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First Lady Biography: Eleanor Roosevelt
ANNA ELEANOR ROOSEVELT ROOSEVELT
11 October 1884
New York City, New York
Elliott Roosevelt, born 28 February 1860, New York City, New York; heir (although he held no salaried work position, he was called a “sportsman” by his daughter Eleanor Roosevelt, indicating his occupation of big game hunting, his letters about which were later edited and published by her); in his early adulthood he was listed by title as junior partner in a real estate firm, and in 1892, a brief stint at mine development in Abingdon, Virginia; died 14 August 1894, New York City, New York
Elliott Roosevelt suffered from acute alcoholism and narcotic addiction, perhaps as a result of a vaguely described “nervous sickness” first manifested when he was a young adult. Some speculate that it may have been epilepsy. At 30, he made a trip around the world, and his fellow shipmates were his fourth cousin James Roosevelt and his wife Sara Delano Roosevelt. Elliott Roosevelt was soon after asked to serve as godfather to their son Franklin – who (after Elliott’s death) would become his son-in-law. Between 1890 and 1891, during what was his third overseas trip, this time with his wife and two children at the time, Elliott Roosevelt was committed to an asylum in France by his family. A year later, his brother Theodore Roosevelt committed him to the Keeley Center in Dwight, Illinois to seek treatment for his alcohol addiction.
Anna Rebecca Hall, born 17 March 1863, New York City, New York; married 1 December 1883, Calvary Church, New York; died 7 December 1892, New York City, New York
A popular debutante and prominent figure among the New York City social elite, Anna Hall Roosevelt was most noted for her strikingly upright posture. She died when Eleanor Roosevelt was only 8 years old. Her estranged husband died two years later, thus Eleanor Roosevelt was left orphaned by 9 years and 10 months old. She became the ward of her maternal grandmother, a formidable woman who lived in the Hudson River Valley.
Birth Order and Siblings:
Eldest of three, two brothers: Elliott Roosevelt (1889 - 1893), Gracie Hall Roosevelt (28 July 1891- 25 September 1941)
Half-brother: Sometime between 1889 and 1891, Elliott Roosevelt fathered a son by Catherine "Katy" Mann, a German-
American servant an Irish-American servant (born 26 September, 1862 Grunstadt Rhineland, Germany, died 13 April 1941, Brooklyn, New York) in the Roosevelt household; little to nothing is known of him, except that Elliott Roosevelt’s brother Theodore Roosevelt recognized the boy as his nephew and arranged a financial settlement with Katy Mann for her son’s care.
Dutch, English, Irish; Eleanor Roosevelt’s paternal line was descended from a number of the early settlers of New York who immigrated from Holland (see “Marriage and Husband” below for information on the Roosevelt family origins).
Eleanor Roosevelt’s paternal grandfather, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. (1831-1878) was a prominent New York philanthropist who helped found the New York Orthopedic Hospital and the American Museum of Natural History. A condition he made in helping found the museum was that it be opened seven days a week to make it available to working-class people, who often worked six days a week. He also served on the fundraising committee which paid for the stone pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s paternal grandmother Martha Bullock (1835-1884) belonged to a Georgia family that had held many prominent civic and military positions in the colonial, Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary eras and, with her husband, was a slave owner.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s maternal grandmother, Mary Livingston Ludlow (1843-1919) was the great-granddaughter of Robert R. Livingston, chancellor of New York, who administered the presidential oath of office to George Washington in 1789 and served on the Second Continental Congress committee which helped draft the Declaration of Independence. However, he did not sign the document due to the potential compromise of his business interests.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s maternal great-grandfather Valentine Hall, Sr. was an immigrant from Ireland to Brooklyn, New York, although his faith and place of origin in Ireland are unknown.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s father, Elliott Roosevelt was the brother of President Theodore Roosevelt (27 October 1858 – 6 January 1919; presidency, 1901-1909), making her the niece of the 26th President. Although the genealogy of some other First Ladies can be traced to a blood relation with other Presidents, there are few as closely connected. The closest such family relations were of Abigail Adams and Barbara Bush as the mothers of Presidents John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush, respectively, and Anna Harrison as grandmother of Benjamin Harrison. The relation of Louisa Adams to John Adams and Laura Bush to George H.W. Bush were as daughters-in-law, thus by marriage only. Mamie Eisenhower was the grandmother-in-law of Richard Nixon, her grandson David Eisenhower marrying his daughter Julie Nixon.
5 feet 11 inches in height; blue eyes; light brown hair
Five feet, eleven inches in height; dark blonde hair, blue eyes
*among those First Ladies whose physical height is known, Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Obama are believed to be the tallest, both chronicled as being five feet, eleven inches
Private tutoring by Frederic Roser, (approximately 1889-1890). Roser provided lessons to children of wealthy New York families; Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother hired Roser and his assistant, a Miss Tomes, to instruct Eleanor Roosevelt and several of her peers in a room on the upper floor of the Roosevelt home in New York, and the home of her mother’s family in Tivoli, New York, in the Hudson River Valley. The training had been prompted by her maternal aunts who were alarmed to discover that Eleanor Roosevelt was unable to read. She was taught grammar, arithmetic, poetry and English literature.
Convent School, Italy, (approximately 1890-1891). During the period that her parents, Eleanor and her brother Elliott lived in Italy, her father suffered another intense bout of alcoholism and was placed in a French asylum for recovery treatment. Her mother became depressed and, unable to cope with the crisis, placed Eleanor Roosevelt in a convent school. Beyond this fact, little about the experience is known including what, if any, educational training she received there.
Allenswood Girl’s Academy, Wimbledon Common, London, England, (1898-1902).
Run by Marie Souvestre, who Eleanor Roosevelt later identified as the first greatest influence on her educational and emotional development, she was taught French, German, Italian, English literature, composition, music, drawing, painting and dance. Although the school did not offer classes in history, geography, and philosophy, Marie Souvestre privately directed Eleanor Roosevelt’s pursuit of these studies. She further took her as a travelling companion through France and Italy during school holiday breaks and opened up new worlds to her young student, including impoverished areas of the working-class, away from the typical tourist sights. Her teacher also openly espoused political views that challenged the status quo, defending the rights of the working-class, an attitude that would greatly shape the later activism of Eleanor Roosevelt. She later called her three years at Allenswood Academy the “happiest years of my life.” In later years, however, Eleanor Roosevelt reflected that the greatest regret of her life was her lack of a college education.
Occupation Before Marriage:
Despite conceding to her grandmother’s direction that she her return to the US to make her social debut, Eleanor Roosevelt became active in the social reform movement of the Progressive Era. She was greatly influenced by the idealized example of the reform-oriented incumbent US President, Theodore Roosevelt. Besides exposing her to the people of an entirely separate socio-economic class from her own and their problems, it taught her the power of organized political reform and the process necessary to legally effect fair labor practices.
Secretary and Teacher, Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements, Rivington Street College Settlement, New York City, New York (1902 – 1903). Although Eleanor Roosevelt was not interested in leading the social life of a debutante as her grandmother and other relatives expected, it was from the circle of other elite class women that she met others like herself who were interested in reform efforts to improve the lives of the impoverished masses that existed within deplorable living and working conditions. These debutantes had coalesced into a formal organization which called itself the “Junior League,” one of its founders being Mary Harriman Rumsey, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt’s. A Settlement House was a community center of sorts, a place to help improve lives for these workers, who were largely of the immigrant population by teaching useful skills and lessons to safeguard their own well-being. Different settlement houses were established in densely populated poor areas of cities. Helen Cutting, the mother of one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s friends, volunteered at a Settlement House on Rivington Street on the lower East Side of New York, and this is how the future First Lady was led there. She began her work as a teacher of dance and calisthenics, a way to use physical exercise and movement to improve health after long hours of work in a confined space.
Investigator, The Consumer’s League, New York City, New York (1903-1905). Eleanor Roosevelt followed the lead of her fellow Rivington Street Settlement volunteer Helen Cutting, who also belonged to the National Consumer’s League, by becoming a volunteer investigator for the reform organization. Her work consisted of visiting the tenement apartments where workers both lived and worked under dangerous and unhealthy conditions in these so-called “sweatshops,” her first such visits being to those who were expected to turn out thousands of little artificial flowers that would be used on hats and other clothes for manufacturer’s, but for which they were paid so little money they remained in abject poverty. The National Consumer’s League had been created in 1898 by socially prominent women who joined in support of hatmakers who worked in sweatshops and decided to strike against their employer for better wages and working conditions. Eleanor Roosevelt visited workers in their overcrowded and unsanitary tenement apartments, making note of the workload, the physical toll on the workers, and the sanitary and safety conditions of the rooms where they lived and worked. She also helped to create and disseminate publicity in the form of open letters to newspapers, press releases and other forms of media exposure information about the Consumer League’s “White Label” campaign. The “Consumer’s White Label” was an endorsement given to manufacturers of products that were made under certain labor conditions, such as the elimination of unpaid overtime work, and hiring of workers under the age of sixteen.
During a train trip from New York City up the Hudson River to her maternal grandmother’s home, she engaged in a substantive conversation with a fellow traveler, her distant cousin and a Harvard University student, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A secret courtship ensued, resulting in their engagement, but FDR’s mother intervened, believing them too young to marry. Despite her enforcing a separation, Sara Roosevelt eventually conceded to permit the marriage.
Marriage and Husband:
20 years old on 17 March 1905, adjoining homes of her maternal aunts, New York City, New York, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt [“FDR”], 22 years old, Harvard University undergraduate student (born 30 January 1882, Hyde Park, New York; died 12 April, 1945, Warm Springs, Georgia)
*President Theodore Roosevelt attended his orphaned niece down the aisle during her wedding ceremony, having previously been scheduled to be in New York City to participate in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade
The genealogical relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR is fifth cousin, once removed. They share a mutual ancestor in Claes Martenszen van Rosenvelt (the translation of which means son of Marten of the rose field), who immigrated to America from Holland to the then-named New Amsterdam colony [New York] in approximately 1649. His son Nicholas Roosevelt (1658-1742) is the last common ancestor of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt. FDR’s great-great-great grandfather (Jacobus Roosevelt, son of Nicholas) and Eleanor Roosevelt’s great-great-great-great grandfather (Johannes Roosevelt, son of Nicholas) were brothers.
one daughter, five sons: Anna Eleanor Roosevelt [Dall Boeettiger Halstead] (3 May 1906 - 1 December 1975), James Roosevelt (23 December 1907- 13 August 1991), Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. (1909-1909), Elliott Roosevelt (23 September 1910 - 27 November 1990), Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. [second so-named son] (17 August 1914 – 17 August 1988); John Aspinwall Roosevelt (13 March 1916 - 27 April 1981)
*Following the death of her third child, Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. when he was less than a year old, the parents gave their fifth child, and third-born son, the same name upon his birth.
*Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. (the second so-named) was born in Canada, on Campobello Island)
*Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. (the second so-named) married more times than any other presidential child; he had a total of five wives.
Occupation After Marriage:
Sara Roosevelt dominated the early years of Eleanor Roosevelt’s marriage to FDR, choosing their first home, its interiors and staff and then, a second home adjacent to her own, with doors that connected both places directly into each other. It was an oppressive situation which would resolve as circumstances and Eleanor Roosevelt’s own initiative conspired to move her into a larger world. Following FDR’s graduation from Harvard University in 1906, two years study at Columbia Law School, and employment as an attorney on Wall Street in New York City, FDR was elected twice to the New York State Senate as a representative of Dutchess County, where he and his mother maintained residency in the town of Hyde Park (1910, 1912). After relocating to the state capital city of Albany, Eleanor Roosevelt began to attend legislative sessions and to build an interest in politics, particularly shocked at the omnipotence of “Tammany Hall,” the so-named entrenched Democratic Party leaders who controlled the legislative agenda and votes of state and city officials. FDR later stated that their tenure in Albany commenced her “political sagacity."
Under the Woodrow Wilson Administration, FDR was appointed Assistant Navy Secretary (1913-1920). Eleanor Roosevelt fulfilled the social obligations then incumbent upon officials’ spouses, including the making and hosting of social calls among each other on specified days at specified times. She also joined some spouses in accepting the invitation of First Lady Ellen Wilson to tour the so-called alley dwellings of deplorable housing conditions of the capital city’s largely African-American underclass, the intention of which, to demolish the dangerous and unsanitary living spaces, was achieved by a congressional bill. Efforts to relocate the displaced individuals into permanent housing were usurped by US entry into World War I.
World War I:
As a Cabinet spouse, Eleanor Roosevelt assumed several volunteer jobs in Washington, D.C. working for two private aid organizations which assumed a quasi-government role in providing supplemental care for seamen, specifically, and all servicemen, generally - the Navy Relief Society, which focused on special needs of sailors, and the American Red Cross. Besides traditional fundraising work, Eleanor Roosevelt joined other spouses of prominent officials in booths located at Union Station in Washington. Here, they prepared sandwiches and coffee and distributed them to the thousands of servicemen departing by train for seaport locations, from where they shipped out to the European front. Subsequently, she was asked by a Navy Chaplain to provide emotional support and then investigate and bear witness to the deplorable conditions of sailors who returned from the war with mental health problems, and were being housed at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. This was the medical care facility where those with mental illnesses were treated by the federal government. She found the conditions and care there to be lacking in professionalism and without adequate supplies. Besides successfully prompting the Navy Red Cross to create and fully furnish a much-needed recreation center there, Eleanor Roosevelt successfully implored the Wilson Administration’s Interior Secretary to create a commission which conducted an investigation with the intention of improving the facility’s services. The commission report prompted Congress to increase the hospital’s budget and provide the necessary care. At the conclusion of World War I, Eleanor Roosevelt worked briefly as a volunteer translator of French for the 1919 International Congress of Working Women when it convened in Washington, D.C.
Lucy Mercer Affair:
During FDR’s tenure as Assistant Navy Secretary, Eleanor Roosevelt discovered that he had begun and maintained a clandestine love affair with her social secretary Lucy Mercer and offered her husband a divorce. His mother advised him that divorce and subsequent remarriage to a Catholic would create seemingly insurmountable public relations impediments to his intended national political ambitions and that she would further cut off his inheritance which afforded him the luxury of not having to earn a salary to support himself and his family. Turning down Eleanor Roosevelt’s offer of divorce, FDR further promised that he would end his relationship with Mercer. Some three decades later, without Eleanor Roosevelt’s knowledge, FDR resumed his friendship with Lucy Mercer, who was by then the widow of Winthrop Rutherford; however, it is not evident that the resumed relationship was again physically intimate.
The 1920 Presidential Election:
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated as the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket in 1920, Eleanor Roosevelt was befriended by his advisor and press secretary, journalist Louis Howe. It was Howe who drew Eleanor Roosevelt far deeper into the machinations of a presidential campaign, and sharing with her his process of reviewing the candidate’s speeches and released statements. Although she accompanied FDR on his whistlestop campaign in 1920, she did not address crowds, nor respond directly to public inquiries, still considering it to be a social boundary not to be broken. That year, the Republican ticket won the presidency and FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt returned to their homes in Hyde Park and New York City, where FDR resumed his legal career.
When FDR contracted infantile paralysis in 1921, Eleanor Roosevelt took charge of his initial medical care and encouraged his effort to seek various treatments though she was honest in disagreeing with his belief that he would eventually regain mobility. She did, however, support his intentions to someday return to national politics. As he sought a more specified treatment in Warm Springs, Georgia, FDR was accompanied by the friendly companionship of one of his secretaries from the 1920 campaign, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand. She assumed many of the traditional responsibilities of an official’s wife – writing checks, entertaining guests, household management. In doing so, LeHand inadvertently freed Eleanor Roosevelt from such duties and permitted her the time to pursue an increasingly independent career in reform politics, writing, teaching, new friendships and other pursuits both professional and personal. These included:
The Women's City Club of New York, board of directors, vice president, City Planning Department chair, Finance Committee chair, 1924-1928: An organization which kept women informed of political issues of the day and offered members a network of fellow professional women. Within three years of joining this organization, Eleanor Roosevelt would be elected to the board and then first vice president. She became the club’s literal voice, initiating her own career in radio with broadcasts intended to make women listeners informed on current political issues affecting them. Some of the public questions which she encountered included government low-income housing, access to birth control information for married women, child labor regulation, worker’s compensation, and protective measures for working women. Her work with the Club helped develop her own organizational, writing and speaking skills.
The Women's Trade Union League, member, 1922-1955. Led by both women of the elite class who had worked in the settlement movement and working-class women labor leaders, this organization sought to enlist more women members into trade unions, notably in the garment industry and to lobby state legislatures and Congress on fair wages and work hours. Eleanor Roosevelt also made enormous monetary contributions to the organization. During the worst year of the Great Depression, in her capacity as chair of the finance committee, she solely supported the organization for several months. She would also teach classes, host parties and provide literary readings as part of the educational broadening of working-class members. She would picket with the organization and be charged with disorderly conduct for doing so. In 1925, Eleanor Roosevelt testified before the New York State legislature advocating shorter hours for each workday for women and children.
Women's Division of the New York State Democratic Committee, member, Vice President, Finance Chair, and Women’s Democratic News newsletter editor and columnist, 1922-1935. With the goal of garnering Democratic candidates the votes and support of more women, the organization became a powerful venue in state politics. Eleanor Roosevelt became associated with it when she was invited by Nancy Cook to address the group. Soon her circle expanded to include the division’s other leaders – Cook’s lifetime partner Marion Dickerman, Caroline O’Day and Elinor Morgenthau. Eleanor Roosevelt helped create and sustain an outreach of the organization to rural counties. In 1924, through the division, she campaigned through all of New York State for Democrat Alfred Smith against her first cousin, Republican Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. in his gubernatorial election. Smith won, becoming an ally of Eleanor Roosevelt’s. She worked as treasurer and as editor of the division’s Women’s Democratic News monthly newsletter, eventually writing a monthly column in the publication called “Passing Thoughts of Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt.” The newsletter was eventually folded into a pre-existing national version in 1935.
The League of Women Voters, New York State branch and national organization, Board member, Legislative Committee Chair (state league), Constitutional Revision Chair (state league), County Delegate, State Delegate, Vice-Chair of the New York State League, 1920-1928. With the goal of educating women on candidates and political issues, and engaging them into the political process, at both the state and national levels, the League was an important stepping stone for Eleanor Roosevelt’s own political seasoning. Chairing a Legislation Committee, she conducted indepth research on pending congressional bills and wrote a summary report of it with attorney and fellow member Elizabeth Read who would become a lifelong friend along with Read’s life partner, consumer advocate and educator Esther Lape. As a county and state delegate she attended the New York State and national conventions of the league, widening her circle of fellow women reformists and activists, and delivering lectures on policy related to infant mortality, and health, employment and housing issues facing women. She actively helped the state league achieve its goal of creating a division in every state county. As vice chair of the state league, she advocated for women’s support of international peace, gender equity in jury service and in prosecution of solicitation. Resigning her offices from the bi-partisan league in 1924, she remained an active member who promoted the ideals and platform of the Democratic Party, with which she became more overtly involved. She also began writing on a regular basis for the League of Women Voters of New York State’s newsletter, News Bulletin.
World Peace Movement and Bok Peace Prize Committee, 1923-1924. As a vigorous supporter of Eleanor Roosevelt helped to organize and chair with her friend Esther Lape a committee which sought to award the best plan that would ensure eventual world peace. the US participate in this global justice system. It had been proposed by the former Ladies Home Journal editor Edward W. Bok. Her role was to establish a bipartisan Jury selection board of prominent Americans who would review the over 22,000 entries the committee received and to then promote the winning plan. The winner of the prize was to be awarded $100,000, half of which was to implement the winning plan if it was approved by the US Senate or a majority of the American people. The prize was awarded to former Adelphi College president Charles Levermore, who proposed immediate US cooperation with the “World Court,” the informal name of the Permanent Court of International Justice, a provision created under the League of Nations. The contest created controversy, with charges that the effort was seeking to improperly influence Congress and going against the prevailing isolationist US foreign policy sentiment at the time. Eleanor Roosevelt accompanied Esther Lape when she was called upon to testify before the Senate Special Committee on Propoganda. Although the House voted in favor of the measure, it failed to received the necessary 2/3rds of the Senate. Eleanor Roosevelt was exposed to the efforts of world peace by suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt. She would also publicly support the Coolidge Administration’s Kellogg-Briand Treaty.
Val-Kill Industries, furniture factory, co-owner, 1927- 1936. Encouraged by FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt and her friends Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook had built a colonial Dutch revival cottage in stone in 1925, on Roosevelt family property just two miles from the large estate “Springwood,” owned by FDR and his mother. They founded and ran a small company that made furniture for the cottage, soon expanding the enterprise to make commercial pieces sold in New York. Production of the quality colonial era reproductions took place in what would end up becoming a four-story factory in Hyde Park, intended to employ jobless local workers.
Todhunter School for Girls, New York City, New York, co-owner, history and government teacher, 1926-1933. Also with Dickerman and Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt purchased and helped to run this school on the East Side of New York City. When FDR was elected governor and then began in term in 1929, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to teach, though she began commuting to Albany several days a week, using her time on the train to grade her students’ exams and papers. She ended her formal role as a teacher once FDR became US President, but still took an active interest in the school and its students, inviting a group of them to the White House for annual events.
Writer, Lecturer, Radio Show Commentator, 1921-1962. Eleanor Roosevelt had a lifelong career as a writer of books, introductions or other contributions to books, newspaper and magazine articles and columns. Her professional writing began with the publication of her first article, “Common Sense Versus Party Regularity,” published in the League of Women Voters News Bulletin on September 12, 1921. She would continue to write for the newsletters as well as the publications of the other political and civic organizations to which she belonged in the 1920’s. Her first piece in a commercial publication appeared in the October 1923 of Ladies Home Journal. Over the years her byline would appear in a wide variety of publications including: The New York Times, The North American Review, Success Magazine, Current History, Redbook, Modern Priscilla, Forum, Good Housekeeping, Parents’ Magazine, Babylon, Wings, Pictorial Review, Independent Education, Liberty, School Life, Baltimore & Ohio, Reader’s Digest, Women’s Home Companion, Modern Screen, Literary Digest, McCall’s, Every Woman, Recreation, Scribner’s, House & Garden, American Magazine of Art, The Journal of Negro Education, Progressive Education, School Life, Virgina Teacher, DAR Magazine, Consumer’s Guide, Cosmopolitan, This Week, Periscope, Journal of Social Hygiene, School Press Review, Opportunity, School Life, School Press Review, American Child, American Library Association Bulletin, Woman’s Day, Look, Time, New York Times Magazine, This Week, Collier’s, Rotarian, Nation, Opportunity, Student Life, Opinion, Echo, Trade Union Courier, Threshold, Common Sense, Town Meeting, Baby Talk, Common Ground, Country Gentleman, American Unity, New Republic, Jewish Mirror, Land Policy Review, American Magazine, Negro Digest, Saturday Review of Literature, Minute Man, Arcadian Life Magazine, Kelly Magazine, Home Safety Review, Intercollegian, American Lawn Tennis, Life Story, Congressional Weekly, Workman’s Circle Call, Teacher’s Digest, Survey Graphic, National Parent-Teacher, Southern Patriot, Congressional Digest, Canadian Home Journal, Argosy, Click, Future, Bayonet, Education for Victory, Council Women, Journal of Educational Sociology, Your Music, German-American, Modern Mystic and Monthly Science Review, American Girl, Talks, Summary, Holiday, Methodist Women, Women’s Journal, United Nations Bulletin, General Federation Clubwomen, Christian Register, Foreign Affairs, ADA, Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, Phi Delta Kappan, Flair, Harper's, Ominbook, Foreign Policy Bulletin, See, Say. Ebony Lifetime Living, American Association United Nations News, Midstream, Every week, Equity, Today's Japan, Art in America, Saturday Evening Post, TV Guide, Harper's, American Federationist, Educational Forum, Current, Coronet, Redbook, True Story, Atlantic, Bookshelf, Ford Times, Jewish Heritage, Railway Clerk Magazine, Wisdom, Liberation, US News and World Report, Instructor, International Home Quarterly, Department of State Bulletin, Jewish Parents Magazine, Delhi Mirror
Instructor, The Nation's Schools, Southwest Louisiana Boys' Village News, School Life
United Nations World, United Nations Reporter, Prologue.
Al Smith for President campaign, 1924, 1928.
In 1924 Eleanor Roosevelt served as the chair of the women’s delegation of the Platform Committee for that year’s Democratic National Convention. Eleanor Roosevelt was advocating the nomination of Al Smith of New York. Although she was unsuccessful in helping him win the party’s nomination that year, she remained a staunch advocate for his national candidacy through her state and national party work and her public speeches. Four years later, during the 1928 Democratic National Convention, she headed all women’s activities for Smith’s efforts leading up to and following his nomination as the presidential candidate. She earned the trust of Smith and was able to help him gain access to and convince FDR to run as his successor as Governor of New York.
First Lady of New York State, 1929-1933.
As First Lady of a state, Eleanor Roosevelt sought to avoid as many potential conflicts of interest as possible. She continued her own private enterprises of the Todhunter School and Val-Kill Industries, splitting her time between the capital city of Albany and her private home in New York City. During this time she also hired an aide who would prove indispensible to her as First Lady and beyond, Malvina “Tommy” Thompson. Nicknamed “Tommy” Malvina Thompson would take on Eleanor Roosevelt’s formidable correspondence and travel arrangements. Being governor’s wife also gave her a broader platform beyond those within politics and reform movements and she utilized it advocate that more women try to develop lives, interests and talents that might take them beyond traditional women’s roles. As she wrote in Good Housekeeping magazine during these years, "It is essential to develop her own interests, to carry on a stimulating life of her own. . . ."
Although she quit most of her political affiliations, Eleanor Roosevelt remained highly politically active, if not always in public. She continued to broadcast her “Women in Politics” series on NBC radio for the Women’s City Club, and edited without credit the Women's Democratic News. In addition, she became the Women’s Trade Union League’s legislative advocate in the statehouse in support of a five-day work week. She voiced her support for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and its president David Dubinsky in their famous 1930 Dressmaker’s Strike. She also was able to make the case to the national Democratic Party chairman John Raskob to increase funding for the New York State Democratic Committee, and on her own did considerable fundraising for the National Democratic Committee’s Women’s Activities Committee.
With her own formidable and independent political experience and skill, Eleanor Roosevelt could not help bring her background to her role as a supportive wife of the governor. In this context, her considerable political influence was simply an outgrowth of her natural interests, passions and beliefs, but adapting it all to a manner which aided her husband.
She was instrumental in FDR’s reforming the Public Employment Service, as well as his promoting labor leader Frances Perkins from a committee member to head of the State Industrial Relations Commission. She further made the case for Perkins as New York’s Secretary of Labor and for her replacement at the Industrial Relations Commission, Nell Schwartz. She began to substitute for the Governor when either his immobility or his schedule precluded his presence at political meetings and conferences. Furthering this role, she began to inspect schools, orphanages, hospitals, homes for aged, and other state-supported institutions as what she called his “eyes and ears.” In this role, she learned to poke into kitchens and garages, and check out plumbing, food service and electricity, rather than just taking the word of the director of the institution in question.
She put to use her growing but already considerable tactical skill in managing political personalities. When the Governor was organizing a conference of the state’s mayors, she was successful in helping convince him to open the invitation to both Republicans and Democrats. She often helped avoid intra-Democratic squabbles between FDR’s advisor Louis Howe and Jim Farley, manager of both Smith and FDR’s gubernatorial and FDR’s presidential campaigns. It was on Eleanor Roosevelt’s urging that the Governor decided not to keep two of Smith’s closest advisors, Secretary of State Robert Moses and Personal Secretary Belle Moskowitz.
Presidential Campaign and Inauguration:
Having known personally the constrictions placed on her aunt Edith Roosevelt, when she became First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt had a tremendous ambivalence throughout the course of FDR’s first presidential campaign. She believed he was the ideal leader to guide the nation through the Great Depression, but feared the loss of her own independent life. Nevertheless, in 1931, in anticipation of the campaign, she organized the women’s division of “Friends For Roosevelt,” the exploratory committee that would launch his candidacy, and also wrote and edited much of the literature about him. As far as public campaigning, however, Eleanor Roosevelt was more visible on behalf of Herbert Lehman, the Democrat hoping to succeed her husband as New York Governor. She continued her role as intermediary between Farley and Howe, and reviewed the publicity of the National Democratic Committee’s Women’s Division, which were printed on colored-paper "rainbow fliers" – which were intended to appeal to women’s femininity. She attended the 1932 convention which nominated FDR, and also become the fourth woman in history to successfully vote for her husband’s election as president.
From November 1932 until March of 1933, however, Eleanor Roosevelt found herself increasingly depressed at the prospect of what life as First Lady would mean for her. During this period, she befriended several women reporters who covered her activities, notably Lorena Hickok, Ruby Black and Bess Furman and shared her fears. Although she resigned her job as teacher at the Todhunter School, she did continue her lucrative career as a lecturer, freelance journalist, and radio broadcaster. She was soon publicly derided when she expressed her view that young girls should be permitted to drink beer if Prohibition was repealed, and that one of her radio commercial sponsors was a mattress company. She was ridiculed in the Harvard Lampoon after she edited a magazine on post-natal care with the seemingly ridiculous title of “Babies, Just Babies.” There were also false allegations that it had been Eleanor Roosevelt who had spurred on FDR to the presidency as some form of thwarted form of fulfilling her own political ambitions. In fact, at one point during the transition, she had the impulsive idea of filing for divorce as a way of escaping the inevitable and imminent limitations.
At the 4 March 1933 Inauguration, Eleanor Roosevelt joined the extensive number of Roosevelt family members, including Republicans of the Oyster Bay branch who had opposed FDR’s candidacy but nevertheless remained personally supportive. For them and for other close personal friends and political associates, she hosted an informal reception following the swearing-in ceremony. Following a tradition since the 1913 Inauguration, there was no official Presidential Inaugural Ball. However, Eleanor Roosevelt did appear in a white fur and gown at a charity fundraiser ball held that night, accompanied by several relatives.
48 years old
4 March 1933 - 12 April 1945
No presidential wife served as First Lady for a period longer than did Eleanor Roosevelt – twelve years, one month, one week and one day. No First Lady served through two nationally traumatic events such as did Eleanor Roosevelt, presiding at the White House during the Great Depression and World War II. Unique to her tenure was the fact that the President was physically limited by his then-hidden condition of polio. Thus apart from finding a way to integrate her own professional interests and experiences into the public role of First Lady and assume the traditional management of the mansion’s functioning as a political-social arena, Eleanor Roosevelt worked closely with the President and his staff as an unofficial Administration representative and on policy-related issues. Despite this being an outgrowth of her own progressive reform work, it was now conducted within a public realm, making both her, personally, and the Administration, generally, vulnerable to political attack and criticism, the charge being that she was neither elected nor appointed to carry out such tasks as it related to the American people. Generally, Eleanor Roosevelt ignored the frequent criticism to help achieve her goals or those Administration objectives with which she concurred.
Unlike her three immediate predecessors (Florence Harding, Grace Coolidge, Lou Hoover), Eleanor Roosevelt did not enter into the role of First Lady with specific plans to continue previous support for a constituency (Harding and animal rights and WWI veterans, Coolidge and the hearing-impaired, Hoover and the Girl Scouts). All she knew for certain was that she would be active in word and deed, especially in light of the devastation the Great Depression was continuing to have on the lives of millions of Americans.. Her extraordinary history of experience and work in progressive advocacy policy, the media, education, and women’s issues, however, greatly informed her as she found her direction, established her agenda and relied on professional contacts. In terms of her life experiences and her evolving vision as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was unprecedented in comparison to others who had or would assume the role.
Mass Media and Communications:
Perhaps there was no more important decision among her initial deeds as First Lady than her decision to continue her work as a writer, public speaker and media figure. It helped in her mission to inform the public, provoke discussion and debate on conversation, rally public support for efforts she believed in or promoted as part of the Administration. It helped to forge a permanent image in the public mind at the time of not just Eleanor Roosevelt as a distinct personality but to shift the perception of what “First Lady” could mean.
Press Conferences: On 6 March 1933, two days after becoming First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt held what was to become the first of 348 press conferences, with nearly 35 women in attendance. The idea emerged from her burgeoning friendship with Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok as a direct measure to help women reporters keep their jobs during the depression. She conducted them to help keep the American people informed of her White House life and the political activities of the Administration, but to provoke national consciousness about larger issues and crises of the day, and to do so in newspaper print. The press conferences afforded her the chance to focus on breaking news whether it was the threat that Hitler presented to Europe or the endemic problems of Washington, D.C.’s social welfare institutions. They were, however, coordinated with the President’s Press Office and there is evidence that sometimes they felt it wiser to have the First Lady break news related to the President or the Administration, rather than through the West Wing. Some forty news organizations were credentialed to have one representative attend the First Lady press conferences, a certification that was controlled by the President’s Press Secretary (the position of First Lady’s Press Secretary did not yet exist).
What made Eleanor Roosevelt’s White House press conferences even more unique was the open ban on any male reporters. Large publications wanted to carry the news which Mrs. Roosevelt generated, but could do so only by continuing to employ the women reporters given exclusive access to the press conferences. On one occasion, following her return from the South Pacific during the war, men reporters were permitted entrance. This practice, largely uncriticized, proved crucial in establishing women reporters as part of the permanent and modern White House Press Corps, their presence and professionalism soon becoming part of the familiar fabric of the working White House. Previous to this, women reporters in Washington were confined to coverage of “style” issues, such as entertaining and clothes. While expected to continue to cover these topics, their “beat” expanded, with the First Lady’s focus on substantive and serious problems. Her sustaining the press conferences through the Depression and WWII, they covered economics, commerce, defense and foreign affairs issues. The press conferences ultimately raised women into the ranks of professional journalism. Her solidarity with them remained strong. For example, when the women reporters were excluded from the professional male journalist gathering of the annual Gridiron Dinner, she created the “Gridiron Widows” and hosted the event in the White House.
After some initial press conferences taking place in the Green Room, Mrs. Roosevelt moved them to the private floor of the mansion, in the designated “Monroe Room” where she had replaced reproduction antiques of the Monroe Era, with sturdy furniture produced by Val-Kill Industries, the factory she helped to created. Initially, no direct quotation of the First Lady was permitted without her permission. She had an aide who attended and transcribed the exchanges. The conferences lasted about an hour. On occasion, she invited special women guests who might be visiting the White House to attend, giving the reporters access to them. In time print reporters for the radio broadcast were permitted to attend, but at no time were either still or moving cameras allowed in,. Eventually, the weekly attendance swelled to 115 but was reduced drastically by the first year of World War II. Government information agency representatives were also permitted to attend, but not to ask questions. By 1942, the group formally organized as Mrs. Roosevelt’s Press Conference Association, with a five-member board that met monthly to review policy and membership. The last press conference was held 12 April 1945, several hours before the President’s sudden death
Monthly Magazine Columnist: In August of 1933, five months after becoming First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt contracted with the monthly Women’s Home Companion magazine to pen a column called “I Want You to Write to Me.” It was an open invitation for the public to submit questions asking her questions that provoked her advice, personal opinions and providing of information on issues both personal and political. It also encouraged the public to offer their own opinions and observations during the Great Depression and War-Preparedness years. Earning $1000 a month for the endeavor, she donated the fee outright to various charities. The response was overwhelming. Within just five months, about 300,000 individuals had written to her. She continued the column until the July 1935 edition. In her initial columns, she avidly espoused the agenda of the Roosevelt Administration, but over time was forced to curtail political topics. The magazine editors ended the contract to avoid the suggestion that they supported FDR – or any political candidate – as efforts began for his 1936 re-election campaign.
In May of 1941, she began a new monthly column, “If You Ask Me,” for Ladies Home Journal, receiving $2500 a month. Journal editors reviewed the mail sent to Mrs. Roosevelt at the magazine and chose the questions for her to answer, about ten each month. The topics were again a mix of the personal and the political. Her column in this magazine continued through the rest of her White House years, until 1949, when she signed a five-year contract for a monthly column with McCall’s magazine.
Newspaper Column: On 30 December 1935, two years and nine months into her tenure as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote the first of what would become her famous syndicated newspaper column, My Day. As First Lady, she wrote it six days a week; the only break during her White House tenure occurring on the four days following her husband’s death. Within three years, My Day was syndicated in 62 daily newspapers with a readership of over 4 million. It was distributed by the United Features Syndicate and earned her about $1000 monthly, a rate which shifted depending on the number of newspaper subscriptions. It replaced an earlier, failed weekly column that focused strictly on White House entertaining. Although My Day was usually placed in the women’s section of a newspaper alongside advertisements targeted to the women’s market, they were widely read by men, especially those following politics.
The subject of each day was usually a reflection of an issue, individual, incident or event she had encountered or engaged in, giving the worlds a genuine first-person account of life near the presidency. Written in simple, almost bland language, the column helped to craft her image as an accessible average American wife and mother – despite the reality that she was hardly that. Initially, many of the columns were light in nature, giving the public a glimpse at the amusing and poignant anecdotes entailed in her daily life as the wife of the president and mother of his children. In short time, however, she used the column to touch on larger public issues, controversies in which she was involved – and even to provoke public debate. It was in My Day, for example, that she announced and explained her resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution over the organization’s refusal to lease their auditorium to permit African-American contralto singer Marian Anderson to perform there. Although she claimed in 1939 that the President never interfered in the content of her columns, she did later write that he often shared Administration ideas or reports, or other information with the intention of her presenting it casually in the column to gauge public reaction. The column was a useful public relations tool for the Administration as well, for she could provide a seemingly spontaneous glimpse into his work or reactions to legislation in a way that shaped a long-range plan.
The First Lady usually dictated the day’s column to her secretary or, when she travelled solo, pecked it out on a typewriter herself. She found it relatively easy to do, usually occupying about a half an hour each day. After the White House, she continued the column but its contents became more partisan as she voiced stronger opinions on global issues and Democratic Party politics.
Magazine Article Writer: On many occasions, Eleanor Roosevelt found that a subject she felt required closer consideration was best served by her writing about it in a lengthy magazine article. She had no one exclusive contract with a publication, giving her the freedom to choose specialized venues to reach target audiences. She addressed the moral necessity of civil rights, for example, in magazines ranging from The Saturday Evening Post to The American Magazine to The New Republic.
Radio Host: Eleanor Roosevelt had nearly a decade of experience as a radio commentator by the time she became First Lady. During the transition, following the 1932 election, she contracted to deliver twelve radio news commentaries for the Pond’s cold cream company. Despite editorial criticism that it was undignified for the president’s wife to undertake such overtly commercial ventures, she would continue to do them as First Lady, claiming she was motivated to do so because it permitted her to continue raising large sums for the charities she donated the fees to. In 1935, she contracted with a roofing company at $500 a minute, and subsequently for a mattress company, typewriter and shoe company, doing various series of multiple broadcasts on different subjects like higher education or events in the news. In 1937 she signed with NBC Radio to carry her radio shows with various commercial sponsors. That year, it was again with Pond’s, from which she earned $3000 for each of her thirteen broadcasts. In 1940 the number and length of the broadcasts were increased to twenty-six fifteen minute broadcasts. The lengthiest and most famous of her series, however, took place on Sunday nights spanning seven months from 1941 to 1942. This series included her address to the nation on the night of December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day, following the President’s declaration of war when the Japanese air forces attacked the United States. These were sponsored by the Pan-American Coffee Bureau which represented a consortium of eight Latin American coffee-producing nations. From these foreign countries, the First Lady earned $28,000 for the Sunday night series. While the primary audiences for her broadcasts were women, the shows she did during the immediate pre-war and wartime called on all citizens to support the President’s policies of support to England and volunteer their services as the U.S. entered the war.
Lecturer and Public Speaker: During her tenure as First Lady, it is estimated that she gave about 1,400 speeches. She wrote all of them herself, although it was usually a mere outline rather than a prepared text from which she spoke. On occasion, she relied on experts in or out of the federal government to provide specifics or statistics to bolster the case she might be making in the speech. Initially, her presentations lacked impact due to their rambling nature, her own strident, high-pitched voice and highly distinct elite-class accent. Never a relaxed public speaker, she did learn to hone her message and modulate her voice, taking lessons with vocal coach Elizabeth von Hesse. In 1935, she contracted with the W. Colston Leigh Bureau of Lectures and Entertainments to do two annual lecture circuit tours a year. Her audiences were usually large organizations, sometimes as numerous as 15,000 people in attendance. They were charged $1000 per speech. Lasting about one hour each with a subsequent question-and-answer period, the groups were able to chose from one of six topics: “Typical Day at the White House,” “Problems of Youth,” “Mail of a President’s Wife,” “The Outlook for America,” “Relationship of the Individual to the Community,” and “Peace.” By the time she ended her annual lecture circuit work with the Leigh Bureau in 1941, she had made approximately 700 paid speeches.
Author: Although Rose Cleveland was the first First Lady to publish a book during her incumbency, none have published more books while serving in that role than did Eleanor Roosevelt. Her first published literary effort was as editor of her father’s letters to her, published during FDR’s presidential campaign. Using the same unique tone of personal reflection and gently-given advice, combined with her highly ideal approach to the realities of modern life, she turned out her first fully-written work in her first year as First Lady: It’s Up to the Women (1933), a call upon women to find confidence and strength in facing the hardships of the Depression. This Troubled World (1938) and The Moral Basis of Democracy (1940) took the same technique but applied it to war-preparedness. In 1935, her first work as an author of fiction was published, A Trip to Washington with Bobby and Betty - although the children’s story ended with a visit to the real-life President Roosevelt. Her second work of fiction took on a poignant currency. Christmas: A Story (1940) was set in contemporary Nazi-occupied Holland, with a spirited young girl as the protagonist.
The book with which she was most widely associated during her tenure as First Lady was This Is My Story (1937), the first of what would be her three-volume autobiography, providing a somewhat abstracted version of her lonely childhood and difficult early married years, taking her story up to 1924, as FDR struggled to overcome his polio. The book was serialized for $75,000 by Ladies Home Journal. The first installment in Ladies Home Journal sold out quickly, about a quarter of a million consumers buying the magazine and instantly making it the highest circulated women’s magazine at the time.
The subsequent volumes to her autobiography were This I Remember (1949), which covered the period up to FDR’s death, and On My Own (1958). An abridged version of all three was issued in 1961 as The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt and was updated to include the three subsequent years, concluding with JFK’s election, just two years before her death. In addition, her post-White House years saw her authoring another dozen works: If You Ask Me (1946), Partners: The United Nations and Youth (co-authored) (1950), India and the Awakening East (1953), UN: Today and Tomorrow (co-authored) (1953), Ladies of Courage (1954), It Seems to Me (1954), The United Nations (1955), You Learn By Living (1960), Your Teens and Mine (co-authored) 1961, The Wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt (1962), Eleanor Roosevelt’s Book of Common Etiquette (1962), and Tomorrow is Now (published posthumously in 1963).
Newsreels and Movies: With an active interest in the film industry, stemming from her son James Roosevelt’s employment by legendary producer Sam Goldwyn, Eleanor Roosevelt recognized the power of the moving image to convey or symbolize in a simple, direct manner an often complicated matter. She permitted all of her public appearances and events to be filmed by newsreel companies, whether or not it was at the White House. Often, they captured historical moments such as a 1933 Paramount News report, “A First Lady Flies!” showing her as the first incumbent First Lady to travel by airplane.
She also frequently appeared with famous movie stars of the era to promote one of her causes, for which movie theater attendants would pass collection jars for donations from movie patrons at the conclusion of the feature film. She used her emerging popular persona in these as well. In one motion picture short shown throughout the country’s theaters, she promoted a charity by buying a 25 cent raffle ticket with a dollar from comedienne Jack Benny, famous for his parsimony. He joked, “Well I haven’t the change right now, but I’ll be glad to send it to you…if you’ll stay in one place.”. She narrated several commercial and government informational films, including 1940’s Pastor Hall (produced by her son) about a German pacifist, and “Training Women For War Production,” produced by the National Youth Administration, a 1942 color promotional film.
Public Correspondence: Eleanor Roosevelt considered her correspondence with the American public to not only be vital to her role as First Lady and her husband’s as President, but also the federal government’s response to its citizens. With her Ladies Home Companion column, beginning in August of 1933, she actually encouraged the citizenry to write her directly. Shortly into her tenure as First Lady, she found her office had become something of a clearinghouse for the most desperate individuals and families left homeless, jobless or hungry as a result of the Great Depression. As many of the New Deal emergency relief agencies were still being established, she took it upon herself to have the individual letters referred to existing federal agencies that might be of direct assistance, charitable organizations or even wealthy private individuals whom she knew might be able to help. She was not able to respond by handwritten letter or even signed typed letter to all of these requests for aid, but she did do so in a surprising large number of cases. Having discovered that form letters used by her predecessors dated back to Frances Cleveland and offered little support or hope, she established a new system for herself in which every individual received an effective response. In many instances this meant that Eleanor Roosevelt engaged in direct and ongoing written contact with various federal department agency heads to continue efforts to eradicate or respond to problems in their domain. In the first year of the first FDR term, she received 300,000 letters, in the first year of the second term, it dipped to 90,000 and in the first election year of the third term, it again rose, to 150,000. As the US entered World War II, a greater percentage of her public correspondence came from US servicemen and their families, often reporting sub-standard conditions or illegal practices which official War and Navy Department reports might otherwise neglect to address. Her emphasis on public correspondence was not merely a matter of common courtesy; she found it could often helped determine which public issues were important to tackle, saying “my interest…is not aroused by an abstract cause but by the plight of a single person.”
Popular Culture: Omnipresent in American life for a full one-dozen years at a time conjunctive with strides in communication technologies, Eleanor Roosevelt became the first First Lady to widely enter the general popular culture, a caricatured image affixed as much to the political as well as entertainment landscape of her eras. Usually with affection, but sometimes with scorn, her physical presence, with an emphasis on the protrusion of her upper teeth and flying fur-piece at her neck, made her a frequent target of highly political cartoons in daily newspapers. She was easily skewered for her own policy views or statements, but criticism aimed at her was often a displaced attack on the President. Perhaps the most famous cartoon depicting her peripatetic persona was a 3 June 1933 New Yorker cartoon which showed coal miners emerging, smug-faced but gleefully shocked, one of them piping up, “For gosh sakes, here comes Mrs. Roosevelt!” As the First Lady whose highly distinct speech patterns were the first to be widely and frequently heard and soon instantly recognized, her voice lent itself to parody on the radio and in film. Most prominent among such examples was a Judy Garland depiction in the 1939 film Babes In Arms, in which she sits to knit beside FDR as parodied by Mickey Rooney. “Eleanor” talk-sings: “My day, my day! I breakfasted in Idaho and lunched in Indiana! I opened up a Turkish bath in Helena, Montana! I launched a lovely ferris wheel, then dined in Louisiana!”
The New Deal:
As President, Franklin Roosevelt initiated an extensive network of social and economic reform programs, intended to provide an immediate federal government response to the devastation the Great Depression had wreaked on the lives of a majority of Americans. Several general constituencies found themselves the focus of these reforms, including the business and manufacturing, housing, farming, labor unions. While Eleanor Roosevelt took an active interest and was well-versed in the nuances of all these elements, her focus was based on her experiences in the reform movement. Her efforts can be largely seen as focusing on providing immediate aid and relief to citizens who were homeless, hungry and unemployed. Besides specific programs she fostered, promoted or became involved in behind the scenes, Eleanor Roosevelt maintained her general interest in all of the New Deal by serving as a liaison between the citizens who needed help and the best programs to answer their needs. Those whom she most often sought to ensure equal and fair treatment on behalf of were women, African-Americans, youth, and coal miners. Finally, Eleanor Roosevelt did not believe that government intervention was the sole means to alleviate the affects of the Depression and she supported numerous private charities, though she worked primarily with and donated her own private funds to the American Friends Service Committee.
Domestic Inspection Trips: As part of this general role, she undertook frequent trips around the United States, to even the most remote regions, where she came to inspect various New Deal programs – usually without announcement so program directors could not suddenly disguise problems. Sometimes the issues she felt needed addressing, change or improvement hinged on small matters; other times, she detected a consensus among the recipients of the programs. Upon returning to Washington, she made either written or verbal reports to the President, his staff and department heads for the problems to be addressed. She drove her car, took the trains and flew by airplane to do this. Outside of New Deal policy, one result of the frequent pictures and newsreels of Eleanor Roosevelt getting in and out of airplanes was positive publicity for the fledgling commercial airlines industry. The First Lady often travelled alone, refusing to be trailed by Secret Service agents. The agency acquiesced only after she had demonstrated ability for self-protection with a gun they insisted she carry. She agreed to this, but never felt the need to use it.
Women: Among a network of women who had mostly been professional educators, journalists, attorneys, and union leaders in the reform movement during her previous years in New York or who had worked in the Democratic Party at the national or New York state level, Eleanor Roosevelt was the central figure. She worked closely with her friend Molly Dewson, who ran the National Democratic Committee’s Women’s Division, to integrate as many qualified women into the Roosevelt Administration and the federal government in high- and mid-level administrative posts. She was successful in changing both the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to expand to include divisions that dealt specifically with the problems faced by unemployed women. Further, she suggested the individuals who would be appointed to lead the bureaus. Similarly, when she learned that the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided forestry work to young people, was available only to men, she successfully pressed for the same program for young women. As the first First Lady to sponsor White House conferences, she hosted several that focused specifically on meeting the needs of women: a November 2, 1933 White House Conference on the Emergency Needs of Unemployed Women, an April 30, 1934 White House Conference on Camps for Unemployed Women, an April 4, 1938 White House Conference on Participation of Negro Women and Children in Federal Welfare Programs, and a June 14, 1944 White House Conference on How Women May Share in Post-War Policy Making. It was not just as recipients of federal government programs or as employees of the federal government that Eleanor Roosevelt carried her advocacy. She consistently addressed gender inequity in American life wherever she saw it. She believed women should be given universal military training and even that housewives should be allowed to work only regular hours and be salaried for it.
African-Americans: By 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt’s views had evolved to the point where equality of all races had become one of her core values as a person. Far more than her husband, she believed the U.S. government had a moral duty to initiate and enforce changes that furthered or ensured racial equality. This was viewed by the larger white population at that time as nothing short of radical, yet it never persuaded her to restrain her words and deeds. Often it was a singular, unambiguous action intended as a symbol that prompted a public facing of the issue. Invited to the African-American Howard University, for example, she wanted herself photographed as she was escorted in by two uniformed Honor Guard male students. The picture was widely printed, often used to prompt angry racist attacks on her. She showed her opposition to segregation laws when she came to the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in November of 1938, in Birmingham, Alabama and moved her chair into the aisle, between the “whites-only” and “colored-only” sections. No one single act as First Lady, however, more dramatically illustrated her belief than her much publicized February 26, 1939 resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution when that organization adhered to local racial restrictions and refused to rent its Constitution Hall for a concert by opera singer Marian Anderson. While she was not responsible for, nor attended the ensuing public concert by Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial two months later, she strongly supported it. Two months after that, she had Anderson sing in the White House for the King and Queen of England. On more substantive matters, she was responsible for the 1935 appointment of African-American educator Mary McLeod Bethune to the National Advisory Committee of the National Youth Organization. A year later, she helped to create a Negro Affairs of the NYA and have Bethune named as its director. Beginning in 1934, she worked closely with Walter White, the director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the First Lady vigorously and unapologetically pressed the President to support a proposed anti-lynching law – but failed to do so, due to FDR’s practical realization that southern Democrats might abandon his ongoing and future legislative agenda. She also sought support for the bill elsewhere, such as the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. The First Lady also became the first white resident of Washington, D.C. to join the local chapters of both the NAACP and National Urban League, becoming the first white D.C. resident to respond to the group’s membership drives. In 1936, she attended and addressed the annual conventions of both organizations. She worked in tandem with these organizations and also on individual efforts. She worked actively as a chair of the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax. Within the New Deal programs of the federal government, she made efforts to forge more racial equity. She pushed for those administering the Agricultural Adjustment Act to acknowledge how white landowners regularly discriminated against African-Americans and similarly pressured the Resettlement Administration to do so on behalf of black sharecroppers. She sought to make certain that African-Americans were paid the same wage within the ranks of administrative workers in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The First Lady sought to aid private African-American institutions as well, including Howard University’s Freedman’s Hospital, for which she lobbied Congress to increase previous federal aid. By seeking to ensure that African-Americans were beneficiaries of New Deal programs, and cultivating prominent political figures within the community, Eleanor Roosevelt – and through her, FDR, were key factors in the historic shift of African-American support from the Republican Party and their legacy from Lincoln to the Democratic Party.
National Youth Administration: Emerging from discussions she had with Harry Hopkins, the Works Progress Administration Administrator, Eleanor Roosevelt helped to foster the creation of a National Youth Administration in 1935. The NYA gave out grants to college students who agreed to work part-time, thus giving them some income without having to drop out of school; it also provided job training to those not in school. In her book This I Remember, Eleanor Roosevelt acknowledged her role in helping to create the National Youth Administration, which FDR established on June 26, 1935: "One of the ideas I agreed to present to Franklin was that of setting up a national youth administration. . . . It was one of the occasions on which I was very proud that the right thing was done regardless of political consequences." The division provided unemployed young people with apprenticeships, vocational training and work projects. She became perhaps the program’s greatest publicist, writing and speaking frequently of its progress. She toured several dozen of the sites around the nation, and behind the scenes frequently evaluated the success and failures of the program with its officials, attended its regional conferences with state directors and served as a direct liaison to the President.
American Student Union: Eleanor Roosevelt was inspired by the call to social justice and world peace advocated by the American Student Union, which was composed of college student activists. When the ASU came to Washington as one of many other such groups for an American Youth Congress convention, the First Lady invited the group leaders to the White House. When they sought her support for the American Youth Act, to mandate federal aid to all American young people who lived in need, she refused, feeling it was expensive and unrealistic. When the group’s leadership became dominated by communists, who urged US neutrality in Europe, she began to distance herself from the group. Nonetheless, she took a front-row seat during 1939 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings when they grilled an ASU leader she had befriended, and later defended their initial good intentions. During the war, two-thirds of the group’s membership quit because of the communist leaders and joined the International Student Service organization which provided aid to war refugees and Eleanor Roosevelt followed, leading fundraising and publicity efforts.
Works Progress Administration: Eleanor Roosevelt was a vigorous supporter and then defender of the Works Progress Administration’s Writers’, Arts and Theater Projects, which gave work to the unemployed in those professions. She had been an avid supporter of the initial effort to bring these professions under eligibility of the Works Progress Administration and successfully lobbied the President to this end; he signed the legislation on June 25, 1935. With its emphasis on the “common man,” and efforts to preserve regional and folk American heritage, she genuinely enjoyed reading the written works, and attending many of the exhibits and performances produced by the programs. She publicly opposed a 1939 Congressional funding decrease to the programs, and the closing of the theater program.
Arthurdale: Eleanor Roosevelt was a proponent of the 1933 Federal Subsistence Homestead Division, a $25 million program that was part of the overall National Industrial Recovery Act. Administered by the Department of Interior, it helped resettle communities where a workforce in a predominant occupation had been devastated by the economic turndown. After an August 1933 inspection tour of Scott’s Run, West Virginia, which was predominated by the coal mining industry, she witnessed the extreme poverty caused by unemployment and under-employment, and its many resulting affects. The urge to provide a viable life and relief to the coal-mining families there led to her unofficially directing what would become the first of the New Deal resettlement projects, located some thirty miles away, in Arthurdale. Witnessing the efforts of the private charity group, the American Friends Service Committee to provide self-help programs there, she discussed the effort with the President and he had it established as a federal project. Feeling a sense of personal responsibility to help the impoverished coal-mining families as soon as possible, the First Lady used her clout to have Arthurdale functioning as quickly as possible. Within months some fifty prefabricated houses were bought and delivered to the site – only to find they did not fit the foundations. At great expense, an architect was hired to adapt the houses. The First Lady’s insistence that the houses be equipped with modern plumbing, electricity and refrigeration was then seen as a luxury in that era. Co-operative farming, crafts production, and other small industry were established, though proved less lucrative than hoped. She successfully sought private donations to establish a hospital and clinic but a General Electric operation of a vacuum cleaner assembly plant failed. Critics in Congress managed to defeat a Public Works Administration allocation for a post office equipment factory. Eleanor Roosevelt’s so-called “baby,” Arthurdale was a mixed success. She was unable to convince administrators to include African-Americans in the new community. Although it provided quality housing, it was not until defense industry was established there, during the war-preparedness era that the unemployment problems become alleviated. She nevertheless remained committed to the community, particularly the school system which she helped establish through private donations. She further visited other federal homesteads, illustrating her belief in their essential soundness as a method of helping people helping themselves.
Labor: Eleanor Roosevelt was a strong supporter of labor unions, though she refused to be seen as a foe of industry. Instead, she sought to encourage mediation over striking. As a working newspaper columnist, Eleanor Roosevelt joined the American Newspaper Guild, the first known First Lady to join a labor union. She would be elected, on a write-in vote, as a delegate to the local Industrial Union Council but with the claim that it was dominated by communist interests, she declined and privately urged the guild to disassociate with the council.
Traditional Role: Eleanor Roosevelt revered and continued most of the traditional aspects of the First Lady’s role. Initially, she felt that the task of shaking hands and hosting tea receptions as her Social Secretary Edith Helm had urged her to do. In short order, however, she came to respect the value which the public placed on her as a living symbol, along with the often lifetime impression of being received in the mansion. Continuing a custom practiced within her own elite family, Eleanor Roosevelt also enjoyed pouring tea for private callers in the presidential living quarters –most of whom came not to make a social visit but rather to discuss pending policy or lobby for reform, legislation or raise issues they wished to get the President’s attention. She also often greeted guests herself at the White House north portico entrance door, whether they were there for a social call or business meeting. As First Lady, she also chose forms of entertainment at receptions, dinners and other social events which reflected more fully the spectrum of the diverse American popular culture – such as her famously serving hot dogs to the King and Queen of England, and inviting modern dance choreographer Martha Graham to have her troupe perform in the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt’s interest in the arts was not that of a connoisseur but of one who believed in the value of music, dancing, film, poetry, painting, theater and architecture to a general society and to the emotional health and well-being of the individual and this was more firmly expressed in her support of the various arts programs of the WPA than in any innovations she undertook in the mansion itself. As a housekeeper, she once recalled having dusty draperies pointed out to her, but felt that there were more pressing matters competing for her time than refurbishing the house. She did take particular pride in her renovation of one room in the mansion, a third floor sitting room which she outfitted with furniture made by the Val-Kill factory which she had founded and managed. Her interest in the quality of food served in the house was also limited, her husband famously complaining about the blandness of meals served to even him. While she may be among the few First Ladies who regularly cooked – she ritualistically liked to make a large chafing dish of scrambled eggs on Sundays, it was as a sociable venue for her meetings and conferences on serious matters. As for her personal appearance, she was as comfortable appearing in public wearing a hairnet and riding pants as she was in new and expensive gowns on state occasions. She sometimes ordered a dress she liked in several colors to save time, she was also voted among the best-dressed women at different points during her White House tenure and took pride in this. She also accepted clothes at reduced rates in trade for permitting the stores to advertise her patronage by printing pictures of her in their items. While she might be said to have exemplified her own unique style with signature items such as her small veiled hats and fur-collar neckpieces, she was following popular looks of her era, rather than seeking to popularize her own fashions for others.
Personal Life: Although Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt maintained increasingly separate orbits of activities and friendships as the Roosevelt Administration endured, they remained mutually committed to each other as partners with a loving past, and continued to share the same general values in terms of how to best get the nation through the Great Depression and then World War II. Their family life was also of obvious mutual interests. Despite the numerous marriages and divorces of her four adult sons and one daughter, the First Lady never permitted her disappointments in their personal lives change her strong commitment to their well-being, making arrangements to see them all, even if it meant extensive travel to do so. When the Roosevelts moved into the White House in 1933, Anna Dall was going through a divorce and came to live there with her two young children. Eleanor Roosevelt spent much of her leisure time in her first year as First Lady with her two grandchildren,, popularly known as “Sistie and her daughter Buzzie.” Throughout the Administration, other grandchildren would also come to live briefly in the White House. The First Lady had especially strong friendships, most notably with the former reporter Lorena Hickok, and a former New York State trooper Earl Miller. Both of them would later be romantically linked to the First Lady. In the case of Lorena Hickock, there is an extensive archive of personal letters between the two women that does indicate an intense emotional relationship at the least. For periods during the first two Roosevelt terms, Hickok lived at the White House.
1940 Democratic National Convention: FDR ran for an unprecedented third presidential term in 1940. Roosevelt’s preference for his vice-presidential candidate, Henry Wallace, nevertheless created discord at the convention which nominated him that year, being held in Chicago - even from the president’s own campaign manager. To calm the growing discontent and call for party unity, the President called on his wife – who was then relaxing at their Hyde Park estate. Within hours, she managed to get a plane to fly her to Chicago, where she was driven directly to the convention hall. She then addressed the delegates, becoming the first First Lady to do so. She declared that they were living in “no ordinary time” – a reference less to the third presidential term and more to the vigilance necessary as the nation prepared to become involved in the world war.
World War II:
Eleanor Roosevelt would become an important symbol during World War II. Whether as the mother of four sons who were active servicemen, putting the entire White House system on the same food and gas rationing system as the rest of the country, participating in air raids and learning how to use a gas mask, she made certain that her life in the White House mirrored that of the general population. She had a victory garden planted on the South Lawn – as many citizens did on their lawns. She made frequent radio appeals for donations of money and blood to the Red Cross. Her multitude of volunteer wartime efforts also reflected the war work of American women, particularly in factories and other jobs that had been held by men who were now serving overseas. Throughout the war, in her remarks and writings, she continually underlined the purposes of democracy as the driving force for the sacrifices being made. In both the pre-war and war periods, she especially spoke out in strong language against the tyranny of fascism. She opposed the U.S. neutrality during the Spanish civil war, supporting the Loyalist government against the fascist uprising led by General Francisco Franco. She was a frequent public critic of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini – and they in turn would attack her in their broadcasts. She also kept a long-view on decisions that would affect post-war life as well, opposing FDR, for example, who supported the construction of temporary housing structures that would be destroyed after their use. The First Lady believed that structures made to last would aid in later public housing needs.
War-Preparedness and European Refugees: By 1940, America’s strongest European ally, England was at war with Nazi Germany, and the Roosevelts believed that U.S. involvement was inevitable. One of the First Lady’s greatest concerns during this period was the welfare of refugees – whether they be those seeking escape from Spain’s civil war or Jewish families in Holland. Increasingly, the First Lady received letters from around the world seeking her help in finding relatives dislocated by the war. She also participated in publicity for Bundles for Britain and the British War Relief Society, charity organizations which provided clothing in the war-torn nation. She conducted her work both within the federal government, as well as with private organizations like the Emergency Rescue Committee and the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children. During the war, her advocacy on behalf of refugees continued and she openly disagreed with the State Department’s chief of visa operations Breckinridge Long who vigorously opposed any change in immigration restrictions. Forced to help refugees immigrate to the U.S. on a case-by-case basis substantially slowed to a trickle the number of appeals she was able to facilitate into entrance visa. Despite lobbying Congress, she also failed to help push through the Child Refugee Bill which intended to permit 10,000 more children a year over an existing quota from Germany.
Office of Civilian Defense: Although the job was unsalaried, Eleanor Roosevelt became the first First Lady to take a official job during her incumbency, when she went to work as the assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense on September 22, 1941. While the director, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia directed efforts to obtain and stockpile fire department and other emergency supplies, in anticipation of potential attacks on the U.S., his other assistant director took charge of physical fitness and training. It was Eleanor Roosevelt’s job to foment a national volunteer force to work on the home front, rallied by the call of patriotism and to further ensure that the types of work they would be trained for would be viable for civilian defense. Usually walking to the office, located about ten blocks away on Washington’s Dupont Circle, the First Lady hired her friend, the dancer Mayris Chaney, to develop a calisthenics program for children if they were constricted to bomb shelters – but she also taught recreational dancing to the Washington staff of the OCD. In addition, the First Lady’s friends Joseph Lash and Melvyn Douglas were both appointed to committee positions and drew federal stipends. In short order the “fan dancer” and the First Lady’s “boondoggle” hit headlines and enraged members of Congress. The unrelenting criticism of her maintaining the job, both in Congress and the media, began to damage the OCD’s viability at a time when it was being reorganized in the first weeks following American entry into the war.. After a period of just five months, she felt she had no choice but to resign, believing future presidential spouses who might also do so would inevitably suffer the same criticisms.
Japanese-American Internment and The Holocaust: Eleanor Roosevelt was emotionally troubled by the Roosevelt Administration’s February 1942 policy of interning Japanese-Americans in ten relocation camps in western states. The decision was based on claims that members of the minority group were spying on behalf of Japanese interests and intended to sabotage American defense efforts. The First Lady initially voiced her vigorous protest to the plan in public, and soon enlisted the Attorney General to fight the policy with the President. With public sentiment vigorously anti-Japanese, however, she lost her case, focusing then on their processing, making as certain as she could that they were evacuated from their homes with a semblance of dignity, and that families were kept together. Rapidly, she intervened with the War Relocation Authority to begin helping individuals to secure early releases from the camps. Further, she helped to facilitate access to the frozen bank accounts of and by Japanese citizens who’d been denied citizenship. In April 1943, she visited one camp in Arizona on the urging of FDR when demonstration were held there,. By November of that year, her disgust and shame at the camps seemed to have had some influence on FDR for he approved plans to begin letting individuals be given exit permits, though he maintained the general policy until after he had won his fourth presidential election, in 1944. As early as 1935, Eleanor Roosevelt was receiving word directly from friends in Europe about the increasing mistreatment, harassment and threats to Jews by the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. While she continued to try and facilitate refugee status for individuals, she found resistance within the State Department to support of the Wagner-Rogers Bill which would have permitted Jewish children to emigrate to the United States. As she learned directly of the systematic murder of Jews began, the First Lady was unsuccessful in convincing her husband to make their rescue a priority of war. Still, she did not refrain from seeking to raise American public attention to the crisis, joining with Jewish-American leaders in their speaking tours and attending a benefit performance intended to raise sympathy for the victims who remained in concentration camps.
Women’s War Work: In large part, at least initially, Eleanor Roosevelt’s public activities during the war preparedness and wartime periods were intended to set an example for American women’s involvement in the effort. As men left jobs to join the service, women found themselves assuming mechanical and other professions traditionally held by men, the First Lady introduced a government information film that was shown widely in across the nation’s movie theaters. She was largely successful in making the case to private industry who were government contractors that the so-called “Rosie the Riveters,” in factories should provide day care centers for those working women who also had the responsibilities of motherhood to young children, as well as in-house eating facilities and a grocery vendor who could bring food and other household needs to sell at the factories - sparing women the extra time to shop. Despite her lobbying in favor of women workers receiving the same pay for the same work done by their male co-workers, however, she was unable to prompt any federal law ensuring this. She continued to serve as a point of help to those women who found themselves discriminated against in either industry or the service, such as her investigating discrimination against individual African-Americans at a Women's Auxiliary Army Corps base in Des Moines, Iowa. Believing strongly in the ability of women to also perform active duty in supportive roles, if not in direct combat, she was an early proponent of the Women’s Air Service Pilot program, forging an alliance with its initiator, the aviator Jackie Cochran, and its military sponsor, General Harold Arnold.
Fair Employment Practices Commission and African-American Servicemen: Perhaps the one piece of legislation that she influenced which had the greatest and most lasting impact was the Fair Employment Practices Commission. It had come about when NAACP President Walter White and the President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters A. Philip Randolph demanded through her that the President that racially discriminatory policies in the defense industry and the armed forces desegregated. Otherwise, they threatened to call a massive protest march in Washington. Through the First Lady’s persistent imploring, the President issued Executive Order 8802 to create a Committee on Fair Employment Practices, on 25 June 1941. It banned employment discrimination by both the federal government and defense contractors based on “race, creed, color or national origin.” It also established the commission, which oversaw that industries complied with the law. In turn, the protest plans were canceled. Eleanor Roosevelt had felt strongly that the Armed Forces should be desegregated, but short of that, she did all she could on behalf of individuals servicemen who alerted her to cases of discrimination. She also sought ways to illustrate the equal bravery and competence of African-Americans in the service. Perhaps her single greatest contribution in this area was her simply appearance being flown in a plane by black pilots in a successful effort to give credibility to the Tuskegee Airmen’s participation in the war. In no uncertain terms, however, did Eleanor Roosevelt accept the legitimacy of a segregated armed services: she directly equated American racism with Nazi Aryanism.
Red Cross Representative: Having served as honorary vice chair of the Red Cross since her first year as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt became increasingly involved in recommending internal improvements to the organization and publicly leading blood donation and fundraising drives during the war. When she made overseas trips, she visited Red Cross units to ensure that servicemen were receiving all they needed, and she wore the organization’s uniform on her South Pacific trip in 1943 as its unsalaried representative.
Wartime Travels: Invited by the Queen of England to review the wartime work of English women, Eleanor Roosevelt went to England from October 21 to November 17, 1942, making her the first incumbent First Lady to a make lenghy trip outside of the U.S. without the President (Ida McKinley had briefly visited Mexico in May of 1901 for a breakfast gathering and Edith Wilson had joined President Wilson for his post-World War I trip to Europe). She visited U.S. serviceman, including segregated African-American troops, reporting to the President on needed improvements in recreational facilities and other needs that were not being met. She also became the first First Lady to broadcast a message to foreign people, delivering a radio address on the BBC. She made her second international trip from August 17 to September 24, 1943 as a representative of the Red Cross, to the South Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia. She went not only to also assess the unique tropical conditions the servicemen endured but also improve relations with the Australian government. She would see about 400,000 American servicemen at bases and hospitals, including a stop at Gaudalcanal. The second trip engendered public criticism that she had no right to travel so widely in wartime when others were limited, and that she had no right to wear the Red Cross uniform since she’d never received their requisite training. When she made her third wartime overseas trip from March 4-28, 1944, to bases in the Caribbean basin, she did not wear the uniform.
Friend of the G.I.: In large part as a result of her international trips to visit U.S. servicemen, where she spent hours at hospital bedsides and joined in all meals in the mess halls, Eleanor Roosevelt forged many personal friendships with individual members of the various services. She carried on personal correspondence with them but also following up on their reports of problems or irregularities in the system. She also reviewed the routine letters sent by the President to families of the military who were killed in action and had them redrafted with a more humane tone. As an editorial in the Army’s newspaper Stars and Stripes observed, this woman whose own four sons were all on active duty, resembled their own mothers back home and that many came to think of and respond to her as such.
Life After the White House
Shortly after she left the White House, the widowed Eleanor Roosevelt told reporters, “The story is over,” about herself. She returned to her home “Val-Kill,” located near the more famous Hyde Park estate of her late husband, soon turned into a museum. She also maintained a series of residences for the rest of her life in New York City, She continued to be a familiar public figure in national life, writing books, her newspaper and magazine columns, moving her commentaries from radio to television, and delivering speeches. . Her activities were largely in the areas of international peace and civil rights.
United Nations: With her proven dedication to global peace, Eleanor Roosevelt accepted the appointment by President Harry Truman to serve as the only woman among the five American delegates to the newly-created United Nations in December of 1945. She was in attendance at the historic first meeting of the institution in London, in January of 1946. The State Department’s Office of Special Political Affairs declared that Eleanor Roosevelt was exceedingly successful in her new role, helping forge international support in the General Assembly for nearly all American proposals. Eleanor Roosevelt became an unrelenting advocate for millions of oppressed and tyrannized peoples, calling on European colonial powers to grant independence to countries they conquered, advocating the creation of Israel as a Jewish homeland (which was a view that had evolved from her earlier lack of support for Zionism), and reminding the free world of the oppressions suffered by those who lived under repressive communist and socialist rule. She stood firmly against the Soviets by pressing for the resettlement of refugees whom that nation claimed were political enemies of the state and must be repatriated. By her leadership, the Soviet intentions were denied in the General Assembly. Certainly, the most enduring legacy of her life was her drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a result of her being initially assigned to the Social, Humanitarian and Culture Committee at the U.N. She wrote and edited portions of the document, managing to strike enough of a general balance that had relevance to the widely divergent cultures of the many nations, and won her own country’s support of the document. In her later capacity as the Human Rights Commission chair, she presented the declaration to the U.N. General Assembly on 10 December 1948, which then passed it. The document remains as the principal guide to assessing a country’s treatment of its people. Despite losing her job when the Republicans regained the White House in 1952, she proved her commitment to her belief in the U.N.’s vital role in the postwar world by working without salary as a spokesperson of the American Association of the United Nations. In this role, she espoused the values of the U.N. throughout the United States.
Democratic Party: Although she resisted various suggestions that she run for public office herself, Eleanor Roosevelt remained deeply enmeshed in national Democratic Party activities, becoming one of the most powerful figures within it – though without title or salary. Always loyal to the party and friendly with her husband’s successor, Eleanor Roosevelt did not refrain from disagreeing with Truman. She was disappointed that he had not continued to fight for health care coverage once it was defeated and for his support of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Bill, which she opposed. On the other hand, she stood proudly with him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in July of 1947, when he became the first President to address the NAACP. Her support for and attendance at the first convention of the liberal anti-communist organization Americans For Democratic Action, founded in January 1947, gave it the necessary prestige to establish itself as a powerful organization. When it was later under attack by Senator Joseph McCarthy, she associated herself more widely with the ADA. Throughout the 1950’s, she would urge the ADA to adopt more moderate stances on issues like civil rights, not because her commitment had flagged but because she wished to avoid a deep schism within the Democratic party between northern liberals and southern conservatives. She attended the Democratic conventions in 1952 and 1956 in support of Adlai Stevenson and in 1960 in support of John F. Kennedy.
Civil and Equal Rights: Eleanor Roosevelt’s commitment to civil rights only increased after she left the White House. She successfully backed an effort to create the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and worked as a board member of the NAACP, among other civil rights organizations. She defied the threats of the Ku Klux Klan to deliver a speech to activists at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, and visited civil rights worker incarcerated for participating in protests. She criticized the Eisenhower Administration as being too passive in the civil rights struggle and helped fundraise for those civil rights activists who employed nonviolent civil disobedience, most notably doing so with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks tot sustain the boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama bus system because it remained rigidly segregated. She also proved instrumental in helping to make permanent the wartime Fair Employment Practices Committee which outlawed racial discrimination in federal employment or that with federal contractors. It was not just the rights of African-Americans that continued to concern her. Increasingly pro-labor, the former First Lady served as the co-chair of a fundraiser for striking union members, organized by the National Citizens Political Action Committee. Eleanor Roosevelt testified a last time before Congress in April 1962 in support of legislation that would guarantee gender pay equity. She also came to eventually support the Equal Rights Amendment, dropping her previous reservations about it. Her last official role was as chair of President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, which she chaired, delivering its report in December 1961.
Communism: Having no illusions about the human cost of the communist system, Eleanor Roosevelt viewed Soviet and Eastern European leaders and their intentions with a jaundiced eye, but believed strongly that continuing dialogue with them was vital. Opponents of this view often cast her throughout the 1950’s as a secret communist, or at least sympathetic to the socialism, charges she had encountered as First Lady. She was a leading and, at times, lone voice of concern about civil liberties as Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted his hearings seeking out those who might have communist sympathies within the government.
Global Issues and Travel: Both in her capacity as a UN representative and with her status as a former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt spent much of the twenty-two years between leaving the White House and her death in global travel. In the immediate postwar years, she toured refugee camps of displaced Jews in the former Nazi Germany and of Palestinians in Jordan who had been displaced by the creation of Israel . Besides revisiting many of the European nations she had been to in earlier years, she also made her first forays to all of the Scandanavian countries, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Pakistan, India, Chile, the Philippines, Nepal, Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Morocco, The Soviet Union, and Iran. In 1953, she visited the site of Hiroshima, where the Americans had dropped the atomic bomb. Two years later, again in Asia, she also visited and the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The Kennedy Administration: Eleanor Roosevelt assumed an active role in the first Democratic Administration since Harry Truman’s. Besides her role as chair of the president’s commission on the Status of Women, she would serve on the Peace Corps Advisory Board, chair a public hearing on violence against civil rights workers, and co-chair the Tractors for Freedom Committee to expedite the release of Americans held prisoner in Cuba after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. In 1961 Eleanor and seven other former and future First Ladies, attended Kennedy’s inauguration.
Personal Life: Although she remained a widow, Eleanor Roosevelt did develop close emotional relationships that sustained and provided a depth of happiness in her personal life. The two men to whom she drew especially close were both married – Joseph P. Lash and her doctor, David Gurewitsch, and she also grew close to their wives, Trude and Edna, respectively. She often travelled with the couples. Her closeness to her doctor proved especially helpful after she was diagnosed and lived with aplastic anemia and tuberculosis for the last two years of her life.
Death and Burial:
November 7, 1962
Age: 78 years, 27 days
Burial: Hyde Park, N.Y.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral was the first to be attended by multiple First Ladies: Bess Truman, Jacqueline Kennedy and (future First Lady) Lady Bird Johnson, establishing a precedent for those who died chronologically after her.