Eleanor Roosevelt

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 11, 1884. She was the daughter of lovely Anna Hall and Elliott Roosevelt, younger brother of Theodore. Eleanor’s mother died when she was eight years old and she and her siblings went to live with Grandmother Hall. Her father died two years later. Eleanor grew up a lonely and shy girl in wealth and comfort. At 15 she was sent abroad to a distinguished school in England. This experience was her first chance to develop self-confidence among other girls. She wrote at this young age: “…no matter how plain a woman may be if truth and loyalty are stamped upon her face all will be attracted to her…” When she returned three years later she returned with a confidence in herself and with a compassionate social conscience.

In Eleanor’s circle of friends was a distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They became engaged in 1903 and were married in 1905, with her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, giving her away. Within eleven years she bore six children (one son died in infancy). During these years she worked at a New York settlement house. Thus began her life-long service and dedication to the welfare of youth, black Americans, the poor and women.

Eleanor’s husband Franklin served in the New York State Senate from 1910 to 1913. This started her long career as political helpmate. She gained knowledge of Washington while he served as Secretary of the Navy. When Franklin was stricken with polio in 1921, she tended to him devotedly. She became active in the women’s division of the State Democratic Committee to keep his interest in politics alive. In 1928 Franklin successfully campaigned for Governor of New York. Eleanor was his eyes and ears tirelessly traveling and gathering the grass-roots knowledge of his constituents and reporting back to him on their concerns.

When Franklin and Eleanor came to the White House in 1933 she transformed the traditional role of First Lady. She reshaped the role around her own skills and her deep commitment to social reform. Eleanor never shirked official entertaining: she greeted thousands with charming friendliness. She also broke precedent and held more than 300 press conferences that she cleverly restricted to women journalists, knowing that news organizations all over the country would be forced to hire their first female reporter in order to have access to the First Lady. She traveled to all parts of the country, gave lectures and radio broadcasts, and expressed her opinions in a daily newspaper column, “My Day”. This made her a tempting target for political enemies but her integrity and sincerity endeared her to many.

In Eleanor’s travels across the country she developed a great understanding of race relations and civil rights. Eleanor compelled Franklin to sign a series of Executive orders barring discrimination in the administration of various New Deal projects. When she first began inspecting New Deal programs she had been shocked to find that blacks were being systematically discriminated against at every turn. She was concerned for disadvantaged black Americans and worked closely for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1938, while attending the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham, Alabama, she refused to abide by a segregation ordinance that required her to sit in the white section of the auditorium, apart from her black friends. The following year she resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution in protest to their preventing black singer Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall. Answering to some of her critics she stated, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right- for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

When the United States entered World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt channeled her energies into the war effort. She was assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense mustering up civilian volunteers. She provided a powerful voice to recruit women workers to the factories and was instrumental in securing the first government funds ever allotted for child-care centers. When women workers were fired as the war came to an end she fought to stem the tide and argued on principle that everyone who wanted to work had a right to be productive. She railed against the closing of the child-care centers as shortsighted. She wanted to see the country “get away from considering a man or woman from the point of view of religion, color, or sex.”

After the President’s death in 1945 she returned to a cottage at his Hyde Park estate and told reporters, “The story is over.” Within a year, however, she began her service as American spokesperson in the United Nations specializing in humanitarian, social, and cultural issues. In 1948, she drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirmed life, liberty, and equality internationally for all people regardless of race, creed, or color. Eleanor continued a vigorous career until 1962. Today she remains a powerful inspiration to leaders in both the civil rights and women’s movements.

Jody Victor