Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was First Lady of the
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
Within a year, a daughter (Anna) was born; followed in rapid succession
by James (1907), Franklin (1909, who died soon after birth), Elliott (1910),
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
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
As 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
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.
When 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
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
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.
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
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.
The correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman from the Presidential Libraries.
A review of a cd with the music from Eleanor, an American love story.
Stamp catalogue - birth centenary