Eleanor Roosevelt

 

Portrait of Eleanor RooseveltAnna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945 when her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. She was a leader in forming the United Nations and chaired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Drafting Committee.

 

A descendent of Dutch migrants who went in search of a better life and orphaned at the age of ten, she lived a quiet, sad life with her grandmother Hall until an aunt recommended that sixteen-year-old Eleanor be sent to boarding school in London. She returned to New York to make her debut in 1902.

 

While travelling from New York City to Grandmother Hall's Tivoli home, she became reacquainted with Franklin Delano Roosevelt,  a distant cousin. Franklin proposed but, bowing to pressure from his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, agreed to keep the engagement secret. They married two years later, 17 March 1905, where Eleanor's uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, escorted his niece down the aisle, and dominated the press coverage of the ceremony.

 

Eleanor Roosevelt at the UN Human Rights CommissionWithin a year, a daughter (Anna) was born; followed in rapid succession by James (1907), Franklin (1909, who died soon after birth), Elliott (1910), Franklin (1914), and John (1916). The quiet family life started to change in 1911. Dutchess County elected her husband to the New York state senate. FDR asked her to leave Hyde Park and to set up a home for the family in Albany. In Albany, she made new friends, watched her husband shape government policies, and managed her own household. In 1913, she followed FDR to Washington where he served as assistant secretary of the Navy and faithfully made "calling card calls" on all the cabinet wives. The trauma of World War I disrupted this social convention and Eleanor spent months working in the Red Cross canteen at Union Station. Appalled at the treatment veterans received at Saint Elizabeth's Hospital, she forced the Interior Department to change its standards. She was, she later recalled, "becoming independent."

 

The defeat of the Cox-Roosevelt ticket in 1920 gave Eleanor the opportunity to focus on her desires and hopes. She soon learned that working on issues she cared about could be fun, productive, and helpful to her husband. Thus, before FDR was stricken with polio in 1921, Eleanor worked to build the Roosevelt network. She soon became a political force in her own right.

 

Throughout the 1920s, she helped lead the Women's City Club and several other organisations. She wrote articles discussing campaign strategies for the Women's Democratic News. As chair of the Civic League's City Planning Department, she coordinated its responses on housing and transportation issues, chaired its legislation committee, arbitrated disputes over child labour laws, promoted workmen's compensation and, in a move that made banner headlines across New York State, strongly urged adoption of an amendment to the Penal Law legalizing the distribution of birth control information among married couples.

 

The 1928 election presented a new challenge to both Roosevelts. Their relationship had begun to move away from a traditional marriage and more toward a professional collaboration between peers. Her discovery in 1918 of his affair with Lucy Mercer destroyed marital intimacy and encouraged her to look elsewhere for closeness. As a result, by the time FDR was elected governor, the couple had developed individual personal and political support systems.

 

Stamp from the Netherlands AntillesAs the wife of the governor, Eleanor struggled to balance her commitment to political reform with her husband's political agenda. Her private loyalty was to the Democratic Women's Committee whose newsletter she continued to edit covertly. Although she refrained from delivering "political speeches," she continued to travel the remote upstate regions. Aware of how difficult it was for a politician and his staff to face unpopular decisions, she urged the appointment of individuals who had the nerve to disagree openly with FDR.

 

Perhaps most important, she began to apply political finesse to resolve disagreements within FDR's inner circle. She regularly facilitated conflicts between FDR intimates Louis Howe and Jim Farley and acted as a political stand-in when FDR could not or chose not to participate in the discussion.

 

The move to the White House presented ER with a more complicated dilemma. FDR asked that she stop her political activities and refused her offers to help with his mail, act as his unofficial ambassador, or serve as administrative assistant. Trapped by convention, she begrudgingly recognized that "the work [was his] work and the pattern his pattern" and that she "was one of those who served his purposes." By August 1932, Eleanor resumed writing, began a monthly column for Pictorial Review; by October, she had travelled 40,000 miles examining social and economic conditions; and by December, she had responded to the 300,000 letters she received from "forgotten Americans." Her observations and those of her correspondents only reinforced the impressions she had formed during the final days of the campaign. She returned to Washington convinced that relief programs alone could not counteract the Depression and that basic economic reforms were essential.

 

Like FDR, Eleanor thought fear the greatest threat to democracy. She paid close attention to democracy's most vocal critics, especially African Americans and student activists.

 

Her skilful use of the media helped offset criticism her activism provoked. In December 1935, she began her daily syndicated column "My Day" which, by 1940, had a circulation equal to that of syndicated columnists Walter Lippman and Dorothy Thompson. World War II reinforced her commitment to social justice and arbitration.

 

Eleanor Roosevelt holding a poster with the Universal Declaration of Human RightsWhen FDR died, Eleanor confronted new challenges. Refusing requests from party leaders to run for office, from labour leaders to run a political action committee, and from university boards to run major women's colleges, she told the press "the story is over." A more inaccurate statement was never uttered. Whether at her apartment in New York City, or travelling the world, Eleanor brought people together and urged them to work to make their dreams come true. She continued her column, expanded her speaking tour, wrote 10 books, joined the NAACP board of directors, campaigned for Adlai Stevenson and countless other candidates, and chaired the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.

 

Perhaps her greatest legacy was her work as a member of the American delegation to the United Nations. As chair of the Human Rights Commission, she shepherded the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and gave the world a new vision to combat the horrors of war and prejudice: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

 

She was appointed the first delegate of the United States of America to the United Nations, serving from 1945 to 1952 and again from 1961 to 1962.

 

In 1954 Eleanor Roosevelt was awarded the first Nansen Medal from the UN High Commissioner on Refugees for her commitment to the cause of refugees.

 

Nansen MedalEleanor Roosevelt spent the last two years of her life tired and in pain, but she rarely curtailed her schedule. Battling aplastic anaemia and tuberculosis, she nevertheless continued to speak out on issues relating to racial justice, world peace, and women's rights. Outraged by the violence the Freedom Riders encountered in Mississippi and Alabama and discouraged by the tepid response of the Kennedy Administration, she quickly agreed to a request from CORE in May 1962 to chair a public hearing charged with investigating law enforcement officials acts against the young protestors. She returned home to Hyde Park where she struggled to complete her last book, Tomorrow is Now, in which she pleaded for racial, political, and social justice. She died 7 November 1962 in a New York City hospital at the age of seventy-eight.

 

At her memorial service, Adlai Stevenson asked: "What other single human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many?". He described her as someone who would rather light a candle than curse the darkness.

 

 

Links

 

The correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman from the Presidential Libraries.

The Eleanor Roosevelt Monument in Riverside Park, New York.

A review of a cd with the music from Eleanor, an American love story.

 

 

Stamp catalogue - birth centenary

 

Netherlands Antilles                         11 October 1984

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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last revised: 28 March 2010