers made a profound impression upon Eleanor”. Yet suffrage in 1920 expanded the already active women’s role in the public sphere. Concerning the vote, Eleanor stated, “I became a much more ardent citizen and feminist than anyone about me in the intermediate years would have dreamed possible. I had learned that if you wanted to institute any kind of reform you could get far more attention if you had a vote than if you lacked one.” when Franklin was paralyzed by a polio attack in 1921 Eleanor’s activities really increased. Franklin “taught her to investigate and observe social conditions closely on her various trips throughout the U.S. so that they could discuss them in detail on her return”. Louis Howe, her husband’s political adviser, gave Eleanor the needed “political education” and “informed her of the issues surrounding her husband’s various campaigns and positions, coached her on making speeches and appearing in public, and encouraged her interest in liberal reforms.”

But what boosted her activities to the ultimate degree was her becoming the First Lady in 1933 (Eleanor Roosevelt 1884-1962 ). She wasn’t concerned with the food that was served or the general appearance of the White House (First Lady Biography: Eleanor Roosevelt). She “shattered the ceremonial mold in which the role of the First Lady had traditionally been fashioned, and reshaped it around her own skills and her deep commitment to social reform. She gave a voice to people who did not have access to power. She was the first woman to speak in front of a national convention, to write a syndicated column, to earn money as a lecturer, to be a radio commentator and to hold regular press conferences” (Goodwin, 1998). In this position she could further her wills and ends better. For example, she cleverly restricted 300 press conferences she had as the First Lady, 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 (Goodwin, 1998). In an address to young women she once said: “If I were of debutante age, I would go into a factory, where I could learn a skill and be useful,” alerting them against marrying too hastily before they had a chance to expand their horizons. And for the working women she said that the only thing they needed “was the courage to ask for their rights with a loud voice”. She dreamed of her country “get away from considering a man or woman from the point of view of religion, color or sex.”

She also developed a sophisticated understanding of race relations. For instance, 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 and in another case she publicly resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution after it barred the black singer Marian Anderson from its auditorium (Goodwin, 1998); later She helped her arrange a concert for 75,000 people at Lincoln Memorial (Little Known Facts).She rejected “separate but equal” doctrine, and 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.” During World War II, Eleanor continued insisting that America could not fight racism abroad while tolerating it at home (Goodwin, 1998) She supported anti-lynching campaigns and fought for fair housing for minorities. “For the labor movement, she investigated working conditions and supported the right to organize. These issues and others provided the content for her “My Day” columns, which she wrote daily from 1936 to 1962. The columns were published nationally and allowed Eleanor to reach millions of Americans” (Eleanor Roosevelt 1884-1962 ).

Eleanor was speaking at a club in Washington, D.C. on April 12, 1945 when she was summoned back to the White House and realized her husband’s death (First Lady Biography: Eleanor Roosevelt).

After Roosevelt’s death, Mrs. Roosevelt continued public life. “She was appointed by President Truman to the United States Delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, a position she held until 1953. She was chairman of the Human Rights Commission during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

In 1953, Mrs. Roosevelt resigned from the United States Delegation to the United Nations and volunteered her services to the American Association for the United Nations. She was an American representative to the World Federation of the United Nations Associations, and later became the chairman of the Associations’ Board of Directors. She was reappointed to the United States Delegation to the United Nations by President Kennedy in 1961. Kennedy also appointed her as a member of the National Advisory Committee of the Peace Corps and chairman of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. Mrs. Roosevelt received many awards for her humanitarian efforts” (FDR Library).In her Address to the United Nations General Assembly, on the adoption of the universal declaration of human rights she said:” Let this third regular session of the General Assembly approve by an overwhelming majority the Declaration of Human Rights as a standard of conduct for all; and let us, as Members of the United Nations, conscious of our own short-comings and imperfections, join our effort in good faith to live up to this high standard.” (Eleanor Roosevelt).

The novice political woman who once said, “It was a wife’s duty to be interested in whatever interested her husband…” had traveled a long and lonely road. She wrote in her final years that “I could not, at any age, really be contented to take my place in a warm corner by the fireside and simply look on,” This vitality lasted until November 7, 1962 when tuberculosis took her life. (Chosen Leaders and Their Researchers).

Works Cited

(n.d.). Retrieved 2 1, 2008, from FDR Library: [http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/erbio.html]

Chosen Leaders and Their Researchers. (n.d.). Retrieved 2 1, 2008, from A 100 Book Project: http://web.hec.ca/leadergraphies/dropdown/eleanor.htm

Eleanor Roosevelt. (n.d.). Retrieved 2 1, 2008, from American Rhetoric: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/eleanorrooseveltdeclarationhumanrights.htm

Eleanor Roosevelt 1884-1962 . (n.d.). Retrieved 2 1, 2008, from The American Experience: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eleanor/peopleevents/pande01.html

First Lady Biography: Eleanor Roosevelt. (n.d.). Retrieved 2 1, 2008, from First Ladies: http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=33

Goodwin, D. K. (1998, April 13). Leaders and Revolutionists:Eleanor Roosevelt. Retrieved 2 1, 2008, from The Time 100: http://www.time.com/time/time100/leaders/profile/eleanor.html


Source by Marzieh Motahhari

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