Eleanor Roosevelt is, of course, famous for her role as the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) – 32nd president of the United States. We have seen from our previous discussions that FDR was instrumental in leading the country through two enormous crisis's – one being the Great Depression of 1929-1938 and the other World War II that claimed over fifty million lives worldwide. Roosevelt made significant contributions to the country in her own rite as we shall see.
Roosevelt spent twelve years in the white house. She was often a seminal figure for her time. She was an activist and often took political stands independent of FDR. She was, in many ways, an idealist and a feminist and she often inspired controversy regarding her public positions.
Roosevelt's parents, Elliott and Anna were married in 1883. She was born on October 11, 1884 into a well-place family; her uncle was Teddy Roosevelt who assumed the presidency in 1901 following the assassination of President McKinley and remained in that office until 1909. He was the elder brother of her deceased father, Elliot Roosevelt. The members of the Roosevelt family were originally Democrats, but they switched over to the Republican Party on account of their support for the abolitionist movement that was staunchly opposed to slavery. It was not until FDR that the family realigned itself with the Democratic Party. Although Teddy Roosevelt was a member of the Republican Party, later in his political career he became liberal in his philosophy particularly concerned about the natural environment and the living conditions of those who were in need.
Roosevelt lost both her parents before she was ten years old. Her father, Elliott, committed suicide and she lost her mother soon after that. She was subsequently raised by her maternal grandmother. As a consequence of the turmoil surrounding her early life, her grandmother chose to raise Eleanor strictly. As a consequence, she was sent to an English boarding school, Allenswood, outside of London, for her education. She was there between the ages of 15 and 18 years old. There is some suspicion that she may have been sent abroad because of sexual advances made by her uncles. The school was run by Marie Souvestre, who took an interest in the young Roosevelt. She helped the young woman gain self-confidence. Souvestre was an avowed and unabashed atheist who may have opened Roosevelt's mind to unconventional thinking. Her mentor also helped her become socially conscious.
Upon graduation, Roosevelt became involved in the settlement house movement, as described previously. She also gravitated towards teaching and taught dancing to immigrant girls at the Irvington Street Settlement in New York's lower East Side. On one particular occasion, she invited FDR there and introduced him to the slum conditions in New York. He was so astonished that he was reported to have said, "My God, I didn't know anyone lived like that." This kind of exposure of the future president to the actual living conditions of the poor probably helped to influence his desire for social reform.
Roosevelt became involved in social causes such as the National Consumers League, an association that greatly influenced Frances Perkins (see above), the League of Women Voters and the Women's Trade Union League. As she was involved with the National' Consumer's League and its programs, she became acutely aware of the sweatshop conditions that many workers endured.
Roosevelt and FDR were married in March of 1905. Between the years of 1906-1916, Roosevelt gave birth to six children; one died. Her married life was not the most congenial, for the family lived with FDR's mother, Sara an imperious and uncompromising woman. Their living arrangements were such that her mother-in-law could appear unannounced any time she chose and felt free to discipline her grandchildren. This was very unnerving for Roosevelt, who was, even according to her children, a somewhat erratic parent.
FDR's political ambitions steadily grew as the years went on. He got his first real break when he was elected to the New York State Senator in 1910. These were somewhat momentous years for the country and especially for women. Roosevelt actively supported the women suffrage movement from 1911 and in 1920 a woman's right to vote was added as Amendment nineteen to the U.S. Constitution. In 1913, FDR was chosen as the Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson. The family moved to Washington D.C. Roosevelt was somewhat relieved, for she could finally get out of the shadow of her domineering mother-in-law. On account of his growing work load, FDR hired a personal secretary, Lucy Page Mercer – a choice that would prove to be extremely momentous. In 1918, Roosevelt accidentally came across a packet of love letters from Mercer that spanned two years. This momentous finding permanently changed Roosevelt's relationship with her husband and inadvertently freed her to pursue her own destiny. They remained married but from that moment on lived separate lives. In spite of this Roosevelt's help in regards to FDR's political ambitions remained strong and decisive.
During World War I, Roosevelt became involved in the Red Cross. Increasingly, she became an advocate for those in need. She became a strong spokesperson for the mentally ill and was shocked by the conditions she witnessed at St. Elizabeth's hospital for the mentally ill. After the war, she contracted Tuberculosis and did not take the disease as seriously as she should have; it was partly responsible for the death some forty-three years later.
In 1921, Roosevelt joined the League of Women Voters and ultimately became Vice Chairman. Her main interests were in world peace, a woman's right to serve on juries and equal prosecution for both men and women in prostitution cases. Roosevelt was an unflinching advocate in the areas of peace and social justice and especially that of women's rights in all areas of social and political life. She was such an avowed and outspoken proponent of peace that the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover kept a file on her. Hoover was a rabid anti-communist and feared that Roosevelt might be linked with their efforts.
In that same year, FDR was stricken by polio. He had such a severe case that he was never able to walk again without assistance. Although this reality drove him into a state of depression in which he thought of relinquishing his political ambitions; it was the support of Roosevelt and his good friend and adviser, Louis Howe, that encouraged him to persevere.
The Roosevelts, in many ways, led parallel lives. She thrust herself into women's issues and allied herself with like-minded women, including Jane Adams, who, as discussed previously founded the Hull House – the famous settlement house in Chicago – and the first president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and Carrie Chapman Catt of the League of Women Voters. There were two women, in particular, that she became deeply involved with – Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook. So strong was this bond that FDR built a stone cottage in Hyde Park, the family estate, called Val-Kill for these three women as their retreat. In 1927, Cook purchased the Todhunter School who purpose was to wage political warfare against what was perceived to be reactionary forces. These women joined in a concerted effort to encourage social reform in the areas of a minimum wage, an end to child labor and the right of workers to unionize.
In 1928, FDR was elected as governor of New York State a definitive stepping stone to his ultimate aspiration – the presidency of the United States. During their stay in Albany, Roosevelt divided her time between Albany and the Todhunter School where she functioned as an Associate Principal and a teacher. In this same period, she became involved in a New York State Joint Legislative Conference that pushed for unemployment compensation, minimum wage and pensions. Roosevelt and her husband did not always agree. As governor he was not willing to sponsor child labor legislation and abandoned support for Prohibition as well as the League of Nations and the World Court – causes that Roosevelt adamantly supported. As a matter of fact, FDR's brain trust considered his wife to be too idealistic and too assertive.
On account of all of her involvements, Roosevelt limited her engagement with FDR's presidential campaign of 1932. During his presidency, Roosevelt became more deeply involved in her own causes. Although she discontinued her involvement with the Todhunter School, she pursued writing and public speaking. As a matter of fact, she earned a considerable amount of money following these interests – a reality that created quite a stir of criticism.
It was during this period that she met Lorena Hickok – Hick. They became so involved with each other that they exchanged daily letters. There has been some suggestion that their relationship was erotic in nature – a suggestion that has never been confirmed.
Eleanor became quite famous for her syndicated column called "My Day." Although it was dismissed by her critics as being shallow and banal, it helped introduce a common touch in regards to the often mundane reality surrounding the presidency and was widely read. This column was also a vehicle through which Roosevelt could express her political philosophy and often referred to New Deal policies and programs.
In regards to matters of race and race relations, Roosevelt made her position clear and unambiguous on numerous occasions. As a profound example of her staunch belief in equal rights for all citizens, she withdrew her membership from the Daughters of the American Revolution (FDR) when they denied the renowned African-American contralto, Marion Anderson, from singing in Constitution Hall on account of the color of her skin. To put a spotlight on this injustice, Anderson sang outside the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd estimated to be 75,000. Roosevelt also refused to observe segregated seating at the founding convention of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare held in Birmingham Alabama.
Roosevelt endured the horrendous and destabilizing years during World War II and with infinite grace helped assuage the nation's anxieties as that conflict negatively impacted so many Americans. Roosevelt's passionate concerns, interests and boundless activism for the causes of peace and social justice placed into the spotlight the liberal approach to public policy that she personified. She passed away on November 7, 1962.
The following is taken from a speech Roosevelt made entitled, The Struggle for Human Rights on September 28, 1948 in Paris.
"I have come this evening to talk with you on one of the greatest issues of our time -- that is the preservation of human freedom. I have chosen to discuss it here in France, at the Sorbonne, because here in this soil the roots of human freedom have long ago struck deep and here they have been richly nourished. It was here the Declaration of the Rights of Man was proclaimed, and the great slogans of the French Revolution -- liberty, equality, fraternity -- fired the imagination of men. I have chosen to discuss this issue in Europe because this has been the scene of the greatest historic battles between freedom and tyranny. I have chosen to discuss it in the early days of the General Assembly because the issue of human liberty is decisive for the settlement of outstanding political differences and for the future of the United Nations.
The decisive importance of this issue was fully recognized by the founders of the United Nations at San Francisco. Concern for the preservation and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms stands at the heart of the United Nations. Its Charter is distinguished by its preoccupation with the rights and welfare of individual men and women. The United Nations has made it clear that it intends to uphold human rights and to protect the dignity of the human personality. In the preamble to the Charter the keynote is set when it declares: "We the people of the United Nations determined...to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom." This reflects the basic premise of the Charter that the peace and security of mankind are dependent on mutual respect for the rights and freedoms of all."