Eleanor Roosevelt refused to be constrained by the traditional view of a woman’s role. She fought for the rights of women and the disadvantaged. She changed the role of the first lady and made it a much more active role involved in important issues rather than simply being concerned with social events.
Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 11, 1884. She was named Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, but she always preferred Eleanor. Eleanor had a difficult childhood. Her father, upset over his ill health and the death of his mother, began to drink heavily and was gone from the family home for long periods of time. Eleanor’s mother, Anne, became increasingly unhappy about her marriage which she began to take out on her daughter. Eleanor’s mother would often call Eleanor plain-looking or Granny.
Eleanor’s mother died in 1892 when Eleanor was eight years old. Eleanor then became much more attached to her father but unfortunately, her father died nineteen months later when he suffered a seizure after a suicide attempt. Eleanor was ten years old. She was then sent to her grandmother. Life didn’t get much better for Eleanor at her grandmother’s. Her grandmother was an emotionally cold woman who felt that she had been too lenient with her own daughter and was determined to be stricter with Eleanor.
When Eleanor was fourteen years old, she was sent to London to attend the Allenswood Girl’s Academy. The school was run by Marie Souvestre and Eleanor was to say that Souvestre was one of the biggest influences in her life.
Souvestre’s goal was to help her students become intellectually independent. While at school, Eleanor learned music, painting, and composition as well as a variety of languages among other subjects. Eleanor also received independent study from Souvestre in history, geography, and philosophy. Souvestre’s interest in liberal causes, such as working class rights, and history helped form Eleanor’s interest in these subjects and was reflected later on in her actions as first lady.
Once Eleanor finished her studies at Allenswood, she had a lot more confidence in herself and became a lot more independent.
Eleanor returned to America in 1902. She ran into her cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt while on a train to Tivoli. They saw each other a number of times after this and after a year, Franklin proposed. Franklin’s mother did not agree to the engagement and requested that they keep the relationship a secret for a year. Once the year was up, the couple still wanted to be together. The marriage was announced and took place on March 17, 1905. Theodore Roosevelt, who was the American president at the time, gave the bride away.
Eleanor became involved with the Consumers League as well as the Junior League. The Consumers League was concerned with labour laws and as a member she investigated working conditions for children in the workforce. As a Junior League member, she taught calisthenics and dancing at community centres.
Eleanor’s husband, Franklin, began to get involved in politics in 1911 when he was elected to the New York senate. As her husband moved higher in politics, Eleanor began to become more involved in politics.
When World War I started, Eleanor became heavily involved with wartime relief. She worked with Navy Relief and the Red Cross canteen. Eleanor realized that she did not simply have to focus on helping her husband’s career but could also help with projects that she felt were important.
At one point, Eleanor, shocked by what she saw at a federal government hospital for shell-shocked sailors, put pressure on the Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane until he agreed to appoint a committee to investigate.
The marriage between Eleanor and Franklin almost came to an end when Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s social secretary. Eleanor threatened to divorce Franklin if he did not end the affair. Franklin’s mother also threatened to disinherit him if he got divorced. The affair ended but the relationship between Eleanor and Franklin changed into a more politically focused relationship than a romantic relationship.
In 1920, Franklin ran as the nominee for vice-president with James Cox as president. They lost and Franklin and Eleanor returned to Albany, New York. While in New York, Eleanor continued to remain active in issues that interested her. Eleanor became involved in a number of women’s groups as well as other groups interested in reform. She recognized that in order to make changes, she needed to be more pragmatic. She helped teach the groups she was involved with on how to get their agenda approved and she was soon recognized as having a lot of political power. She remained heavily involved in politics, particularly around issues regarding reform and women’s issues.
Franklin became the new governor in New York and was later nominated to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Eleanor was worried about losing her independence if Franklin won the presidency, and although she did cut down on some of the political activity, she still remained interested in a number of issues.
The First Lady
Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidential election and Eleanor became the first lady. Eleanor was determined to not become just a social fixture in the White House. She offered to become her husband’s administrative assistant but he refused. As a result, Eleanor set her own goals, which she shared in an interview she gave on her husband’s inauguration day. She wanted to reduce the White House budget and help her husband determine what the population felt. Two days after the inauguration, she gave a press conference (the only first lady to give one) and set up weekly meetings with female reporters. She also refused protection from the Secret Service, had the Lincoln bedroom converted into a study, and even greeted White House guests.
When her husband started a number of social programs, Eleanor analyzed the programs and pushed to have any problems fixed. She also offered suggestions for improvement. She travelled a lot and would often gather information about working and living conditions as well as relief projects. She would then share this information with her husband.
Eleanor was very interested in civil rights and although her husband refused to let her attend conventions for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she was the first white resident of D.C. to join the D.C. chapter of the NAACP. She also gave active support to anti-lynching laws even though her husband refused to do so for fear of losing support of Democrats in the south.
World War II
When World War II started, Eleanor tried to help Jews and other European refugees escape Europe. She worked with a number of different groups such as the Emergency Rescue Committee and the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children. Eleanor also helped create Freedom House which was established to push for democracy around the world.
When the United States entered the war, Eleanor worked to ensure that the social programs and other New Deal programs that had been started were not forgotten because of the war. She also opposed her husband’s decision to intern Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent.
Eleanor disagreed with some of the people in her husband’s administration who were willing to sacrifice some of these social programs in order to win the election. As a result, Eleanor, who had been heavily involved in her husband’s last three elections, became much less involved in the final election.
Former First Lady
Eleanor’s husband died on April 12, 1945 after suffering a stroke. She was not sure what life would hold now that she was no longer the first lady and she feared that she would lose all of her influence, but she quickly received a number of offers about things she could do next.
A week after the funeral, Eleanor had moved out of the White House and was living in New York. The new president, Harry Truman, offered her a position with the United States delegation to the United Nations. She accepted and helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She also worked with the Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Committee and helped people who had been forced to move during the war to return home. She became the chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission and worked hard investigating social, economic, and political issues facing people throughout the world.
When Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidency, Eleanor resigned her spot in the U.N. so the new president could place his own person in the U.N., but when John F. Kennedy was elected, he asked her to join the U.N. again. She was also appointed to the National Advisory Committee of the Peace Corps and presided over the President’s Commission on the Status of Women.
Eleanor maintained a busy schedule with speaking engagements and writing. Even though she was quite ill for the last two years of her life, she refused to stop her political activism. She continued fighting right up to her death on November 7, 1962.