I have a great deal of admiration for biographers who take up the challenge of condensing the life stories of people like Eleanor Roosevelt. There is always a wealth of raw data about these historical figures. How does one organize it into a story that people will want to read? In the case of Mrs. Roosevelt, which aspects should be recounted?
“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”–Eleanor Roosevelt
I risk being defined as having a small mind every time I write about some person from the past. However, I feel pretty safe in writing about Mrs. Roosevelt. She was one of those people who not only discussed ideas, she set about to do constructive actions about them.
Eleanor’s public presence was coming to an end just as I was becoming aware of the impact of important people. I remember seeing images of her on television news reports. When she died about a year before President Kennedy’s assassination, I saw how her passing affected the emotions of some of the people in my hometown. What I heard, made me think she should have become President after her own husband’s death.
“People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.”
Aside from a few notable suffragettes and abstinence leaders, famous women of Eleanor’s time were not known for their intelligence and leadership abilities. The public was pleased when such women “knew their place”. There is vocal segment of society who still harbor this opinion. However, it seems that Eleanor was destined for greatness.
The niece of future President Theodore Roosevelt, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884 to Elliot and Anna Roosevelt in New York City. She was the first of three children for the couple. Elliot was independently wealthy and suffered from alcoholism. The mother was a débutante, famous for her beauty and height. The young Eleanor was a very shy, serious girl who was made to feel self-conscious of her appearance.
In 1892, Eleanor’s mother died at age 29 of diphtheria. In 1893 both of the brothers came down with scarlet fever, and four-year-old Elliot died. The following year, Eleanor’s father died from a seizure following a suicide attempt. All the while, Eleanor lived with her maternal grandmother, two unmarried aunts, two uncles, and various servants.
Eleanor attended Allenswood Girls’ Academy in Wimbledon, England for three years, starting in 1899. The headmistress of the school, Marie Souvestre, had the goal of expanding the minds of her pupils and help them become intellectually independent. Eleanor studied languages, literature, art, music, and writing. Souvestre made sure that her underlings understood the plight of impoverished and working class people.
On March 4, 1905, President and uncle Theodore Roosevelt walked Eleanor down the aisle and gave her away to her fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Roosevelt. The new husband passed the New York state bar exam in 1907 and began his legal practice in New York City. He was elected to the New York state senate as a Democrat from a predominantly Republican district.
Her husband’s campaign against the Tammany Hall corruption opened Eleanor’s awareness to the intricacies of political involvement and government. This knowledge increased when Franklin became Woodrow Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913. Eleanor quickly moved into Washington high society. With the First World War underway, Mrs. Roosevelt took on a more political role with her work in Navy hospitals and the American Red Cross.
She discovered that her husband had been having an affair with social secretary, Lucy Mercer, in 1918. Eleanor offered Franklin a divorce, but her mother-in-law objected. Although Franklin and Eleanor remained married, their relationship became more or less a political partnership.
In 1920, Eleanor disregarded her family’s objections to being in the public eye. Mrs. Roosevelt fully engaged herself in the Democratic campaign when Franklin received the nomination for Vice-President in James Cox’s bid for the Presidency. Following Republican Harding’s victory, the Roosevelts moved back to New York City. It was then, that Eleanor made heavy gains regarding influence and respect in New York political circles. She helped set goals and prioritize activities of such organizations as the National Consumers League, The League of Women Voters, and the Women’s Trade Union League. Hosting a radio show, helped her efforts.
It was at this time that Franklin contracted the polio that restricted the full use of his legs. The following three years, Eleanor became active in the search for therapy and a possible cure for polio.
FDR won the New York Governor race. As New York’s first lady, Eleanor curbed some of her outside activities but still remained a strong force in Albany. On March 4, 1933, FDR’s inauguration as President of the United States resulted in Eleanor’s role as First Lady of the US. She set about to eventually become the most controversial First Lady in history. She was the first presidential wife to hold press conferences. Her career included a popular syndicated newspaper column, “My Day”. In her first year, Eleanor earned some $75,000 from her speeches and writing.
Eleanor put her early education about the downtrodden to work during the Great Depression. She maintained a heavy schedule of personal appearances at meetings of workers to remind them of the administration’s concern over their plight. The First Lady also made peace with the veterans’ group “The Bonus Army”. She smoothed over the snub by President Herbert Hoover, who had sent the Army to quell their protests with tear gas and arrests. Eleanor heard out their concerns and even sang marching songs with them.
Her big project during FDR’s first two terms was the establishment of a planned community to help homeless miners and their families in Arthurdale, West Virginia. Eleanor had hoped for a racially mixed community, residents voted to include only white Christians. Mrs. Roosevelt was disappointed, so she advocated similar communities for blacks and Jews. The experience caused her to become more vocal about the problem of racial discrimination.
In later years of the FDR presidency, Eleanor concluded that many of the New Deal programs suffered under racial discrimination in the Southern States. Officials were severely restricting relief to African-American families. She became the leading advocate in the efforts to equally help citizens of all races.
Eleanor was not shy about including hundreds of African-American guests to the White House. She worked behind the scenes for the Costigan-Wagner Bill of 1934 to make lynching a federal crime. She also orchestrated a meeting between FDR and NAACP president Walter White. Eleanor’s support of African-Americans made her very unpopular in the Old South. Conversely, she became quite popular among the formerly Republican blacks. It was at this time they became strong supporters of the Democratic Party.
In 1941, she privately opposed FDR’s Executive Order 9066 which forced Japanese-Americans into concentration camps. She publicly spoke out against anti-Japanese-American jingoism. Many conservatives called for her retirement from public discourse.
During the Second World War, Mrs. Roosevelt advocated for the protection of European refugee children fleeing from Nazism. She had hoped for greater immigration by persecuted minorities, but opposition by “Fifth Columnists” swayed the President’s decision not to do so. Afterwards, Eleanor harbored a deep regret that she had not been more influential regarding the wartime refugee immigration situation.
Mrs. Roosevelt also toured the war fronts in both the European and Pacific theaters. Her appearances brought enthusiasm and built morale for Allied Forces troops. She spoke out for increased roles for women and blacks in the war effort. She was also behind the movement to train women for factory jobs to aid in the war production needs of the allies.
Following FDR’s death on April 12, 1945, Eleanor returned to New York City to wrap up the estate and transfer of FDR’s property to the government. She also set a new precedent regarding the future of presidential libraries.
President Harry Truman appointed Mrs. Roosevelt to the delegation of the newly formed United Nations. There, she was an overseer in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her grace and popularity aided in its unanimous passage. She also became active in labor rights and the plight of refugees from Soviet rule.
Eleanor also intensified her activism on behalf of civil rights. She advocated for equal opportunity and fair employment practices. She campaigned for desegregation of education, public facilities, and housing. The end of the poll tax and lynching were in her vision, too. She influenced the establishment of a Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department. Increasingly unhappy with official inaction on civil rights, Eleanor began advocating citizen efforts in that direction. She began openly supporting civilian civil rights groups.
Mrs. Roosevelt continued her work as John F. Kennedy assumed leadership of the nation. The new President appointed her as Chairwoman of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. In her new role she testified, to Congress, her support of equal pay for equal work. She did all of this activist work despite increasing physical pain. Her advocacy continued despite aplastic anemia and a bout with tuberculosis.
Still, Eleanor supported the civil rights marchers in the South, and advocated for peace on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Not content with the sidelines, she accepted an appointment to the advisory board of the Peace Corps. During these efforts, Eleanor worked to finish her last book, Tomorrow is Now, in which she argues for racial, social, and political justice.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt’s work came to an end with her death on November 7, 1962 at a Manhattan hospital. She was buried next to FDR, on the family grounds in Hyde Park, New York.
“Life was meant to be lived, and curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.”