Throughout her life, Eleanor Roosevelt found herself adjusting constantly to change. From a young age, she was aware of her surroundings and of the disparities between classes. This would eventually move her to use her popularity and her social status to fight for women’s rights, economic and industrial equality, equal human rights, and global acceptance. Her persistence in helping the less fortunate was relentless and continued throughout her life right up to her death. Her support of her husband throughout his political career and medical struggles was well documented in her writings. And although Eleanor’s tenure as First Lady was cut short due to FDR’s sudden death, she did not stop championing for human rights globally.
Eleanor Roosevelt: New York First Lady
Eleanor Roosevelt had a long and remarkably busy life. In her early years, she learned much about civil rights and economics and often engaged in conversations about social and political reform. She taught at the Todhunter School, an arts and music preparatory school, and helped to employ the jobless through her creation of a local furniture factory, Val-Kill, in New York. She was smart, skilled, and capable, thus becoming one of her husband’s most trusted and influential advisors. She inserted herself publicly, using her social status and her vast knowledge of current events to help neutralize the social disparities that occurred prior to and during World War II in the United States.
Before she was First Lady of the United States, Eleanor was First Lady of the state of New York. In 1928, she worked with Governor Al Smith’s campaign and was able to convince FDR to run as his successor. Eleanor was already well-educated in social reform and worked with state and national causes. She now had to focus on avoiding any conflicts of interest as the wife of the Governor of New York.
She spent the majority of her time between Albany and New York City, continuing to own and run her furniture company Val-Kill and teaching at Todhunter. It was during this time that Eleanor hired an aide to assist her with scheduling, correspondence, and travel arrangements. Malvina “Tommy” Thompson would become an indispensable part of Eleanor’s day-to-day life. Eleanor realized she had a larger social platform to utilize and began to advocate more actively for the development of a woman’s role in society. She firmly believed that women should not just be dutiful mothers and wives, but have interests, hobbies, and talents outside of their traditional roles.
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Additionally, she became much more specific in her political activities as the governor’s wife. She continued to advocate for many women’s rights clubs and organizations. The increase in political activity also lent itself to an increase in fundraising for the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Activities Committee, a group in which she was extremely active and took on prominent roles.
As time went on and her political acumen continued to grow, she began to substitute for her husband at political meetings and conferences. Often, she would fill in at events when FDR’s polio symptoms made it impossible for him to be present or if he had other commitments to attend to.
It’s important to note that during this time, FDR’s paralysis was kept out of the media spotlight and was thus unknown to most Americans. She was effectively his right-hand woman and his eyes and ears on the ground. She took this role very seriously and began to inspect public buildings such as homes for the elderly, schools, and orphanages for negligence or non-compliance with state-mandated regulations. Instead of taking the word of the director of the institute or building, she would see for herself how it was run.
The Roosevelts in the White House
Having a firsthand look through her Uncle Theodore and Aunt Edith, Eleanor was quite aware of the strain the presidency would take on both her and her husband. However, she believed FDR would be able to guide the nation through the Great Depression and onto better times. Thus, she had a large part in his campaign management and his media interactions. She did, however, draw the line at speeches during the campaign, insisting that was her husband’s duty and not hers. She attended the National Democratic Committee’s convention, where her husband received the party nomination for President. Shortly thereafter, she became the fourth woman in history to successfully vote for her husband for president.
Due to FDR’s unprecedented four terms in office, no other woman would serve as First Lady as long as Eleanor. She would become the first and only First Lady to serve through two major events in US History, the Great Depression and World War II. Since FDR’s polio condition was still unknown and hidden from the public, her role became even more important. She had to perform the household management of the White House, entertain state and foreign dignitaries, and somehow integrate herself into his daily routine to aid in his administration. Entering her role as First Lady during the Great Depression was difficult, but Eleanor ignored her critics and pushed forward, focusing on the lives and needs of millions of Americans.
The Roosevelts Make their Mark on the Media
Franklin and Eleanor both saw the potential of using the media in a positive way during the Great Depression and when the US entered World War II. While FDR held his weekly “Fireside Chats” on the radio, addressing the nation and trying to calm their worry, Eleanor took a different approach. Two days after becoming First Lady, she had her first of 348 press conferences. They would focus on the news of the moment, whether it be the crisis in Europe, housing problems, or general welfare issues. What was unusual for these press conferences wasn’t the topic, but rather the attendees. Eleanor’s press conferences were only open to women. This created a unique opportunity to secure jobs for women as reporters in the mostly male-dominated world of publication. As noted in her biography on the National First Ladies Library website, this practice of ladies only “proved to be crucial in establishing women reporters as part of the permanent and modern White House Press Corps.”
She furthered her domination of the press by creating a newspaper column called “My Day,” which grew in popularity quickly. Three years into her column, which she wrote six days a week, she had over four million readers. And although the column was placed in the women’s section of the newspaper, away from the economics and political issues, it was still widely regarded as an important read. This column, although written in a blunt and very dry form, helped to cultivate her image to the American people as accessible and average, a spouse and parent, just like them.
In addition to her newspaper columns and ladies-only press conferences, she continued to write articles for magazines, authored multiple books, including her autobiography, and also engaged in lectures and public speaking. She hosted her own radio shows, where she secured advertisers and used their payments for charity donations, and she even ventured into the film industry, mostly for war-related and public service messages.
World War II
On the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Eleanor’s regular evening radio broadcast was set to air. It would be, possibly, the most important radio broadcast she would complete. With the US devastated by the attack and knowing it was inevitable that they would have to join the war, many listened to her discussion that evening. She was able to speak to the people about what it would mean to go to war again and what changes would be likely at home and abroad. As a mother of four service-age sons already active in the service, she put the entire White House on the same food and gas rationing system as the rest of the country. She planted a victory garden on the South Lawn and made frequent radio appeals for donations of blood and money to the Red Cross.
During the war, the Roosevelt Administration issued a policy of interning all Japanese- Americans in relocation camps on the West Coast. Eleanor was deeply bothered by this action, imploring the President to reconsider. But due to anti-Japanese sentiment, she lost the argument and instead turned her focus to ensuring that the evacuation and treatment of these interned citizens were done with dignity and respect. After visiting one camp in Arizona in 1943, she was so distraught over the conditions that she took her findings back to the President. He, in turn, began creating plans for exit permits and release from the camps.
Another important role she played during the war was to show the public the importance of support for the troops. As the men joined the service and left for war across seas, women were left to do the jobs they had left behind, including mechanical and skilled trade labor. Private industry contractors took advice from Eleanor and began providing benefits for these women, who were working to support the family while still playing the roles of mother and housekeeper.
On April 12, 1945, tragedy struck the Roosevelts. FDR suffered a brain hemorrhage and died suddenly. His health had been deteriorating, but he had been adamant he was fine and refused to discuss his medical condition with family or friends. Thus, the Roosevelt era, just into its fourth term, ended abruptly. Eleanor was immediately tasked with burying her husband as well as moving out of the White House.
Eleanor Roosevelt: Post White House Years & the United Nations
After FDR’s death, Eleanor expressed her sadness to reporters, indicating that her role in public affairs was no longer viable. And yet, she would have no idea of the amazing diplomacy she would affect in the years to come. She returned to her Hyde Park estate in New York and continued to write and deliver speeches. Instead of American policy, her focus turned to international peace and civil rights.
FDR’s successor Harry Truman appointed Eleanor to serve as the only woman on the American delegation of the United Nations in December of 1945. She was welcomed warmly and fit well into the role, helping to forge connections between American proposals and policies and international support. She transitioned from that role to advocate for people that were suffering from oppression and tyranny around the world, especially those under communist and socialist rule.
Eleanor’s most positive impact while serving on the United Nations committee was still to come. While serving on the UN sub-committee for Social, Humanitarian, and Culture Committee, she wrote and edited portions of a document that would have widespread effects. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a fundamental guide to human rights to be universally protected, the document was her crown jewel. She presented it to the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, and it was passed. And while she would not remain with the UN past Truman’s term, she had made a solid statement about her commitment to human rights.
Roosevelt remained a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party, often showing her approval of the candidates set forth. And although she was encouraged to run for office herself, she remained loyal to the party and the candidates regardless of whether she agreed with all of their policies. She continued to push for civil rights, criticizing the Eisenhower Administration for being too lax on the issues of civil obedience and non-violence.
When John F. Kennedy took office in 1960, he appointed her to the Commission on the Status of Women, chairing the committee and pushing for equality in gender, pay, and eventually, the Equal Rights Amendment. In addition to the Commission on the Status of Women, she would also serve on the Peace Corps Advisory Board at the request of President Kennedy.
Her death in 1962 was a blow to the American and global community, ending a lifelong resolve to strive for greatness. Her roles as a governor’s wife, a president’s wife, and a humanitarian grew exponentially throughout her life. Her positive outlook and willingness to help those less fortunate would be a central focus of her legacy. Eleanor Roosevelt may have just changed the role of a political woman forever with her trailblazing direction.