Eleanor Roosevelt




Eleanor Roosevelt was a social activist, United States representative to the United Nations, and wife of 32nd U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt had an active public career before and during her marriage and continued to maintain this after her husband’s death. Unlike any prior first lady, she held regular news conferences, wrote a daily newspaper column, represented the president and nation on foreign and domestic trips, and spoke out on a broad range of social issues. Eleanor was also the nation’s most important white antagonist of racial discrimination in her time. She was a lifelong hero of poor people. Her impact was so broad, both during and after her husband’s presidency, that President Harry S. Truman famously called her the “First Lady of the World.”


Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, in New York City, the first child of Anna Hall and Elliott Roosevelt. Her father was a businessman and came from a distinguished, wealthy, and politically active New York family. Eleanor’s mother, Anna, was one of the most beautiful women in New York’s high society, and this made Eleanor feel insecure about her appearance. Anna died of diphtheria when Eleanor was eight years old. Eleanor’s father, a handsome man, died of alcoholism less than two years later. The orphaned Eleanor, insecure and self-conscious, was consequently placed in the care of her maternal grandmother, Mary Hall.


When Eleanor was 15 years old her grandmother sent her to the Allenswood Academy in London, England. For three years she was under the instruction of Marie Souvestre. Eleanor developed lifelong interests in politics, social causes, history, and literature. Eleanor later declared that Souvestre was one of the most important influences in her life. Eleanor was a confident, well educated, and socially conscious when she returned to the United States in 1902 to make her debut in New York society. She joined various social reform organizations, including the National Consumers’ League, which promoted the improvement of working conditions for women, and volunteered as a teacher in settlement houses.


In the summer of 1902 she met Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her fifth cousin once removed. This soon blossomed into a romance, and they were engaged in November 1903. At their wedding on March 17, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor’s uncle, gave the bride away. The wedding was front-page news in the New York Times.


Sara, who was Franklin’s mother, had discouraged the romance, saying that the couple was too young to marry. Over the next 11 years Eleanor gave birth to six children, one of whom did not survive infancy. Meanwhile, Sara moved the family to a townhouse adjacent to her own in New York City, with doors connecting the two households on each floor. When Eleanor was not in the city she spent time at the family estate at Hyde Park, New York. Anything she ever did her dominating mother-in-law was right there to watch her.


In 1911 Eleanor and Franklin moved to Albany after Franklin won a seat in the New York State Senate. Unlike Eleanor’s Uncle Theodore Roosevelt, who was a Republican, Franklin was a progressive Democrat. Two years later, in 1913, the family moved to Washington, D.C., when President Woodrow Wilson elected Franklin, an up-and-coming young Democrat, to be assistant secretary of the navy.


When the United States entered World War I in 1917 Eleanor focused an abundant amount of energy on work for the Red Cross, Navy League, and other volunteer organizations. Eleanor was once again a social activist. Exploiting her social position as the wife of a cabinet undersecretary, she successfully lobbied for an investigation into shortages in a government hospital treating veterans suffering from shell shock


During the war Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair with her own social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Eleanor offered to divorce Franklin, but the couple reconciled. A divorce at that time would have destroyed his political career. Taking strength from this marital crisis, Eleanor increased her activism and political involvement, while building a separate social and professional life, especially with her close friends Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman.


When her husband died on April 12, 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt assumed that the “story was over.” However, she went on to 17 more years of notable public service, perhaps the most satisfactory of her career. In