Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on 11th October, 1884. Her father, Elliott Roosevelt, was the brother of Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States (1901-1909). Elliott entered a sanitarium for alcoholics when she was a child and by the age of ten both her parents had died.

After attending a finishing school in England, Eleanor became involved in social work. In 1905 she married her cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Like her husband, Eleanor was a Democrat and took a strong interest in politics. Between 1906 and 1916 the Roosevelts had six children, one of whom died in infancy.

In 1913 President Woodrow Wilson appointed Franklin D. Roosevelt him as assistant secretary of the navy, a post he held throughout the First World War. Eleanor worked for the Red Cross during the war and after the Armistice toured the Western Front.

In the summer of 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt became seriously ill. He was eventually diagnosed as suffering from poliomyelitis. He was almost totally paralyzed and he was never again to recover full use of his legs. Eleanor nursed him through this illness and helped him regain the strength needed to return to his political career.

Eleanor remained politically active and worked for the League of Women's Voters, the National Consumer's League and the Women's Trade Union League. She also became friendly with the African American educator, Mary McLeod Bethune and Walter Francis White, the national secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). These friendships resulted in Eleanor taking a close interest in African American civil rights.

Eleanor played a significant role in her husband's successful political campaigns when he was elected as governor of New York (1929) and president of the United States (1932). Eleanor became the most politically active First Lady in American history. She travelled extensively on fact-finding trips for her husband. Eleanor also campaigned for sexual and racial inequality during this period.

In 1935 Eleanor attempted to persuade Franklin D. Roosevelt to support and Anti-Lynching bill that had been introduced into Congress. However, Roosevelt refused to speak out in favour of the bill that would punish sheriffs who failed to protect their prisoners from lynch mobs. He argued that the white voters in the South would never forgive him if he supported the bill and he would therefore lose the next election.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945, Eleanor continued to be involved in politics. She was chairperson of United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor wrote several volumes of autobiography including This Is My Story (1937), This I Remember (1949) and On My Own (1958).

Raymond Gram Swing met Eleanor several times and in his autobiography, Good Evening (1964) argued: "Her service on the Commission of Human Rights of the United Nations is of enduring value, even if that code is long in coming into effect. She led world thinking into channels into which it never had flowed before. This was pioneering of a most valuable kind. Eleanor Roosevelt's influence on her era also calls for special recognition. She was one of the three persons closest to Franklin Roosevelt, all of whom had been active in social service. The other two were Harry Hopkins and Frances Perkins. Many of the reforms that marked the Roosevelt administration could be called social-service reforms, and the thinking of those in his circle was predominantly social-service thinking. This was peculiarly American, and may to a great extent have saved America from didactic radicalisms of European type, such as extreme socialism and Communism."

Eleanor Roosevelt died on 6th November, 1962.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Raymond Gram Swing, Good Evening (1964)

I met Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt on numerous occasions, but did not get to know her personally until after her husband's death I was included in one luncheon invitation she issued to the news corps at the White House during the war. She was good enough to mention my broadcasts as among her favorite radio programs in an interview in the Ladies' Home Journal. It was after this that I made an attempt to arrange an appointment with her. I knew that a few of my colleagues saw her frequently, to their great professional and personal benefit. But her secretary vetoed my request.

Years later I crossed to France on the same boat with the United States mission to the United Nations, of which Mrs. Roosevelt was such a distinguished member. This was when I was commentator for the Voice of America. I had several long and memorable talks with Mrs. Roosevelt on this voyage. Later I met her twice in the home of John Gunther. I am sure she was the most important woman I could know, just ahead of Jane Addams. Somehow, she always said the right thing, in the right words, at the right time, and did so with graciousness. This is commendation that few deserve. Her service on the Commission of Human Rights of the United Nations is of enduring value, even if that code is long in coming into effect. She led world thinking into channels into which it never had flowed before. This was pioneering of a most valuable kind.

Eleanor Roosevelt's influence on her era also calls for special recognition. She was one of the three persons closest to Franklin Roosevelt, all of whom had been active in social service. The other two were Harry Hopkins and Frances Perkins. Many of the reforms that marked the Roosevelt administration could be called social-service reforms, and the thinking of those in his circle was predominantly social-service thinking. This was peculiarly American, and may to a great extent have saved America from didactic radicalisms of European type, such as extreme socialism and Communism. I have the impression that Americans of the post-Roosevelt years have not appreciated this enough to bestow credit for it where it is due, on Eleanor Roosevelt, for one, and on Hopkins, a close second. Being a social worker of her era, Mrs. Roosevelt was not primarily a feminist Thus she actually opposed equal pay for equal work for women because she feared that it would bring hardship to mothers who had to accept less than standard wages to provide or supplement the family income. By now the social worker's outlook has pretty largely become the national outlook on social problems, something for which Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins were as much responsible as Franklin Roosevelt himself.

(2) John Gates, The Story of an American Communist (1959)

A few people, including Mrs. Roosevelt, Norman Thomas and A. J. Muste, did support amnesty for us. These particular personalities had been staunch defenders of civil liberties throughout the years. But even here something bothered me. If any people were justified in not coming to our defense, it was just these three whom I have named. Had we not heaped personal and political abuse upon them (alternating with periods of praise)? I asked myself how we would have responded had the situation been reversed, and my answer was not a comforting one. I came to feel that these individuals must have a moral superiority over us, that there must be something decidedly wrong with the attitude of communism toward democracy.