Eleanor Roosevelt’s Early Life: The Beginning of Her Legacy

Eleanor Roosevelt was a first lady, a diplomat, a civil rights advocate, and a wife. Her early years helped develop her into a tactful diplomat, eventually leaving a lasting legacy.

Jul 21, 2023By Christine Cappola, MA US History, BA History

eleanor roosevelt early years


From early on in life, it was clear Eleanor Roosevelt was smart and able to learn quickly. And while her first decade of life was wrought with sadness and loss, she had a strong family to support her and push her in the right direction. This is apparent from her ability to learn so quickly from her personal tutor to her exceptional learning experiences in London at the Allenswood Academy. And it became even more evident as she began to align herself with politics, human rights, and reform groups. Meeting her cousin and future husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, only increased and encouraged her thirst for knowledge and improvement in all of these areas.


Eleanor Roosevelt’s Childhood & Early Life

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Eleanor Roosevelt as a child, via Good Housekeeping


Born Anna Eleanor Roosevelt on October 11, 1884, Eleanor Roosevelt was the niece of 26th President Theodore Roosevelt. Anna’s life was never normal. Her mother, also named Anna, died when she was eight, and her father, Elliott (Theodore’s brother), died when she was just ten years old, leaving her without parents. As the Roosevelts were a well-known and well-to-do family, Anna and her siblings were cared for by her maternal grandmother. She was tutored in the Roosevelt family home in Tivoli, New York. After a few years of lessons, she was able to converse and write well in French, Italian, German, and Spanish.


A tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed young woman, she was sent off to London to a private finishing school named Allenswood Girl’s Academy. Allenswood was run by Marie Souvestre, who Eleanor would later cite as one of her first and greatest influences on her educational and emotional development. Although not offered at the school, Eleanor received private tutoring lessons from Marie in the subjects of history, geography, and philosophy. She also traveled with Marie throughout France and Italy during school breaks. This would inevitably shape her actions in the future, although Eleanor likely had no idea the impact that these visits would have.


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Eleanor in 1902 making her debut on the New York social scene, via National First Ladies Library


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In 1902, at her grandmother’s insistence, she returned to the United States and debuted in New York social society. Yet, she became active in social reform during the Progressive era. She was influenced by her uncle Theodore and his reform-oriented policies. Through his influence, she came to understand the social and economic differences between the classes within the US and how political reform could facilitate fairness and equality.


Instead of becoming a social debutante, she became a social reformist, with the hopes of helping the impoverished, as well as helping to standardize living and working conditions. She joined fellow social reformer debutantes in the Junior League and taught at settlement houses. She would eventually become a volunteer investigator for the reform organization the National Consumer League, visiting dangerous and unhealthy tenement apartments and sweatshops.


Marriage to Franklin Roosevelt

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Eleanor Roosevelt on her wedding day, via the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC


During a train trip back to the Roosevelt family home in the Hudson Valley, Eleanor engaged in a deep and meaningful conversation with a fellow traveler. It happened to be a distant cousin and Harvard student, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She was instantly smitten, and a secret courtship led to an engagement. FDR’s mother, Sara Roosevelt, believed the couple to be too young to marry and insisted upon a separation. But the courtship continued, and eventually, Sara conceded to allow the couple to be married. At the age of 20, Eleanor married Franklin in March 1905. He was just 22 and still an undergraduate student at Harvard University. Since Eleanor’s parents were both deceased, her uncle Theodore walked her down the aisle and gave her away to Franklin, who was her fifth cousin once removed.


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Roosevelt Family portrait, via National Parks Service


Soon after the marriage took place, the happy couple welcomed children, having one daughter and five sons in a span of ten years. Their first home was chosen entirely (staff, interior, location) by Franklin’s mother, Sara. Ever the oppressive mother-in-law, she then secured them a second townhome adjacent to hers. She even went so far as to have doors installed that connected her house with Franklin and Eleanor’s. She attempted to dominate every aspect of their newly married life and run both households.  Despite her overbearing mother-in-law, the home in New York City remained Eleanor’s primary residence through the first eight years of her role as First Lady. She eventually sold the home to Hunter College to be used as a student center.


Once FDR had graduated from Harvard, he spent two years studying law at Columbia and then worked as an attorney on Wall Street in New York City. He was elected twice to the New York State Senate as a representative of Dutchess County in 1910 and again in 1912. After the Roosevelts relocated to the state capital, Albany, Eleanor began to attend political and legislative sessions, where she developed an interest in politics.


The Roosevelts & World War I

Tour of the Navy Yards, via National Archives Catalog


The Roosevelts were beginning to make a name for themselves. In 1913, Franklin was appointed assistant Navy Secretary by President Woodrow Wilson. He would hold this position for seven years.  During this time, Eleanor took part in social visits with other cabinet wives as well as First Lady Ellen Wilson. At Mrs. Wilson’s request, Eleanor began to visit some less-than-pleasant areas of DC. The intention of these outings was to work toward better human rights, by lobbying to demolish and eradicate dangerous and unsanitary living conditions, but the relocation of the displaced individuals was overshadowed by the US entry into World War I.


Eleanor took several volunteer positions in Washington, DC during this time, working for two private organizations that helped provide supplemental care for servicemen and seamen: the Navy Relief Society and the American Red Cross. As the US began sending troops overseas, Eleanor and other political spouses stood in booths at Union Station and passed out sandwiches and coffee to the servicemen departing by train to the East Coast for transport to Europe.


As the servicemen began returning home after the war, they were in need of physical and emotional care. A Navy chaplain reached out to Eleanor and asked her to investigate the rumors of deplorable conditions at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where sailors with mental health issues were sent for treatment upon return from Europe. She found a lack of professionalism as well as a deficiency in supplies needed to run the hospital properly. Eleanor acted immediately, successfully campaigning the Navy Red Cross for a fully furnished recreation center. She was also successful in lobbying the Interior Secretary for the creation of a commission to investigate the facility and improve the conditions there. The commission that was created provided a report to Congress which led to an increase in the hospital’s budget in order to provide the necessary mental care for these battle-tested soldiers.


A Tragic Illness

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The Roosevelts, via Roosevelt Campobello International Park


In 1921, as the Roosevelts had returned to their New York home and Franklin was practicing law once again, tragedy struck. FDR contracted infantile paralysis, otherwise known as Polio. Polio is a debilitating and life-threatening virus that can affect the brain and spinal cord and cause paralysis or even death. Eleanor remained by his side and took charge of his medical care, often acting as his nurse. While he believed he would regain mobility, she did not. She did, however, support his intentions of continuing on in the political world. She firmly believed he would only be happy once he returned to the public arena. This illness, as devastating to Franklin as it was physically, was much more emotionally draining on Eleanor. She found it necessary to act as mother and father to their young children, stepping in to fill the fatherly role when Franklin could not. Fulfilling a promise FDR had made to two of his sons, she accompanied them on a trip to Europe in his absence.


As FDR traveled to Georgia for treatment of his paralysis, one of his secretaries, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, accompanied him as companion and caretaker. She assumed many of the responsibilities Eleanor would have been required to perform, like entertaining guests as well as financial and household management. This small task turned into a huge benefit for Eleanor, as it allowed her to focus on her passion for politics and reform.


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Eleanor with sons Franklin Jr and John on their European trip, via National Park Service


During this time, Eleanor also began writing books, introductions to books, as well as magazine and newspaper articles. Her first publication, an article titled “Common Sense Versus Party Regularity,” was published in the League of Women Voters News Bulletin on September 12, 1921. Her first commercial publication appeared in the Ladies Home Journal in October 1923. Throughout her life, her writing would appear in over one hundred publications, including Time, Good Housekeeping, US News and World Report, and the New York Times.


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Eleanor Roosevelt’s portrait, via National Geographic Kids


Eleanor hadn’t even arrived at the busiest and most prominent time of her life yet, and she was already well accomplished and regarded by citizens and politicians at home and abroad. This would only help catapult her into an even more formidable presence once her husband threw his hat into the national political arena.

Author Image

By Christine CappolaMA US History, BA HistoryChristine is a self-proclaimed history nerd that has a passion for U.S. History. She has earned a BA in History from Empire State College in New York and a MA in US History from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). She is currently a Sr. Clerk for the Village of East Aurora, NY and pursuing her love of history through writing. She spends her free time with family, being a proud hockey and lacrosse mom to her two children and a fur mom to her two dogs. She rarely misses a chance to share her enthusiastic takes on US History with her friends and family.