Eleanor Roosevelt

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This article is about Eleanor Roosevelt. For other uses of the term Roosevelt, please see Roosevelt (disambiguation).

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884 – November 7, 1962), sometimes called ER, was an American politician who used her stature as First Lady from 1933 to 1945 to promote her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, as well as equal rights for blacks. After her husband's death in 1945 she built a career as a New Deal Coalition advocate and spokesperson for human rights. She was a suffragist who worked hard to enhance the status of working women, opposing the Equal Rights Amendment because she believed it would hurt them. In the late 1940s she became a leader in supporting the United Nations, the United Nations Association and Freedom House. She chaired the committee that drafted and approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. President Harry S. Truman called her the First Lady of the World in honor of her extensive human rights promotions. Along with Jane Addams, she was the most prominent American woman of the 20th century.

Early life

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born at 56 West 37th Street in New York City. Her parents were Elliott Roosevelt and Anna Hall Roosevelt. Two brothers, Elliot, Jr. (1889-1983) and Hall Roosevelt (1891-1941) were born later. When Eleanor was eight, her mother died and she and her brothers were sent to live with her maternal grandmother, Mary Ludlow Hall (1843-1919) at her mansion at Tivoli, New York. Just before Eleanor turned ten, her father died of complications of alcoholism. In the fall of 1899, with the encouragement of her paternal aunt Bamie Cowles, it was decided to send Eleanor to Allenswood Academy, a finishing school for young, wealthy American and English women. Under the tutelage of headmistress, Marie Souvestre, Eleanor developed into an independent-thinking, self-confident young woman. Eleanor's first-cousin Corinne Robinson, whose first term at Allenswood overlapped with Eleanor's last said that when she arrived at the school, Eleanor was "everything." During her years as a young woman, Roosevelt claimed her full, 6' height.

Roosevelt returned in 1902 and made her debut in New York high society. She became engaged to Franklin D. Roosevelt (a fifth cousin) in 1903; they were married on March 17, 1905 in New York; her uncle President Theodore Roosevelt gave the bride away.

Six children followed in rapid succession, with all but one surviving infancy. Their children were: Anna Eleanor, James, Franklin (died 1909), Elliott, a second Franklin Delano, and John Aspinwall.

Politics 1914-32

Very shy at first, Eleanor kept a low profile when her husband was Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I. She became more accustomed to the limelight when Franklin was the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1920 (he lost), and when he ran for governor of New York (he won in 1928 and 1930). After he contracted polio she became much more active, serving as his spokesperson at many meetings around the state.

First Lady of the United States: 1933-45

Having seen her aunt, Edith Roosevelt's strict social tension and protocol during her White House years, Eleanor set out on a different venture. She was heavily criticized for continuing the business and social agenda she had begun before becoming First Lady. A woman during that period's primary duties were being a faithful and dedicated housewife and mother. She was the first First Lady to hold weekly press conferences. These were given to female reporters only. Roosevelt maintained a heavy travel schedule over her twelve years in the White House, probably heavier than most presidents up to that time.

During Franklin Roosevelt's terms as President, Eleanor was very vocal about her support of the American Civil Rights Movement (1896-1954) and of African-American rights. Her husband quietly agreed but did not risk alienating the white South until the war began, when he issued powerful civil rights orders, especially FEPC.

World War II

Eleanor Roosevelt was very active on the homefront. With New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia she cochaired a national committee on civil defense. She made innumerable visits to civilian and military centers to boost war morale. She especially supported more opportunities for African Americans and women. In 1943, Eleanor, along with Wendell Willkie and other Americans concerned about the mounting threats to peace and democracy established Freedom House.

Eleanor earned large amounts of money from advertising activities. The Pan-American Coffee Bureau, which was supported by tax revenues from eight foreign governments, paid Roosevelt $1000 a week for advertising. When the State Department found out that the First Lady was being paid so handsomely by foreign governments, they unsuccessfully tried to have the deal cancelled.[1]

Postwar politics

After World War II, Roosevelt played an instrumental role, along with René Cassin, John Peters Humphrey and others, in drafting the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Roosevelt served as the first chairperson of the UN Human Rights Commission[2] On September 28, 1948, Roosevelt called the Declaration "the international Magna Carta of all mankind" (James 1948). The Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.[3] The vote of the General Assembly was unanimous except for eight abstentions. The Declaration was Roosevelt's crowning achievement.

Eleanor was nick-named "first lady of the world", by President Harry Truman after Franklin died because of her outstanding efforts to make the world a better place.

From the 1920s until her death in 1962, Roosevelt remained involved heavily in politics. She strongly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment because it would prevent Congress and the states from passing special protective legislation that she thought women workers needed.[4]

The Catholic issue

In July 1949, her ambivalent attitude toward American Catholics caused a high visibility fight with Francis Cardinal Spellman, the Catholic Archbishop of New York.[5] In her columns, Eleanor had attacked proposals for federal funding of certain (nonreligious) activities, such as bus transportation for students, at Catholic schools. Spellman pointed out that the Supreme Court had recently upheld such provisions, and accused her of anti-Catholicism. Most Democrats rallied behind Roosevelt, so Spellman came to Eleanor's Hyde Park home to bury the hatchet. However, Eleanor retained her belief that Catholic schools should not receive federal aid. She seems to have paid attention to the anti-Catholic polemics of people like Paul Blanshard.[6] Privately, she said that if Catholics got school aid, "Once that is done they control the schools, or at least a great part of them."[7]

Mrs. Roosevelt was never as popular among Catholics as her husband. While he kept the country neutral in the Spanish Civil War, she openly favored the republican Loyalists (who were anticlerical) against General Francisco Franco's Nationalists (whom many American Catholics favored); after 1945, she opposed normalizing relations with Spain.[8] She told Spellman bluntly that "I cannot however say that in European countries the control by the Roman Catholic Church of great areas of land has always led to happiness for the people of those countries." [9] Catholics resented her quiet support of Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement,[10] and her prewar sponsorship of the American Youth Congress, in which the Communists had been heavily represented, but Catholic youth groups were not represented.[11] In 1960 she actively opposed John F. Kennedy's quest for the presidential nomination in part because, biographer Lash has concluded, "Somewhere deep in her subconscious was an anti-Catholicism which was a part of her Protestant heritage."[12] Her son Elliott Roosevelt suggested that her "reservations about Catholicism" were rooted in her husband's sexual affairs with Lucy Mercer and Missy LeHand, who were both Catholics.[13]

New York and national politics

In 1954, Tammany Hall boss Carmine DeSapio campaigned against Eleanor's son, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., during the New York Attorney General elections, which Franklin (Jr.) lost. Roosevelt held DeSapio responsible for her son's defeat and grew increasingly disgusted with his political conduct through the rest of the 1950s. Eventually, she would join with her old friends Herbert Lehman and Thomas Finletter to form the New York Committee for Democratic Voters, a group dedicated to enhancing the democratic process by opposing DeSapio's reincarnated Tammany. Their efforts were eventually successful, and DeSapio was removed from power in 1961. [14]

Eleanor was a close friend of Adlai Stevenson and supported his candidacies in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections. When President Truman backed New York Governor W. Averell Harriman, who was a close associate of Carmine DeSapio, for the Democratic presidential nomination, Roosevelt was disappointed but continued to support Stevenson who ultimately won the nomination. She backed Stevenson once again in 1960 primarily to block John F. Kennedy, who nevertheless received the presidential nomination.[15]

By the 1950s Roosevelt's international role as spokesman for women led her to stop publicly attacking the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). But she never supported it and never thought it was wise. In 1961, President Kennedy’s undersecretary of labor, Esther Peterson, who was a former union official and an adamant foe of the ERA, proposed a new "President’s Commission on the Status of Women." Kennedy appointed Roosevelt to chair the commission, with Peterson as director. Roosevelt died just before the commission issued its final report. It was a massive study that restated the decades-old stance that female equality was best achieved by recognition of gender differences and needs, and not by an Equal Rights Amendment.[16]

Roosevelt was responsible for the establishment, in 1964, of the 2,800 acre (11 km²) Roosevelt Campobello International Park on Campobello Island, New Brunswick. [1] This followed a gift of the Roosevelt summer estate to the Canadian and American governments.

Eleanor Roosevelt was outspoken on numerous causes and continued to galvanize the world with her comments and opinions well into her seventies.

Family matters

Relationship with mother-in-law

Eleanor had a sometimes contentious relationship with her domineering mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt.[17] From Eleanor's perspective, she was relatively young, inexperienced and with a mother long dead, lacked support. Despite her forceful and domineering personality, Sara Delano Roosevelt had much to teach her new daughter-in-law on what a young wife should know. Eleanor, while sometimes resenting Sara's domineering nature, nevertheless highly valued her opinion in the early years of her marriage until she developed the experience and confidence a wife gains from the school of marital "hard knocks". Historians continue to study the reasons Eleanor allowed Sara to dominate their lives, especially in the first years of the marriage. Eleanor's income was more than half of that of her husband's when they married in 1905 and could have lived still relatively luxuriously without Sara's financial support.[18]

From Sara's perspective, she was bound and determined to ensure her son's success in all areas of life including his marriage. Sara had doted on her son to the point of spoiling him, and now intended to help him make a success of his marriage with a woman that she evidently viewed as being totally unprepared for her new role as chatelaine of a great family. Sarah would continue to give huge presents to her new grandchildren, but sometimes Eleanor had problems with the influence that came with "mother's largesse."[19]

Franklin's affair

Despite its happy start, the Roosevelts' marriage almost split over Franklin's affair with Eleanor's social secretary Lucy Mercer (later Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd). Eleanor immediately offered a divorce if the affair continued. A divorce would have immediately destroyed Franklin's political career so the marriage was contuinued as a formality. He agreed never to see Lucy again--but Lucy was with him when he died.

Honors and awards

Roosevelt received 35 honorary degrees during her life, compared to 31 awarded to her husband.

In 1968, she was awarded one of the United Nations Human Rights Prizes. There was an unsuccessful campaign to award her a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize. Roosevelt is Gallup's ninth most admired person in the 20th century.

Controversial personal relationships

In 1928, Eleanor met Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok, one of the few omen White House correspondents. They became close friends by 1932, and remained so for the rest of their lives. Hickok suggested the idea for what would eventually become Roosevelt’s column My Day. My Day was a daily newspaper column which started in 1935, in which she talked about interesting things that happened to her each day. After a few years away from Washington, Hickok returned in 1940 and lived in the White House with the first family. Highly personal letters between Hickok and Roosevelt are published in Roger Streitmatter's 1998 book Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok.

Later life

While very popular as First Lady, sometimes even ranking higher than her husband in public popularity polls, Roosevelt's popularity increased in her post-White House years. ER was ranked #1 for 15 consecutive years as the "World's Most Popular Woman" from 1946 until 1961 and was up to do so again in 1962 the year she died. In 1961, all volumes of her autobiography were compiled into The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt, which is still in print some 45 years later.

At the age of 75, ER embarked on a new career. Roosevelt was an early member of the Brandeis University Board of Trustees, delivered the University's first commencement speech, and joined the Brandeis faculty as a visiting lecturer in international relations.

Eleanor Roosevelt survived her husband by nearly 20 years. In 1960, at age 76, Roosevelt's health began to fail her. Roosevelt died at her Manhattan apartment. At her memorial service, Adlai Stevenson asked, "What other single human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many?" Stevenson also said that Roosevelt was someone "who would rather light a candle than curse the darkness."

Eleanor Roosevelt was buried next to Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park, New York on November 10, 1962. So revered was she among the public that a commemorative cartoon published at the time simply showed two angels looking down towards an opening in the clouds with the caption "She's here", since no introduction was needed.

Mrs. Roosevelt maintained a strong loyalty to "Uncle Ted" even nearly forty-five years after his death. Among her belongings was her membership card for the Theodore Roosevelt Association.

After her death, her son Elliott Roosevelt wrote a series of best-selling fictional murder mysteries wherein she acted as a detective, helping the police solve the crime, while she was First Lady. They feature actual places and celebrities of the time.


  • "You must do the thing you think you cannot do."
  • "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
  • "A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all knowing and therefore all of us need both love and charity."


  1. John T. Flynn, The Roosevelt Myth pp. 247
  2. .M.A. Glendon, "John P. Humphrey and the Drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Journal of the History of International Law 2000: 250-260. in EBSCO
  3. John Kenton, "Human Rights Declaration Adopted by U.N. Assembly." New York Times 11 Dec. 1948: A1.
  4. Pfeffer 1996
  5. For details on the Spellman dispute see Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone pp 156-65 and Beasley, Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia pp 498-502, noting it was "a battle still remembered for its vehemence and hostility." p. 498.
  6. Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone p. 157
  7. Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone p. 164
  8. Beasley, Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia p 492
  9. Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone pp 159.
  10. Beasley, Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia pp 60-62
  11. Beasley, Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia p 16-19
  12. Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone p 282
  13. Elliot Roosevelt and James Brough (1973) An Untold Story, New York: Dell, p.282.
  14. Beasley, Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia 276-76
  15. Lash, Eleanor: The Years Alone pp 282 ff.
  16. Lois Scharf in Beasley, ed. Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia pp 164-5
  17. Cook vol 1 had elaborate details.
  18. Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume Two, pp. 34, 94-96,191-192, 255-256, 290, 398
  19. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin