Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of former American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. After the President had died, Eleanor rose to fame with her work related to women’s empowerment, New Deal coalition and as a writer, public speaker and political activist. She was a keen political figure who had chaired the John F. Kennedy administration's path breaking committee that brought the start of second-wave feminism. Her role as the chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women from 1961 to 1962 made her rank in the top ten of the ‘Gallup's List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century’. Eleanor Roosevelt was a powerful figure who played a significant role in co-founding the NGO, ‘Freedom House’ and supporting the formation of the United Nations. She worked hard to bring positive changes in statuses of working women. She was a woman of various roles. She was invited by President Harry S. Truman and confirmed by the United States Senate to become a delegate to the UN General Assembly from 1945 and 1952. Eleanor Roosevelt rose much higher than being just the wife of President Roosevelt as she not only supported her husband’s New Deal policies but also became a prominent advocate of America’s civil rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt Childhood
Eleanor Roosevelt was born as Anna Eleanor Roosevelt on 11 October 1884 at 56 West 37th Street in New York City to parents, Elliott Roosevelt and Anna Hall Roosevelt. Roosevelt preferred being called by her middle name since she was very young. She belonged to a very affluent family of New York’s “high society”. Although she was born in a family of privileges and wealth she was known to be a sober kid. Eleanor’s mother and brother died of diphtheria and she was brought up by her maternal grandmother, Mary Ludlow Hall at Tivoli in New York. She was privately tutored before being sent to Allenswood Academy at the age of 15. She was fluent in French. In the 1920s she was enrolled at The New School.
Youth, Marriage and Family Life
She turned 17 in 1902 when she returned to the United States before ending her formal education. On 14 December 1902 she was presented at a debutante ball at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Later a debutante party was thrown for her. She was a member of The New York Junior League where she was an active volunteer for social work which made her work in the East Side slums of New York. She was possibly the league’s earliest member who was introduced to it by a friend and organization founder, Mary Harriman. In 1902 Eleanor got introduced to her father's fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a 20 year old young and brilliant Harvard University student. Soon Franklin fell for her charms and she was delighted to know this. In 1903 soon after a White House reception and dinner with her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, on New Year's Day had ended the duo started seeing each other. In November 1904 Eleanor got engaged to Franklin D. Roosevelt. However the couple had made their engagement public only on 1 December 1904 as Franklin's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt had opposed the couple’s union. Sara went so far as to take her son on a cruise in 1904 in the hope that the separation would break the union but this turned against her plans as Franklin returned from the cruise with renewed love for Eleanor. 23 year old Franklin Roosevelt married 20 year old Eleanor Roosevelt on 17 March 1905. The newly married Roosevelt couple settled at Franklin family's estate overlooking the Hudson River in Hyde Park, New York. The couple had six children of whom only five survived - Anna Eleanor, Jr. (1906–75) who became a journalist, public relations official, James (1907–91) who went on to become a businessman, congressman and author, Franklin Delano, Jr. (b./d. 1909), Elliott (1910–90) who became a businessman, mayor, author, Franklin Delano Jr. (1914–88) who turned a businessman, congressman and farmer and John Aspinwall (1916–81) who became a notable merchant and stockbroker.
Eleanor and her family started spending their holidays at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, on the Maine–Canada border where Franklin was suddenly attacked by a paralytic illness in August 1921 which led to permanent paralysis of his legs.
Problems in the Family
Eleanor had a very disputative relationship with her domineering mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt. Sara was a distant cousin to Eleanor and tried her best to balance the relationship even after the marriage. Sara gave huge presents to her new grandchildren but at times Eleanor faced problems with her mother in law.
Franklin and Eleanor’s Affairs
The couple had a happy beginning in their marriage but Franklin’s affair with his wife's social secretary Lucy Mercer broke the marriage. Franklin was aware that divorce would malign the family’s image. His mother opposed the idea of divorce and even warned Franklin of disinheriting him. Franklin decided not to meet Mercer but the latter made frequent visits in the 1930s and was with Franklin at Warm Springs, Georgia during his death on April 12, 1945.
In 1933 Eleanor was found to have a very close relationship with Lorena Hickok who was responsible for covering her campaign during the early days of the Roosevelt administration. There had been too much speculation surrounding Eleanor’s relation with Hickok. Scholar Lillian Faderman had stated this relationship to be lesbian although there are very little evidences to prove the romantic alliance between Eleanor and Lorena Hickok. It was Franklin’s inauguration day when Eleanor was seen wearing a sapphire ring that Hickok had given her. It is not known whether Frankiln was aware of Eleanor’s relationship with Lorena but soon the two women’s closeness was made public when Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “I want to put my arms around you & kiss you at the corner of your mouth”.
Eleanor also had a romantic alliance with a New York State Police sergeant, Earl Miller, whom her husband had assigned as her bodyguard. In 1929 Roosevelt met Miller and according to Franklin's biographers, Miller became her friend as well as official escort. She learnt several sports like diving, riding and tennis game from Miller.
Work before entering White House
1921 started with Franklin being attacked by paralytic illness which led Eleanor to replace her husband in all his work. She started making public appearances. Eleanor was taught how to be careful with her public moves by Louis Howe and she was successful. Eleanor worked with the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) and raised huge funds for the union. She also worked in promoting 48-hour work week, minimum wage, and the abolition of child labour. In 1920s Eleanor turned into an influential political leader in the New York State Democratic Party while Franklin started using her contacts among Democratic women to strengthen his stand and win their committed support for the future. In 1924 she actively campaigned for Alfred E. Smith in his successful re-election bid as governor of New York State. By 1928 Eleanor was actively promoting Smith's candidacy for president and Franklin's nomination as the Democratic Party's candidate for governor of New York, succeeding Smith. Although Smith lost, Franklin won and the Roosevelts gained access into the governor's mansion in Albany, New York.
In the 1920s Eleanor engaged herself in teaching literature and American history at the Todhunter School for Girls, now the Dalton School, in New York City.
1933 to 1945
On 4 March 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt was given his Presidential inauguration and Eleanor became the First Lady of the United States. Eleanor had already witnessed and greatly assessed the tailored role of her aunt, Edith Roosevelt, during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909) which made her choose a different path. She was supported by her husband but greatly criticised for continuing with her business and speaking agendas. She travelled greatly throughout her 12 year stay at the White house which included her frequent appearances at labour meetings to assure Depression-era workers that the White House was aware of their plight. She became a significant connection to the African-American population during the segregation era for Franklin's administration. When Franklin was the President he needed to placate southern sentiment but Eleanor went against him and became vocal in her support of the African-American civil rights movement. In 1939 Eleanor openly supported Marian Anderson when the black singer was denied the use of Washington's Constitution Hall and played an important role in organising the concert held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The first lady played a role in racial affairs when she appointed Mary McLeod Bethune as head of the Division of Negro Affairs.
Her Media Moves
Eleanor Roosevelt handled media greatly and she utilised her high social and political position to maintain a strong presence in the media. During her husband’s presidency Eleanor found most US women to be homemakers. She connected with the media to build a contact with the American women. Eleanor wanted to erase domestic isolation rampant in American women of the time. She used three mediums to keep in touch with her female followers, press conference, a daily newspaper column, and magazine articles. Eleanor was successful in initializing a communication platform. Her efforts in becoming a strong voice of the White House to female journalists got channelled into humanitarian concerns which formed her reports and she highlighted on issues like unemployment, poverty, education, rural life, and the role of women in society. Eleanor upheld the issues of American women. During Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential tenure Eleanor held 348 press conferences which mostly had women as men were not welcome in the meetings. During 1936 to 1962 Roosevelt ran her “My Day” newspaper column which was observed as diary of her daily activities.
In the spring of 1933 Eleanor Roosevelt joined ‘Woman's Home Companion’ which was a leading women’s magazine in order to write on a monthly column. She answered mails from readers through the column.
Role during II World War
In 1941 Roosevelt along with Wendell Willkie, and other Americans formed an NGO, Freedom House due to threats on democracy. Eleanor became actively involved in politics as United States entered the World War II. She co-chaired a national committee on civil defence with New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia and made frequent visits to civilian and military centres to boost war morale. She also went against her husband who had signed the Executive Order 9066 that interned thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry. In 1943 she was sent to the South Pacific which was in the centre of major battles against the Japanese. She became greatly popular for paying visits to thousands of wounded servicemen through miles of hospitals. Roosevelt aimed at building great relations with other nations so she toured around Latin American countries in March 1944.
All along the war Roosevelt supported the opening up of opportunities for women and African-Americans. She was instrumental in bringing success in recruiting the first black combat pilots. Under Roosevelt the Tuskegee Air Corps Advanced Flying School in Alabama got maximum advantage as it was on her request that black pilot students were given importance. She was the guiding light in bringing great visibility to Tuskegee's pilot training program. In July 1941 Roosevelt arranged a White House meeting with the representatives of the Tuskegee flight school who wanted to plead their cause for more support from the military establishment in Washington. She had remained a supporter and a staunch advocate of ‘Morgenthau Plan’ to de-industrialize Germany in the post-war period and in 1946 remained as one of the last members of the campaign group lobbying for a harsh peace for Germany.
Post White House Years
President Franklin Roosevelt died of stroke on 12 April 1945 at Warm Springs, Georgia when Eleanor was in Washington. She learnt about her husband’s affair with Lucy Rutherfurd only after he had died. She also learnt about the fact that Lucy had been with Franklin during his death. Joseph P. Lash who was Eleanor’s biographer had stated this affair to be a “bitter discovery” for Eleanor.
Work in the United Nations
Roosevelt was chosen as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, in 1945 by President Harry Truman. In April 1946, Roosevelt went on to become the first chairperson of the preliminary United Nations Commission on Human Rights. In January 1947 the United Nations Commission was permanently formed and Eleanor remained its chairperson. She played an important role along with René Cassin, John Peters Humphrey and many others in making a draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It was on the night of 28 September 1948 that she spoke on behalf of the Declaration stating it to be, “the international Magna Carta of all mankind”. On 10 December 1948 the Declaration was finally adopted by the General Assembly. Roosevelt acted as the first United States Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and remained so in that position till 1953.
Roosevelt had been a brilliant public speaker throughout her career. She was an international spokesperson for women. Throughout the 1950s she remained attached with several national and international speaking engagements, radio broadcasts, news column writings and television appearances. In the late 1940s and much later Roosevelt had been often offered to take responsibility for political office by Democrats in New York and throughout the country to which Eleanor gracefully declined.
Awards and Honours
Roosevelt had received a total of 48 honorary degrees throughout her life. She received her first a Doctor of Humane Letters or D.H.L. on 13 June 1929 which was also the first honorary degree awarded by Russell Sage College in Troy, New York. In 1958 Folkways Records released an album by Roosevelt of her documentary on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. She had been named for a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize. She was the first ‘First Lady’ to receive honorary membership into Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated which was the world's first and oldest notable sorority for African-American women.
Later Years and Death
After her husband died, Eleanor Roosevelt shifted from White House to Val-Kill Cottage in Hyde Park, New York where she continued living for the rest of her life. She had been the member of Brandeis University Board of Trustees and delivered the University's first commencement speech before joining the Brandeis faculty as a visiting lecturer in international relations in 1959 when she was 75 years old.
She met with a car accident in April 1960 where she was injured. Soon after this her health deteriorated.
On 15 November 1960 she met former U.S. President Harry S Truman and his wife Bess Truman at the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri for the last time. The Truman family had attended Roosevelt's memorial service in Hyde Park in November, 1962. In 1961 Roosevelt’s volumes of autobiography (which she had worked on for a long period spanning from 1937) were brought out as a complete compilation, The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt.
She was diagnosed with aplastic anemia and she had also acquired bone marrow tuberculosis. She died at her Manhattan residence on 7 November 1962.