"What other single human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many? She walked in the slums and ghettos of the world, not on a tour of inspection, but as one who could not feel contentment when others were hungry."
— Adlai E. Stevenson
Eleanor Roosevelt has been called one of the 20th century's most influential women.
She was a wife, mother, teacher, first lady of New York, first lady of the country, newspaper columnist, author, world traveler, diplomat, and seasoned politician.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, into one of the oldest and wealthiest families in New York. She had two younger brothers — Elliott Jr. and Gracie Hall. Never close to her mother, also named Anna, Eleanor was doted upon by her father, Elliott — the younger brother of Theodore Roosevelt. He was an alcoholic and his behavior was erratic. Elliott was committed to a mental institution when Anna was eight years old.
Not long afterward, her mother died suddenly of diphtheria. Elliott was deemed unfit to care for the children, so Eleanor and her brothers were sent to live with their mother's mother. Eleanor's father died when she was just nine years old.
When Eleanor was 15, her grandmother decided to send her to Allenswood, a boarding school in England. There, girls were given a progressive education and taught to be independent and politically aware. Eleanor blossomed at Allenswood and showed the beginning signs of the woman she would become later in life.
After three years at Allenswood, Eleanor returned to New York. Her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, was now the president of the United States. "Uncle Ted" always called Eleanor his favorite niece. He taught her the "Roosevelt rule:" Never show fear. Eleanor learned a strong sense of social responsibility and took it seriously. She often did volunteer work with young immigrants, helping them to adapt to life in the United States. She also taught dance and calisthenics. In addition, she joined the New York Consumers' League, which exposed harsh working conditions of women and children.
Upon her "coming out" in 1902, several young men started to court her. One of them was her distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was a 20-year-old student at Harvard. Franklin met Eleanor at the immigrant settlement house several times, and she introduced him to a world he had never known.
Franklin proposed in November 1903. After Eleanor accepted, he declared himself the happiest man on earth. The couple were married on March 17, 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt gave the bride away.
In 1906, the Roosevelt's first child, Anna, was born. Son James was born the next year. A few years later, their third child arrived, Franklin Jr. He suffered from one illness after another and died when he was just seven months old. Elliott was born a year later.
When FDR was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913, the family moved to Washington, D.C. Two more children were born there, a second Franklin Jr. and John. While growing up, the children often felt jealous of the attention their mother paid to her friends and complete strangers. They felt that she had not given to them what she was capable of giving to people outside. Time with their father also was constrained; they often had to make an appointment to talk to him.
Washington etiquette required Eleanor to give, and attend, dinner parties and dances. While Franklin always enjoyed himself, Eleanor often did not. She had a strong aversion to alcohol, because it had affected so many people in her family.
Eleanor often took the children to the Roosevelts' sprawling summer home off the coast of Maine. Franklin often stayed behind in Washington. This distance led Franklin to seek a relationship with Eleanor's social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Upon learning of it, Eleanor wanted a divorce, but was told that, "Roosevelt's don't do divorce." She agreed to go on with the marriage, but they never lived as husband and wife again.
The Roosevelts moved back to New York in 1920. Eleanor embarked on a new life. Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Eleanor joined the League of Women Voters and the Women's City Club.
In the summer of 1921, while vacationing at the family's summer home, Franklin contracted polio. He had to be carried off the island, and his legs would never function again. At the outset of his disability, he spent a significant amount of time in Warm Springs, Georgia, attempting to regain the use of his legs. Eleanor remained in New York.
The early 1920s were a contradictory time for American women — a mixture of new freedoms and traditional patriarchal values. Eleanor formed a circle of close friends. Franklin supported Eleanor's independence and enjoyed her new friends. In 1925, he had a small house built, dubbed Val Kill. Occasionally, Franklin would join the group for meals and picnics, but Val Kill was Eleanor's, and she would think of it as her real home for the rest of her life.
By 1928, Eleanor was the director of the Bureau of Women's Activities of the Democratic Party. She was one of the most powerful and well-known women in national politics. She began to write articles for major magazines, and also endorsed products.
That same year, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York. Three years later, Eleanor learned that her husband was planning to seek the presidency. Eleanor dreaded the idea of being First Lady. She did not fancy a life defined by teas and receiving lines. The day she realized that she would be the wife of a president would be traumatic.
Eleanor held press conferences for women only. She also urged her husband to appoint women to governmental positions. She argued that everyone, including women, youth, and black Americans, should be included in FDR's programs. Those ideas led to her recognition as a new kind of first lady.
In 1934, Eleanor coordinated a meeting between FDR and NAACP leader Walter White, to discuss anti-lynching legislation. The following year, she arranged a meeting of FDR, Democratic National Committee chairman James Farley, and Molly Dewson, head of the Women's Division of the DNC, to discuss the role of women in elections.
In one three-month period, Eleanor logged 40,000 miles of travel. She gave lectures, visited schools and factories, and wrote a newspaper column six days a week called, "My Day." In her travels, she witnessed how the Depression had devastated entire industries and regions. She saw, first hand, new government programs at work, and reported back to FDR.
Franklin Roosevelt ran for, and won, the 1936 presidential election by a landslide.
In 1940, Eleanor made an impromptu speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that helped President Roosevelt to win an unprecedented third term. Although happy for her husband, a quarter of a century in politics had taken a heavy toll on Eleanor's family. All the Roosevelt children led troubled lives, struggling with financial difficulties and failed marriages. Among the five children, there were 19 marriages.
By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought America into World War II, FDR's priorities had shifted from domestic issues to winning the war. The Roosevelts' four sons enlisted in the armed services.
By 1944, the war had taken its toll on FDR. He had been president for 11 years and was now 62 years old. Despite his exhaustion, he sought a fourth term. Although Eleanor felt that he desperately needed rest, she knew that he felt he had to finish his work. FDR was suffering from heart disease. His daughter, Anna, carefully monitored his health. He asked her to accompany him to Yalta for his meeting with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill. Following his return, the president's failing health was apparent to everyone.
FDR traveled to Warm Springs in April 1945. Eleanor stayed behind in Washington. On April 12, she received a telephone call, informing her that her husband had died of a brain hemorrhage. She traveled all through the night to Warm Springs, where she was informed that Lucy Mercer, the woman with whom the president had had an affair decades before, was with him when he died. That was devastating for Eleanor, and as Franklin's body was carried back to Washington, she was scarcely seen. Just days following the funeral, Eleanor moved out of the White House and back to her home, Val Kill.
In 1945, Eleanor joined the NAACP board of directors. In December of that year the new president, Harry S. Truman, asked Eleanor to be a delegate to the first meeting of the United Nations, in London. Just eight months after FDR's death, Eleanor arrived in England to begin a new career.
In 1946, Eleanor was elected head of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. She drafted the Declaration of Human Rights, which passed on December 10, 1948. Addressing the assembly, she said:
The long and meticulous study and debate of which this Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the product means that it reflects the composite views of the many men and governments who have contributed to its formulation. Not every man nor every government can have what he wants in a document of this kind. There are of course particular provisions in the Declaration before us with which we are not fully satisfied. I have no doubt this is true of other delegations, and it would still be true if we continued our labors over many years. Taken as a whole the Delegation of the United States believes that this is a good document -- even a great document -- and we propose to give it our full support. The position of the United States on the various parts of the Declaration is a matter of record in the Third Committee. I shall not burden the Assembly, and particularly my colleagues of the Third Committee, with a restatement of that position here.
Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her UN post at the age of 68. She began to travel extensively, visiting Japan, India, Israel, and the Soviet Union. She kept a relentless schedule of conferences, lectures, and committee meetings.
In the closing years of her life, Eleanor enjoyed, more than ever, her time at Val Kill. Her house was always filled with people — grandchildren, close friends, former New Dealers, visiting dignitaries and neighbors.
Eleanor Roosevelt died at the age of 78 of tuberculosis. All government offices and overseas installations were ordered to fly the Flag at half-mast. The gesture was acknowledgement of what Americans already knew from the polls, and from stories that would come from villages and hamlets all over the world, that she was the most admired woman in the world.
Although the FBI never launched a formal investigation into Eleanor Roosevelt's affairs, references to her comprise one of the largest single files in J. Edgar Hoover's collection. Her affiliation with such liberal groups as the American Youth Congress, as well as her outspokenness about segregation and violence against blacks, and her advocacy of free speech, rendered her, in the minds of Hoover's ilk, a threat to the status quo. The 3,000-page file contains allegations against her for suspected Communist activities, threats to her life on grounds of her disloyalty to the country, close monitoring of her activities and writings, and a record of potentially insurrectionary groups that she may have influenced.
Eleanor Roosevelt denounced the means by which Hoover's FBI procured its information as "Gestapo-ish" and wrote letters of outrage, protesting the investigations of her friends and even her personal secretary. Despite her protests, her file would continue to grow until her death.
For additional famous women, see Important and Famous Women in America .
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Eleanor Roosevelt.
A woman is like a teabag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.
Regarding Theodore Roosevelt
I think I have a good deal of my Uncle Theodore in me, because I could not, at any age, be content to take my place by the fireside and simply look on.
Little by little it dawned upon me that this law was not making people drink any less, but it was making hypocrites and law breakers of a great number of people.
Her newspaper column, "My Day," July 14, 1939
Regarding Hollywood Blacklist
The film industry is a great industry with infinite possibilities for good and bad. Its primary purpose is to entertain people. On the side, it can do many other things. It can popularize certain ideals, it can make education palatable. But in the long run, the judge who decides whether what it does is good or bad is the man or woman who attends the movies. In a democratic country I do not think the public will tolerate a removal of its right to decide what it thinks of the ideas and performances of those who make the movie industry work.
Her newspaper column, "My Day," October 29, 1947
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Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph P. Lash.
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