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Eleanor Roosevelt
by John T. Marck
 

 



 

  Eleanor Roosevelt

First Lady of the World, Diplomat & Humanitarian

First Lady 1933-1945

Wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt

Born: October 11, 1884 - Died November 7, 1962

Similar in demeanor to Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt went beyond her traditional role as the wife of a President of the United States, and being a very public person, dedicated herself to causes of humankind. It was her never tiring heart, good will and tenaciousness that won her the deserved title as "First Lady of the World."

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884 in New York City, the daughter of Elliott Roosevelt, who was the rich, alcoholic brother of Theodore Roosevelt and Anna Livingston Hall Roosevelt. Growing up, Eleanor was very shy because her mother always accused her of being homely.

Orphaned at the young age of nine, she was sent to live with her grandmother who raised her. Eleanor was quite unhappy living there, and learning very little in the process. Finally at age fifteen, her aunt, Anna Roosevelt, stepped in and sent Eleanor to Allenswood, a boarding school in England, where she was influenced by the headmistress, Marie Souvestre, who espoused unpopular causes. At the age of eighteen, Eleanor taught dance at a settlement house in New York, and was a member of the National Consumers' League. As such she visited many factories and sweatshops where she investigated health and safety concerns of the workers.

Two years later she made her debut, not as the homely woman her grandmother thought, but quite cultured and graceful. Franklin Roosevelt, a distant cousin was trying his best to get Eleanor to marry him. Finally, Franklin and Eleanor were married in New York on March 17, 1905. Eleanor was given in marriage by her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt. Eleanor continued her dance teaching until her mother-in-law forced her to quit for fear that she would bring home diseases. Eleanor did teach again, when her children were grown, as a history instructor at Todhunter, a private girls' school that she and some friends ran on New York's Upper East Side. Upon assuming her responsibilities as First Lady, she reluctantly resigned.

At the start of their marriage, problems existed by the ever-presence of her mother-in-law, who lived with them at times and who dominated the household. Eleanor and Franklin had six children, one of whom died in infancy. Eleanor spent much of this time raising her family, until Franklin entered politics. When her husband was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, she spent much of her time performing the "required" social functions in Washington. She further devoted herself tirelessly to the Red Cross during World War I.

In 1921, Franklin was stricken with infantile paralysis (polio), and it was at this time that Eleanor began her career, one of keeping her husband in politics, as well as became more active in social service. Eleanor was an effective political organizer, when in 1924 she rallied women throughout New York state in support of the Democratic Party and led a delegation to the Democratic National Convention. She would make speeches on Franklin's behalf, and upon his election to Governor in 1928, she directed the national women's campaign for the party, and traveled throughout the state inspecting areas for his attention. Four years later in 1932, Eleanor coordinated the activities of the Women's Division of the Democratic Party and became its leading activist.

She continued this practice during her husband's Presidency, flying to many locations, and acting as an invaluable adviser to him. Eleanor traveled so much that she became known as the "Flying First Lady." In the 1930s, air travel by most Americans was considered unsafe, or at least risky. The airlines tried many types of advertisements in the hope of convincing Americans that air travel was safe. As Eleanor flew from Washington to New York on a regular basis, she was the airlines best advertisement. In furtherance to convince Americans that flying was safe, she published an article titled "Flying Is Fun." She often permitted photographs to be taken of her standing next to airplanes which proved an invaluable seal of approval for air travel. Airlines considered Eleanor their best friend since Charles Lindbergh, and she once accepted an invitation from Amelia Earhart to fly with her over the Capitol at night. For the event, Amelia even wore a long evening dress at the controls.

She traveled so much, she first met with some criticism, in that as First Lady, others believed she should be at home to take care of her husband. She explained this away because due to her husband's limited mobility, she was acting as his eyes and ears. Many Americans approved of her independence, but many did not. Her mother-in-law, who continued to dote on her son, said many times that she never assumed when Eleanor may show up at home, nor knew of her whereabouts.

Eleanor also gave much attention to civil rights and spoke out for the disadvantaged. For this, she was quite popular with the African American community. She spent much of her time visiting coal mines, slum areas and relief projects, and through her press conferences that she held in the White House Monroe Room, and her newspaper column titled "My Day," she reached millions, and financially helped people out of her own pocket. Her advocacy of the poor brought her thousands of letters, of which she answered about one hundred a day. During 1933 she had received more than 300,000 letters, which were appeals for help. In addition to personally answering as many as she could, she also referred appropriate ones to Government agencies for action. Eleanor's public forums were as popular and noteworthy as her husband's famous "fireside chats." Many times Eleanor would receive reporters dressed in her riding clothes, but in her mind did not realize she was making a fashion statement. As she had a considerable income of her own, both inherited and earned, she spent little on fashion. She was known to purchase ten dollar dresses rather than indulge in more extravagant dress. One time when reporters speculated that she spent less than three hundred dollars one year on her wardrobe, she proudly saved the newspaper article in her scrapbook.

Having lived in the White House for twelve years, the longest of any First Lady, she made the house a comfortable place, but showed little interest in interior decorating. She furnished the house for comfort, not elegance, like she did at her cottage at Hyde Park. Here she used overstuffed furniture in non-coordinated patterns, but they served her well. She thought it more important to pay attention to the conversation of the people sitting in the furniture, rather than spend time and energy picking out matching fabric samples. Additionally, her tenure as First Lady fell during the Great Depression and World War II, and she furthermore was not going to spend money fool heartedly. She also limited receptions, as Franklin could not stand for extended periods of time greeting visitors. Once she planned a picnic at Hyde Park for Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, whereby her intended menu was to serve hot dogs. This infuriated her mother-in-law who wrote to her in protest, and Eleanor said that this letter was "only one of many I have received." However, steadfast, Eleanor refused to be bullied into serving more regal fare, and stuck to her original menu. The king and queen were delighted with her menu, and said so, which resulted in the First Lady proclaiming their visit a complete success.

During World War II, times were not happy as their sons were in the service, and Eleanor fought a continuing battle to assist her husband and keep his strength during these war years. In 1941 she was appointed assistant director of the office of civilian defense, as well as visited military camps and hospitals in the United States and overseas.

Upon her husband's death in 1945, she moved to a New York apartment, and continued to write her newspaper column. Under President Truman, she was appointed a delegate to the United Nations in 1946, working for human rights worldwide, a job she handled most effectively. As a US Representative at the General Assembly from1946 to1951 and as chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission from 1947 to1951, she won acclaim for her compelling sponsorship on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which was her proudest achievement.

In addition to her syndicated column My Day, Eleanor wrote several other books. In 1933 she authored It's Up To The Women; India and the Awakening East; and Eleanor Roosevelt's Christmas Book.

Having survived her husband by many years, Eleanor died on November 7, 1962. Upon her death her family chose for her tombstone only her name and her birth and death dates. They felt the rest would be written and told by others. How true.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a great humanitarian and wonderful human being, who in many of her belief's was years before her time. At her memorial service, Adlai Stevenson asked, "What other single human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many?"

I think that statement covers her so well.

Copyright© John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. From The First Ladies of the United States by John T. Marck.