Eleanor Roosevelt: 33rd First Lady of the United States
A recent edition of Time Magazine dubbed the position of the First Lady of the United States as “America’s weirdest job,” and maybe it is. The spouse of the president has many unique responsibilities and one first lady that set the bar very high for those to follow was Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor was the wife of America’s longest running president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She took an active role helping her husband navigate the country through some of its darkest hours – the Great Depression and World War II. Perhaps the presidential historian, Douglas Brinkley, gave us prospective of Mrs. Roosevelt when he wrote: “She’s the great first lady; as Harry Truman said, she was ‘the first lady of the world.’ She got very involved with getting African Americans more equal rights, working in West Virginia with coal miners and the working people of America, the forgotten people, the downtrodden, and also, women’s issues, getting women into the forefront of American political life. She had no role model as first lady. She created this role all on her own. There is nobody quite like her.”
Anne Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, into a prominent and wealthy New York family. Her parents, Anna Rebecca Hall and Elliott Bulloch Roosevelt, were known socialites but had an unhappy marriage. As a result, Eleanor’s childhood was perturbed by conflict, especially as her mother would often ridicule and criticize her opinions and choices. Her father, the younger brother of President Theodore Roosevelt, was a prosperous investor with a weakness for gambling, who rarely spent time at home. Misfortune hit the family in December 1892, when Eleanor’s mother died of diphtheria. Meanwhile, Elliott succumbed to alcoholism, and he died in August 1894. After losing her parents, Eleanor became vulnerable to depression, which followed her intermittently throughout her life.
Following the death of her parents, Eleanor Roosevelt was raised by her maternal grandmother. In 1899, she was enrolled at Allenswood Academy, in London, England, where she remained for the next three years. At Allenswood, Eleanor made a remarkable impression and became a favorite of the school’s headmistress, Marie Souvestre, a progressive instructor focused on engaging young women in critical thinking and cultivating their confidence. Souvestre became an inspiration and a mentor for Eleanor and helped her surpass her shyness and recognize her potential. Eleanor later wrote of her time with Souvestre, “I finally learned that I have a brain. I have argued the Boer War with Mademoiselle and I have won each time.” After her success in England, Roosevelt returned to New York in 1902, at her grandmother’s request, and made her social debut.
Marriage and Public Life
Eleanor met her future husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the summer of 1902. Franklin was her father’s fifth cousin, but they had never met before. Shortly after their first meeting, they began a long-term correspondence which led to their engagement. The only impediment in their way to marriage was the fierce opposition of Franklin’s mother, Sara Ann Delano. On March 17, 1905, despite Sara’s protests, Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were married. Sara confronted Franklin about the new of the marriage, “Please, you’re going to put the family in shame. Why are you doing this?” Standing firm against his overbearing mother, Franklin responded, “Mother, I’ve got to marry Eleanor. I’m going to do this.” So, to some degree, Sara came along with the marriage. President Theodore Roosevelt attended the wedding and gave away the bride, which put the event on the front pages of newspapers. After a honeymoon in Europe, the young couple settled in New York City, in a home provided by Franklin’s mother.
The only issue that disturbed their happy relationship in their first decade of marriage was the domineering behavior of Franklin’s mother. While Eleanor consistently protested Sara’s intervention in her family life, there was little that could convince Sara to give her son and his wife the independence they craved.
Eleanor gave birth to six children in this first decade of marriage, with five surving to adulthood, but she felt ill-prepared for motherhood. Her personal dissatisfaction with married life was aggravated in 1918 after she discovered that her husband had cheated on her with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Franklin realized that his rapidly-growing political career would suffer in case of a scandal, and he decided not to divorce. Eleanor forgave him, but from this point on, their relationship became a sort of business partnership. As Roosevelt’s role as a wife diminished, she started to focus on other aspects of her life, giving priority to social causes and public service.
In 1921, Franklin contracted the debilitating disease polio and lost the mobility in much of his body. Eleanor immediately took the responsibility of nursing him, with a devotion that impressed everyone. When it became clear that Franklin would never fully recover and that his legs would remain paralyzed, Eleanor convinced him to remain active in politics, even though his mother wanted him to retire to the family’s home in Hyde Park.
As Franklin’s disability sometimes stopped him from making public appearances, Eleanor became visible on the political scene, traveling and speaking on his behalf. Throughout the 1920s, her influence within the New York State Democratic Party grew steadily and she gained a renewed sense of independence. She became involved with the Women’s Trade Union League, advocating for the rights of working women and raising funds for the union. In 1924, she supported Alfred E. Smith in the election for governor of New York, even though Smith’s opponent was Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., her Republican first cousin.
Four years later, when Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded Smith as governor of New York, Eleanor traveled extensively within the state as the governor’s wife, conducting inspections on Franklin’s behalf. She also taught history and literature at the Todhunter School for Girls in New York City and developed the Val-kill Furniture Factory, a social experiment meant to fight unemployment among disadvantaged communities. When Franklin entered the presidential race in 1932, Eleanor already had a vast political experience, after being involved in numerous organizations and boards, where she honed her writing and public speaking skills.
First Lady of the United States
In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President of the United States, and Eleanor became First Lady. Traditionally, first ladies were confined to domestic life, and Roosevelt was distressed by the change in her status. She realized, however, that she had the power to give a new meaning to the position. Gradually, she took more and more responsibilities to assert her independence. Roosevelt became the first presidential spouse to hold press conferences. She wrote a daily newspaper column and a monthly magazine column where she discussed her daily activities and humanitarian work. She also hosted a weekly radio show. Her writing and media appearances made her immensely popular all throughout the country and provided her with a medium to talk about her favorite causes. She established herself as a supporter of female journalists, encouraging their work by granting them exclusivity on her public appearances.
While at the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt traveled widely within the United States, putting a lot of effort into communicating with citizens directly and listening to their concerns. She visited and inspected government offices, public institutions, hospitals, and even met with veterans and military troops, without her husband.
Roosevelt’s most impressive battle, however, was in support of the civil rights movement. Gradually, during her husband’s administration, she became a powerful voice of the African-American population. During her extensive travels, she had noticed that in Southern states, some of the administration’s New Deal programs discriminated against African-Americans and she fought to make sure that benefits would reach everyone. Roosevelt often invited African-American guests to the White House, including students, artists, and educators. Her involvement in the civil rights movement made her extremely popular within the African-American community, and many African-Americans became supporters of the Democratic Party thanks to her. In addition to supporting minority causes, Roosevelt urged her husband to adopt programs that would benefit poor communities, young adults, women, artists, and unemployed citizens.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s relentless fight for domestic reform was disrupted by World War II. During the war, she pleaded the administration to allow immigration of Jews and other groups persecuted in Europe. Roosevelt also visited American troops and military hospitals, traveling to England and the South Pacific to offer encouragement and inspect the forces. She encouraged women to support the war effort. She believed that women should learn trades and seek jobs in factories so they could be useful to the country in times of crisis.
Political Activity after the White House
In December 1945, months after the sudden death of her husband, Eleanor returned to public service as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. She became the first chairperson of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and played a key role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Besides her work for the United Nations, Eleanor continued with her activities on domestic issues, by supporting various non-profit organizations and reform projects. She remained actively involved in the Democratic Party and supported John F. Kennedy nomination for president. After Kennedy won the presidential election, he appointed Roosevelt to the United Nations again, and also to the National Advisory Committee of the Peace Corps. Her last public position was chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.
All throughout the 1950s, Eleanor Roosevelt was very present in public life. She spoke at numerous national and international events and continued to make appearances on radio broadcasts, besides writing her newspaper column.
Death and Legacy
In 1960, Eleanor Roosevelt was diagnosed with aplastic anemia and her energy slowly dissipated. She died of bone marrow tuberculosis on November 7, 1962, at the age of 78. The funeral service was attended by President Kennedy and former presidents Truman and Eisenhower.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the most active and influential First Lady in the history of the United States and she was the first presidential spouse to not be satisfied with the traditional definition of the role but to seek to transform it into a position of social and political responsibility. Her visibility and influence were unprecedented and gained her the admiration of the entire world. Through her work as first lady, she provided American women with inspiration and helped them find their own definition of independence. With her strong commitment to social reform and her energy in embracing social causes, Eleanor Roosevelt permanently transformed the image of the First Lady in American society.
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