It is difficult to overstate the impact of Eleanor Roosevelt on the history of twentieth-century women-not only in America, but also in the world. Historians consistently rank her the most significant First Lady, and in a recent poll the public even named her the most influential American woman of the 20th century.
Ann Eleanor Roosevelt was born into a wealthy, but dysfunctional family and her childhood was notoriously painful. Her mother, Anna Hall Roosevelt, died young; her alcoholic father, whom she adored but rarely saw, died a few years later. Her maternal grandmother only made her life more miserable with by constantly attacking Eleanor's looks and lowering her self-esteem. Timid and awkward, she found it difficult to compete with other girls. She became happier when she was allowed to attend a finishing school in London for three years and her headmistress, the liberal-minded French woman by the name of Marie Souvestre became one of her few positive role models. Despite her conviction that she was unattractive, Eleanor gained the admiration of her distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt. They wed in 1905, and Eleanor was escorted down the aisle by her favorite Uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt. After an extended European honeymoon, the Roosevelts settled in New York City. While Franklin focused on establishing his career, Eleanor bore their children--an average of one every other year for the first decade of their marriage. During this time Eleanor was constantly under the scrutiny of her mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who was overly protective of her son, and disapproving of Eleanor. She once told Eleanor's children that "I am your real mother, Eleanor merely bore you." A political and social conservative, Sara Roosevelt spent her life trying to return her family to the days of nineteenth century, upper-class privilege, and she particularly objected to Eleanor's involvement with settlement houses and other charitable work.
Franklin went his own way as a reformist Democrat -- and Sara Roosevelt was as indulgent with him as she was with her grandsons. When he was elected to the New York Senate in 1910 it was fitting that a dutiful wife accompany him to political events. However, Eleanor, at this time, viewed politics as a chore. She opposed the suffrage movement, and remained shy. When Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1912, Franklin became Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and the family moved to Washington. This change in setting would have a monumental impact on Eleanor's life. Like other women at the time, Eleanor found l purpose and a boost in self-esteem in participating in wartime activities outside the home. Still, she remained so politically naive that when a newspaper asked her to comment on the difficulties of coping with wartime food shortages, she replied that her ten servants were managing just fine.
Franklin Roosevelt was the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee in 1920; however their ticket was easily defeated. The following year, Franklin was struck with polio, a personal and familial crisis that ultimately enabled Eleanor to realize her full potential.
The disease rendered Franklin's legs almost useless, so Eleanor learned how to act as his 'legs and ear's' for him, and visit and communicate with all the constituents he was no longer able to meet with himself. Beginning in 1932 she traveled tens of thousands of miles every year, observing the political and economic state of the country. No wife of any presidential candidate had ever been as publicly active or vocal as Eleanor, and in just under a decade, she had become one of the country’s most astute political strategists. When FDR ran for president for the first time in 1932, he won the election by the widest margin in history, thanks in large part to Eleanor. While FDR's administration set out to solve the nation’s ills on a broad front, she developed a niche as the protector of those most likely to be left on the margins– particularly women, African-Americans, and children. Eleanor argued, successfully, that at least a small percentage of New Deal programs be directed at women. Her office was in daily contact with Ellen Woodward, the head of the Women's Work Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and she paid particular attention to the National Youth Administration, an agency that was more inclusive in regards to gender and race. As her reputation grew, she received unprecedented amounts of mail, and she responded to literally thousands of letters with small personal checks to help individuals and families stay afloat. She also received hate mail, in large part due to her concerns and involvement with the African-American community. She repeatedly publicized the unique plight of African-Americans during the Great Depression, an act which was largely responsible for African Americans leaving the party of Lincoln and voting primarily as Democrats. She continued this focus despite vitriolic objections from white Southern Democrats; she cheerfully accepted their outrage when she invited the young black women of Nannie Burroughs' school to the White House. In March of 1941 - before America entered the World War II - she helped dispel racial stereotypes by flying with black (male) pilots whose capabilities were being undermined by Army officials. Ten days later, the African-American pilots of the Tuskegee, Alabama Air base had their program fully funded, and they would go on to shoot down some four hundred Nazi planes.
When the Daughters of the American Revolution boycotted the 1936 concert of African-American Marian Anderson on the National Mall, Eleanor resigned her membership. Eleanor was known for maintaining intensely close female friendships and actively promoting the careers of many women. She held women-only press conferences and gave exclusive interviews with rising female journalists such as Bess Furman and Genevieve Herrick.
Needless to say, Eleanor Roosevelt understood the importance of "networking" long before the term was coined She also understood the potential power the First Lady and used it to reach beyond the confines of the White House. Early in the administration, she held the first press conference ever given by the President’s wife. She began a syndicated newspaper column, "My Day," and wrote regularly for Ladies Home Journal and McCall's, with occasional pieces for Vogue and other women's magazines. Such an assertive woman challenged the foundation of the conservative world, for not only were her political and economic views radically modern, so was her personal life. Endless commentators scorned the First Lady in print and on radio, ridiculing not only her ideas, but especially her stout figure, toothy smile, dowdy dress, arrogant children, and negligence of social standards. Over their decades together, Eleanor and Franklin had come to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses; their relationship evolved into one that was perhaps more professional than it was personal. Eleanor relied on the comfort of her friends in handling Franklin’s rumored infidelities, particularly Francis Perkins, Franklin's Secretary of Labor and one of Eleanor’s closest confidants. When the President died on April 12, 1945, Eleanor immediately sought Francis' company.
Later that year, the new President, Harry Truman, appointed Eleanor a US Delegate to the United Nations. She received a standing ovation when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on December 10, 1948.
Serving in the UN reinforced Eleanor's feminism. She regretted the small number of women in international delegations and the apathetic behavior of many of the men for the rights of women and minorities. After she came to understand that "all men are created equal" would be taken literally in many nations, she assisted the women's caucus in drafting gender-neutral language She delivered a now famous speech in 1948 to promote a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and received a standing ovation when such a declaration was adopted by the UN on December 10, 1948. Roosevelt remained active even after her UN service came to an end. She supported the new state of Israel, and spoke out against McCarthyism. At seventy-five, she even began teaching at the new Brandeis University, balancing lecture duties with television and event appearances. Soon after he took office, President Kennedy reappointed her to the UN, and the next year, she chaired his Commission on the Status of Women. A few weeks after celebrating her seventy-eighth birthday, Eleanor Roosevelt died of a rare form of tuberculosis. She was buried at Hyde Park on November 10, 1962, beside her husband. One of her friends honored her at her funeral by saying, "She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world."