“Do what you feel in your heart to be right—for you’ll be criticized anyway.” Eleanor Roosevelt spoke these words from experience. During her years in public service, she was often criticized for her progressive and democratic opinions. While her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was initiating the New Deal policies that would enable the nation to recover from the Great Depression, Eleanor was breaking ground in race relations, women’s rights and international diplomacy. Her words of wisdom and determination are still an inspiration to Americans of all ages.
“I think I have a good deal of my Uncle Theodore in me, because I could not, at any age, be content to take my place by the fireside and simply look on.”
Eleanor Roosevelt was born in 1884 in New York City to a wealthy family with a firm position in New York high society. But her childhood was anything but idyllic. After her mother died from diphtheria in 1892 and her father died from complications from alcoholism in 1894, young Eleanor and her surviving siblings were sent to live with their maternal grandmother. She was educated at an English finishing school by a progressive feminist educator, who enhanced Eleanor’s self-confidence and social grace.
At 17, while her uncle Theodore Roosevelt was serving as president of the United States, Eleanor met her distant cousin, Franklin. They married in 1905 and later had six children. Franklin Roosevelt first gave his famous fireside chats while was governor of New York in 1929. He later used them to great success as a way to reach a wide radio audience during his presidency. While Eleanor often agreed with her husband’s policies, she was not a passive bystander, as her aunt had been during Theodore Roosevelt’s terms in the White House. Instead, she made a name for herself a public reformer in her own right.
“You get more joy out of the giving to others, and should put a good deal of thought into the happiness you are able to give.”
When Eleanor’s husband entered the political arena, she was a great ally in his efforts to institute reform while winning both public and political approval. In 1921, Franklin suffered a paralytic illness, and she committed herself to his care. She also began serving as his stand-in at public appearances, helping maintain his status in the Democratic Party.
During the 1920s, Eleanor began working with the Women’s Trade Union League to raise money in support of its goals, which included a 48-hour workweek, minimum wage and the abolition of child labor. Her prominent standing with Democratic women helped her husband gain their support and win the governor’s race in New York. Meanwhile, Eleanor taught literature and American history at the Todhunter School for Girls in New York City.
“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves.”
Throughout the 1920s, she engaged in an active speaking agenda, an unusual role for a woman at that time and unprecedented for a first lady. She spoke out in favor of labor unions, racial equality and women’s rights. Her business- and social-reform activities after the Roosevelts moved into the White House. Eleanor was the first lady to hold weekly press conferences for female journalists, and she wrote a syndicated column called “My Day.”
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
The FBI file on Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the largest in J. Edgar Hoover’s collection. He was suspicious of her affiliation with liberal groups like the American Youth Congress, her outspoken opposition to segregation and lynching and her staunch support of free speech. Her file contained records of her activities and correspondence, charges against her as a communist and even threats to her life.
Eleanor denounced Hoover’s methods and wrote angry letters protesting the FBI’s investigations of her friends and business associates. Her objections did not keep the file from growing; at the time of her death, it held more than 3,000 pages.
“One of the best ways of enslaving a people is to keep them from education.”
Eleanor was much more outspoken than her husband on the issue of racial equality. She was a strong supporter of improving education for African-Americans. Her activity for the civil rights movement included speaking engagements at African-American institutions and public support of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. She caused outrage among conservative groups when she appointed an African-American woman to be head of the Division of Negro Affairs.
Later, Eleanor was the first and, to date, the only first lady to receive honorary membership in the respected sorority for African- American women, Alpha Kappa Alpha.
“When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.”
Eleanor continued her efforts for social reform after her husband’s death in 1945. The following year, President Truman appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. She served as the chair for the U.N. Human Rights Commission that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Roosevelt resigned her U.N. position in 1953.
But she continued to be active in politics well into her 70s. She was a strong supporter of the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960 and later chaired the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. She was also appointed by President Kennedy to the National Advisory Committee of the Peace Corps.
Over her lifetime, Eleanor was awarded 35 honorary degrees and the United Nations Human Rights Prize. When she passed away in 1962, her memorial service was attended by President Kennedy and former Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. This woman, who had lived a life of privilege and heartache, had become one of the most admired fi gures in American history. As Adlai Stevenson said at her memorial, “She would rather light candles than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.”