American First Lady, humanitarian, and diplomat
Through her humanitarian efforts in America and abroad, Roosevelt became one of the best-known and most admired women in the world.
Eleanor Roosevelt's extended family was among the ruling class in America in the first half of the twentieth century. Her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, and her husband and fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, both became presidents. Their accomplishments, however, did little to overshadow hers. While her husband was president, she helped develop or strongly supported many of the programs in his New Deal plan to rescue the country from the throes of the Great Depression. After his death, she continued working for the rights of the poor and the oppressed, this time on a global scale. Through her humanitarian efforts in America and abroad, Roosevelt became one of the best-known and most admired women in the world.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City in 1884. She was the daughter of Elliot Roosevelt, brother of future president Theodore Roosevelt, and Anna Ludlow Hall. Her father, although loving, was an alcoholic; her mother was cold and disapproving. By the time she was eight, both of her parents had died, so she went to live with her grandmother. Awkward and shy, she was sent to finishing school in England when she was 15. Here the withdrawn Roosevelt blossomed, excelling in languages and literature and becoming popular for the first time in her life.
When she returned to New York City at age 17, Roosevelt refused to take part in the activities of high society. Instead, she chose to work toward social reforms. She taught dancing and literature at community centers and visited needy children in the slums. Through her work, she gained an intimate knowledge of how the poor actually lived. During this time, she met her fifth cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt. Against his mother's wishes, they were married on March 17, 1905. Her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, gave her away at the wedding. Over the next ten years, she gave birth to six children (one died in infancy).
Neither her family nor her husband's growing political career prevented Roosevelt from pursuing her own social concerns. While he served in Washington as assistant secretary of the navy during World War I, she worked with the Red Cross. She visited wounded troops in the Naval Hospital and worked to improve conditions at a hospital for the mentally ill. After Roosevelt and her husband returned to New York in 1920, she became active in movements calling for equal rights for women and better working conditions for female employees.
In the summer of 1921, Roosevelt's life changed drastically. While vacationing on an island off the coast of Maine, her husband was stricken with an attack of poliomyelitis (polio). The disease left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Determined to maintain her husband's political links, she quickly learned public speaking and political organization. Over the next few years, she campaigned for Democratic candidates in New York and worked for the women's division of the party.
In 1928 Roosevelt's husband was elected governor of New York. She then became his "legs," inspecting state hospitals, prisons, and homes for the elderly. In 1932 he was elected to the first of four presidential terms, giving her a national platform from which to address her concerns. Roosevelt forever changed the role of the First Lady. She began holding weekly press conferences, speaking only to women reporters mainly on women's issues. In 1935 she started writing a column, "My Day," which appeared in national newspapers. For its first three years, "My Day" focused on the concerns of women. By 1939, however, Roosevelt was addressing general political topics in her column.
This change reflected the increasing role Roosevelt played in her husband's policy decisions. More than anyone in the White House, she brought the cause of the oppressed to her husband's attention. She championed the struggle of Appalachian farmers to reclaim their land, and she made sure African Americans were receiving relief from New Deal programs. Throughout her reign as First Lady, she argued against all forms of discrimination. Roosevelt was especially concerned with the condition of America's youth during the Depression. In 1935 she helped found the National Youth Administration, which gave thousands of high school and college students part-time work.
Roosevelt had always been a pacifist (person opposed to war and conflict), but supported the war effort when America entered World War II in 1941. She concentrated her energies on the welfare of American soldiers. In the summer of 1943, she traveled 23,000 miles visiting field hospitals in Australia and the South Pacific.
After her husband died suddenly on April 12, 1945, Roosevelt continued her public activities. In December of that year, President Harry S Truman appointed her a United States delegate to the first meeting of the United Nations in London. She became the chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, which was given the job of drafting an international bill of rights. On December 10, 1948, the United Nations accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Roosevelt had been the driving force behind its creation.
When Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower became president in 1952, Roosevelt resigned her position at the United Nations. She became a leading spokesperson for liberal causes, arguing for civil rights not only in American but in all other countries. Traveling around the world throughout the 1950s, she called for nuclear disarmament and urged leaders to protect the human rights of their people. Even in her late seventies, Roosevelt remained a powerful voice in the Democratic party. She died at her home in New York City on November 7, 1962.
Article I: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Cook, Blanche Weisen, Eleanor Roosevelt, Viking,
Flemion, Jesse, and Colleen M. O'Conner, eds., Eleanor Roosevelt: An American Journey, San Diego State University Press, 1987.
Freedman, Russell, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery, Clarion Books, 1993.
Lash, Joseph P., Eleanor: The Years Alone, Norton, 1972.
Roosevelt, Eleanor, The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1937.
Roosevelt, Eleanor, Eleanor Roosevelt's My Day, Volume 1, Pharos Books, 1989.
Vercelli, Jane Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Chelsea House, 1995.