Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Eleanor Roosevelt to the history of twentieth-century women—not only in America, but also the world.  Polls of historians consistently rank her as by far the most significant First Lady, and in a recent poll, the public named her the most influential American woman of the century.

Ann Eleanor Roosevelt was born with that name; when she married her cousin Franklin, her name remained Roosevelt.   She was born into a wealthy but dysfunctional family and had a painful childhood.  Her mother, Anna Hall Roosevelt, died young; her alcoholic father, whom she adored, died a few years later; and her maternal grandmother made the lonely child’s life miserable with attacks on her self-esteem. Timid and awkward, she believed that she compared badly with other girls, especially her brilliant and beautiful cousin, the future Alice Roosevelt Longworth.  Her happiest days were vacations with her father’s family, and she was particularly fond of her Uncle Teddy—Alice’s father and a future President.

There was alcoholism in the Hall family too, and young Eleanor lives in fear of embarrassment from uncles who shared the family’s New York City mansion. Like other girls of old wealth in her era, she was educated at home by governesses. Her three years at a London finishing school were happier, and the politically liberal French woman who headed her school became one of her few positive role models.  Still, she returned home ready for her debut and a conventional life; although she taught dance and exercise classes at a settlement house, she had no thought of any career beyond motherhood.

Despite her conviction that she was unattractive, photos of the era show her to be a tall, pleasant-looking young woman with a lithe figure.  She had beaux, and her marriage to her distant cousin was not arranged by anyone other than the couple themselves. Since he was handsome, socially-skilled, and Harvard-educated, his choice of her seems only to be explained by genuine feeling. They wed in 1905, during his first year of law school at Columbia, with President Theodore Roosevelt giving away the bride.

After an extended European honeymoon, they settled in New York City. While Franklin established his career, Eleanor bore their children – an average of one every other year for the first decade of their marriage. The first, born in 1906, was their only daughter; she was called Anna, for the first name that Eleanor had and did not use. Five sons followed, with the third lost to infant mortality; the last was born in 1916, after the Roosevelts had moved to Washington.

Burdened with an insensitive grandmother in her youth, Eleanor Roosevelt suffered from a tyrannical mother-in-law for many of her adult years. The pattern was easily established, because Eleanor was almost constantly pregnant or in postpartum recovery and because her mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt, was a dominant personality who used her control of Franklin’s money to establish herself as matriarch. She treated Eleanor like a child, belittling her in front of her children and servants and inexcusably, buying them expensive presents and undoing their parents’ attempts at discipline. 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 slight involvement with settlement house and other charitable work.

Franklin, however, 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, but Eleanor viewed politics as a cross she had to bear, opposed the suffrage movement, and remained shy. When Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1912, Franklin was able to exercise the interest in marine activity that he shared with his uncle; he became assistant secretary of the Navy and the family moved to Washington. This new locale, which was unfamiliar territory to Sara Roosevelt, and the outbreak of World War I that followed their move, began to change Eleanor’s life.

Like other women liberated by this war, she found personal identity in wartime activity outside the home that was nonetheless respectable volunteerism. She worked long hours at hospitals, where she did tangible good for soldiers, and the experience boosted her self-esteem and developed her administrative abilities. Still, she remained so politically unsophisticated that when a newspaper interviewed her about the difficulties of coping with wartime food shortages, she naively replied that her ten servants were managing just fine.

Franklin Roosevelt made a huge career leap in 1920, when he moved from an assistant secretaryship to vice-presidential nominee. The Democrats were in retreat that year, however, and the ticket was easily defeated.  Though it was the first year that women voted after passage of the nineteenth amendment, there was little recognition of women as bloc. As the mother of a four-year old, Eleanor Roosevelt was excused from most campaigning and did not enjoy the little that she did. In contrast, the wife of the Republican nominee, Florence Harding, was deeply involved – although her methods were not overt.

The following year, polio struck Franklin Roosevelt. To Sara, this meant a retreat from the crass publicity of national politics to the tight family she had always envisioned. Once it was clear that his body would survive, Sara and Eleanor, in effect, struggled over Franklin’s soul and their futures. Eleanor received crucial assistance from Louis Howe, Franklin’s campaign advisor, and as her husband recovered, Howe mentored her in politics so that she could provide the assistance that Howe needed to revive the carefully nurtured career. Throughout the twenties, as they moved from the family home at Hyde Park, New York, to Warm Springs, Georgia, in winter and New Brunswick’s Campobello in summer, Louis Howe and Eleanor Roosevelt worked to reestablish Franklin Roosevelt as a viable national leader.

Given that his highest credential to this time was as a Cabinet Assistant, this took tremendous faith – and that it actually happened took tremendous political acumen. One of the conduits that Eleanor used to achieve her long-term goal was working with women’s organizations. She reactivated her membership (which Sara Roosevelt had disapproved of) in Florence Kelly’s Consumer’s League; she not only joined the League of Women Voters, but also helped establish the legislative program of this new organization; and she made lifelong friends with radicals such as Mary Elizabeth Dreier of the Women’s Trade Union League. A similar mutually beneficial relationship with Molly Dewson of the Democratic Women’s Clubs eventually led to contacts all over the nation, while in New York, she came to know almost very activist woman. She even worked as an English teacher in a progressive school run by a female friend.

She had grown into an independent woman from the timorous person she had been just four years earlier (when her husband held a much higher title), and, in the election of 1924, she earned her detailed political experience. Beginning with her own county, she methodically organized the state’s women for Al Smith – against her cousin, Republican nominee Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.  Smith had earlier demonstrated his willingness to appoint women such as Frances Perkins to significant offices, and in working for his election, Eleanor Roosevelt showed that her political values had moved beyond promotion of her husband’s career to a solidarity with other women.

Four years later, Franklin Roosevelt replaced Smith as governor when Smith became the unsuccessful Presidential nominee. That Eleanor Roosevelt had become a respected political scientist in her own right can be seen in this election of 1928, for the headed the Democrats’ national campaign among women during the same time that her husband was a candidate for governor.

The Roosevelt moved into the Governor’s Mansion in Albany shortly before Wall Street crashed and the Great Depression began. Responding with greater speed than other governors, FDR was clearly influenced by the extensive contacts his wife had among social workers – many of them women – who were more aware than most professionals of the effects of the ruined economy on individual lives. This progressive record stood the Roosevelt team in good stead for the presidential election of 1932.

Polio had rendered Franklin Roosevelt’s legs almost useless and because it was difficult for him to travel, Eleanor became his “legs and ears.” In 1932, she began the peripatetic patterns she would follow the rest of her life, for even as a widow, she traveled tens of thousands of miles annually, keenly noting the political and economic ramifications of what she had observed. No wife of a previous presidential candidate was even remotely analogous to her; in just a decade, she had moved from politically unaware to one of the nation’s best informed and most astute strategy setters. The Roosevelt ticket won the election by the widest margin ever, and 1936 would bring an even greater mandate, when they lost just eight of 531 electoral votes. One key to this success was the establishment of “equal division” within the Democratic Party, which game women parity with men even on the crucial platform committee – another idea Eleanor Roosevelt promoted.

While the 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 out – especially women, blacks and children. Because many Depression era jobs projects aimed at construction of public works, men received a far higher proportion of jobs than women. Eleanor Roosevelt was not so far ahead of her time that she would argue for women in these traditional male job slots, but she did argue for an executive order assuring that a percentage of New Deal programs be directed at women. Her office was in daily contact with Ellen Woodward, who headed the Women’s Work Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. She also took particular interest in the National Youth Administration, an agency that was better balanced by gender and race than most. AS her reputation grew, she received unprecedented amounts of mail, and she responded to literally thousands of letters with small personal checks to help in job searches. Even hate mail received a polite response in the hope of changing minds.

The assistance she rendered to African Americans was one of the greatest cause of hate mail and other controversy that swirled around her. Much later, the fictional Archie Bunker would say on television that America didn’t have any blacks until Eleanor Roosevelt discovered them, and his comment was not far from the truthful view of many whites. She repeatedly publicized her their during the Great Depression, and though her motives were empathetic, not political, she was largely responsible for turning this voting bloc from the party of Lincoln to that of Roosevelt.

She continued this focus despite vitriolic objections from white Southern Democrats, cheerfully accepting their outrage when she did things such as inviting the young black women of Nannie Burroughs’ school to the White House. She stepped up such activity after German Nazis demonstrated the dangers of racism, and in March of 1941 – before America entered the World War II – she helped dispel stereotypes by flying with black (male) pilots whose ability was questioned by Army officials. Ten days after she informed Franklin of these flights at a Tuskegee, Alabama air base, their program was funded; these men went on to shoot down some four hundred Nazi planes.

Though opportunities for female pilots of either race were more limited, the First Lady involved herself with other expansion of possibilities for black women. The best known case was the controversy over Marian Anderson’s 1936 concert, in which Roosevelt dramatically resigned her membership with the Daughter’s of the American Revolution. Her friendship with Mary McLeod Bethune also was widely known and was crucial to Bethune’s rise as the most important black woman of her era, but Roosevelt involved herself with others who were more obscure; Crystal Bird Fauset and Mabel Staubers were two examples. In one much publicized incident in Birmingham, she sat in the middle of n aisle rather than choose sides of the segregated hall.

She also exhibited concern for poor whites, especially in Appalachia and in her own rural New York, and she helped establish handicraft industries in both places. This interest in craftsmanship predated the Depression and reflected her lifelong dedication to the ideals of sturdy simplicity and permanence. The fact that these cottage industries could not compete with modern manufacturing in profitability did not bother her; she saw the ideal as more important than the bottom line.

In this, she was similar to affluent reformers who preceded her, and indeed, she counted Lillian Wald, Jane Addams, and others as friends long before FDR became governor or president. Working-class women such as Rose Schneiderman and Mary Anderson also enjoyed her friendship, and as the years passed, many came to see her as the best possible help for their goals. In the thirties, for instance, Jackie Cochran wrote her on the coming war and its potential for women pilots. Roosevelt intervened with the postmaster general when Lillian Smith’s work was censored, and she aided female journalists with women-only press conferences; among those to whom she game access to important news were Bess Furman and Genevieve Herrick.

She selflessly encouraged the governmental careers of many women, including Daisy Harriman, Lorena Hickok, Ruth Bryan Owen, Anna Rosenberg, and the incomparable Frances Perkins, and had supportive friendships with female elected officials, including France Bolton, Mary Norton, Margaret Chase Smith, and Helen Gahagan Douglas, who wrote a book on Roosevelt. Clearly, Eleanor Roosevelt understood the importance of “networking” long before that term became common. She enjoyed the company of bright women and spent a lifetime introducing them to each other.

To have been of such genuine assistance to the careers of so many,  it was necessary that she cultivate her own. Though she never consciously promoted herself, she understood the potential of the position of First Lady and used it to reach beyond the confines of the White House in a way that no predecessor even contemplated. Early in the administration, she held the first press conference given by a First Lady. She began her syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” at least partly in response to the conservative commentary of her cousin Alice, and wrote regularly for Ladies Home Journal and McCall’s, with occasional pieces for Vogue and other women’s magazines, including that of the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. She became a union member, joining the American Newspaper Guild, and despite unkind remarks about her voice, conducted a radio show.

In all of these news outlets, she urged women to become involved and to run for office; only two years into FDR’s presidency, she accepted criticism for returning to New York to campaign for Carolyn O’Day’s legislative candidacy. Her issue agenda was decidedly feminist, with advocacy of programs that are not yet reality such as child care subsidies and national health care. To put these ideas in writing and to speak them on radio demonstrated exceptional courage and commitment: she understood that these methods meant that she was surrendering the politician’s usual shelter in a storm of controversy, for she could not claim to have been misquoted.

This directness made her critics gleeful – and critics she had. 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 professional life. Endless commentators – usually male – 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. When, with innovative symbolism, the White House served hot dogs to the British king and queen during the Depression, these critics were apoplectic. The First Lady and her causes were regularly labeled “communistic,” and ultimately the charges were so unfair that even most Republicans were embarrassed by her worst maligner, columnist Westbrook Pegler.

Some of this hostility softened as the science of polling developed and results showed high public approval rates. This was reinforced by election returns in 1940, when Eleanor Roosevelt exhibited skill at the Democratic Convention by settling a serious split over the vice-presidential nominee. The 1944 election again demonstrated approval of the Roosevelt  team, as unprecedented third and fourth terms confirmed the nation’s choice of tested leadership when facing war.

            Like the world, Eleanor Roosevelt’s focus shifted from the Depression to World War II, but more than most, she blended the two eras: she remembered domestic need after the war began and yet had issued prescient warnings on fascism a decade earlier. FDR had appointed Jewish men to the Supreme Court and the Cabinet, but he and the State Department exhibited long-term denial of the emerging Holocaust. The public failed to appreciate Eleanor Roosevelt’s point on this, too, but she received more support for the attention she gave to soldiers after the war began. As he had with the Depression, FDR encouraged her to make personal reports; code-named “Rover” for security purposes, she traveled to all wartime fronts. Countless White House briefings began with the President saying: “ My Missus says…”

Nonetheless, he did not quote her on everything; as is obvious in the case of Jewish refugees, he sometimes ignored important points of advice. In contrast to her straightforward earnestness, he was a political pragmatist who was capable of evading hard choices and implementing contradictory policies. On the other hand, she had one significant failing that he recognized: Eleanor Roosevelt paid little heed to budgets or, in FDR’s words, “My Missus has no sense about money.” Over their decades together, each had come to understand the other’s strengths and weaknesses, and especially during the thirties and forties, their relationship evolved into one that was as much professional as personal.

The war killed FDR as much as it killed combatants. The strain of years filled with long days of endless problems is clear in his last photos, where he appears gaunt and exhausted. His opportunities to get away from White House worries were limited by both his lack of mobility and the need for wartime security. Because he needed relaxation and because he had always been more social creature than Eleanor, he sought companionship during her frequent absences with a number of women who socialized at the White House. Thus, later in the war, he resumed an earlier friendship with Lucy Mercer Rutherford.

Lucy Mercer had been Eleanor Roosevelt’s social secretary when the family first moved to Washington in 1913. Some historians believe that she and Franklin had a serious affair at this time, while others think it was little more than the “hero-worship” of a guileless young woman for a handsome man whose wife was absorbed by pregnancy and babies. In any case, Eleanor became sufficiently concerned about their relationship that Lucy Mercer was dismissed; she went on to marry a man named Rutherford and did not see the Roosevelts  for many years. When her husband died in 1944, Franklin Roosevelt offered his condolences in person, stopping by her New Jersey home between Washington and Hyde Park. They saw each other only a few other times, and more than one eminent historian has termed these meetings “innocent” – but the President kept them secret from his wife.

Thus, Eleanor Roosevelt was devastated to discover that her old nemesis had been present when her husband died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs on April 12, 1945. It is possible that this was merest happenstance, for Rutherford’s ostensible reason for going to Georgia was to accompany a friend who was painting the president’s portrait. The circumstances looked suspicious, however, and Roosevelt was especially hurt that her daughter Anna, who often acted as FDR’s social secretary, had issued the White House invitation to Rutherford. The pain that Eleanor Roosevelt felt at losing her companion of more than forty years was greatly amplified by what she saw as deceit on the part of her loved ones.

But the nation was in mourning, too. A sense of duty was always Roosevelt’s strongest motivation, so she hid her hurt and accompanied the funeral train. All along the tracks from Georgia to Washington and beyond Hyde Park, tens of thousands of people gathered, even in the middle of the night, to pay their respects to the only president that many had ever known. At the same time, they also sought a glimpse of Eleanor, for she was truly “mother to a generation”. When it was over, she quickly packed her White House things and returned to the little house in the woods at Hyde Park, which she had built long ago as a refuge from the mansion. She intended to be “a nobody” and told reporters that “the story is over.”

President Harry Truman had different ideas, however. Despite FDR’s declining health, he did not prepare Truman for the presidency, and Truman earnestly solicited Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice. She rejected proposals that she run for office, but accepted Truman’s appointment as a delegate to the new United Nations --  at least in part because she was disappointed that he had not appointed  any women to his Cabinet. She spent New Year’s Eve of 1945 on her way to London for the first meeting of this unprecedented organization.

She was the only female delegate, and the State Department’s old guard doubted her diplomatic ability, but in the end, even her worst foes retracted their previous criticism after working with her. For two years during tedious meetings in Geneva, Paris, and New York, she chaired the Human Rights Commission. This was not, as some might have originally thought, an uncontroversial body, for there were endless quarrels over important issues, including approximately a million refugees from Eastern Europe whom the Soviets sought  to repatriate against their will. Sometimes using her fluent French, she faced down Communists who regularly insulted her country – but not her – and ultimately brought forth a document enshrining the rights of individuals, not of states. 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 obtuse behavior of many of the men, writing for example, “I notice that men always feel very passionately about rules.” When work was delayed because of a Paris excursion, she added, “the boys, no matter, what their age, can’t resist a good time.” 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 even began to have second thoughts on the Equal Rights Amendment, after a lifetime of reasoned opposition to it.

Her UN service came to an end with Eisenhower’s election, but Roosevelt remained active throughout the fifties. She supported the new state of Israel, spoke out against McCarthyism, and campaigned for her close friend Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. She had rejected conventional widowhood when she resumed her newspaper column the week following her husband’s funeral, and she continued to write. At seventy-five, she began teaching at the new Brandeis University; she faithfully met her classes, while carrying out other obligations on weekends. After she realized that she could charge large fees that she could donate to charity, she began television appearances. She even found time to write on how she maintained this energy level.

These years were saddened by quarrels between her sons over their father’s bequests and their political careers. Moreover, for the first time in her life, she had financial concerns. Even though she earned as much as one hundred thousand dollars annually from writing and speaking, her inheritance was not large and she felt obliged to donate much of her income to projects to which she was committed. Children were her greatest joy, and she gave frequent parties for them.

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. In this last official duty of her life, she worked for the Equal Pay Act that was passed the following year, but by the summer of 1962, she was increasingly ill. Her pain and fever was misdiagnosed for several months while she grew restive and impatient. Finally hospitalized for a rare form of tuberculosis, she did not want her life prolonged; she tried to avoid medication and barred virtually all visitors, for she did not wish to be seen as anything except the activist that she was. She celebrated her seventy-eighth birthday with a party for children only, and died in her New York apartment a few weeks later.

Among the books she left are: This is my Story , My Days , The Moral Basis of Democracy, This I Remember, On My Own, India and the Awakening East, You Learn by Living, and Autobiography. The Wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt is a compilation of her columns for McCall’s, while Ladies of Courage,  which she co-wrote with Lorena Hickok, may her most useful book for feminists.

President Kennedy nominated Eleanor Roosevelt  for the Nobel Peace Prize because of the crucial role she played as chairman of the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Though she was never awarded the prize, she received countless other honors. None of them seemed to matter very much to her, however; instead of accumulating lists of awards, she expended some of her last energy on lists of people to whom she intended to send presents. The soul of generosity, she is buried at Hyde Park, where her papers are also preserved.


  • Reprinted with permission from: Doris Weatherford. American Women's History: An A to Z of People, Organizations, Issues, and Events, (Prentice Hall, 1994), 294-298.