Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), wife of the thirty-second president of the United States, was a philanthropist, author, world diplomat, and resolute champion of liberal causes.
Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on Oct. 11, 1884, into an economically comfortable but troubled family. Her father was Elliott Roosevelt, the younger brother of Theodore Roosevelt, a future president of the United States. Although handsome and charming, Elliott was plagued by frequent mental depressions and by alcoholism. Her mother, beautiful but neurotic, was preoccupied with the family's image in upper-class society and embarrassed by Eleanor's homeliness. Eleanor's father entered a sanitarium for alcoholics when she was a child. When Eleanor was 8 years old, her mother died, and she and two younger brothers went to live with their maternal grandmother in New York. Shortly thereafter the older brother died, and when Eleanor was not yet ten, she learned that her father was dead. Her grandmother sheltered her from all outside contacts except for family acquaintances.
Eleanor Roosevelt began discovering a world beyond the family at Mademoiselle Souvestre's finishing school at South Fields, England, where she went at 15. Mademoiselle Souvestre taught a sense of social service and responsibility, which Eleanor began to act upon after her return to New York. She plunged into social work, but soon her tall, handsome cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, began courting her. They were married in March 1905. She now had to contend with a domineering mother-in-law and a gregarious husband who did not really understand his wife's struggle to overcome shyness and feelings of inadequacy.
Beginnings of a Public Career
Between 1906 and 1916, the Roosevelts had six children, one of whom died in infancy. The family lived at their estate at Hyde Park, from which Franklin pursued his political ambitions in the Democratic party. He served a term in the New York State Senate before President Woodrow Wilson appointed him assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913. Although Eleanor did much Red Cross relief work during World War I and even toured the French battlefields shortly after the armistice, she remained obscure.
A major turning point in Eleanor's life came in 1921, when Franklin contracted polio and permanently lost the use of his legs. Finally asserting her will over her mother-in-law (who insisted that Franklin quietly accept invalidism), Eleanor nursed him back into activity. Within a few years he had regained his strength and political ambitions. Meanwhile, she entered more fully into public life. Speaking and working for the League of Women Voters, the National Consumers' League, the Women's Trade Union League, and the women's division of the New York State Democratic Committee, she not only acted as Franklin's "legs and ears" but began to acquire a certain notoriety of her own. During Franklin's New York governorship she saw the last of her children off to boarding school and kept busy inspecting state hospitals, homes, and prisons for her husband.
Roosevelt's election to the presidency in 1932 meant, as Eleanor later wrote, "the end of any personal life of my own." She quickly became the best-known (and also the most criticized) First Lady in American history. She evoked both intense admiration and intense hatred but almost never passivity or neutrality.
Besides undertaking a syndicated newspaper column and a series of radio broadcasts (the income from which she gave to charity), she traveled back and forth across the country on fact-finding trips for Franklin. She assumed the special role of advocate for those groups of Americans— working women, blacks, youth, tenant farmers—which Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal efforts to combat the Depression tended to neglect. Holding no official position, she felt she could speak more freely on issues than could Roosevelt, and she also became a key contact within the administration for officials seeking the President's support. In short, Eleanor became an intermediary between, on the one hand, the individual citizen and his government and, on the other, the President and much of his administration.
Of particular concern to her was securing equal opportunities for women under the New Deal's work relief projects; ensuring that appropriate employment for writers, artists, musicians, and theater people became an integral part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program; promoting the cause of Arthurdale, a farming community built by the Federal government for unemployed miners in West Virginia; and providing work for jobless youth, both white and black (accomplished under the National Youth Administration, set up in 1935). Much more than her husband, she denounced racial oppression and tried to aid the struggle of black Americans toward full citizenship. Largely because of her efforts, African Americans, for the first time since the Reconstruction years, had reason to feel that the national government was interested in their plight.
As the United States moved toward war in the late 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out forcefully in favor of the adminstration's policy of aiding antifascist governments. She accepted an appointment as deputy director in the Office of Civilian Defense. She applied herself diligently to her new job but proved inefficient as an administrator and resigned in 1942 in the face of growing congressional criticism. That was her first and last official position under Roosevelt. Once the United States formally entered the war, she made numerous trips to England, Europe, and the Pacific area to boost troop morale and to inspect Red Cross facilities.
After Roosevelt's death in April 1945, Eleanor was expected to retire to a quiet, uneventful private life. By the end of the year, however, she was back in public life. President Harry S. Truman appointed her American delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. As chairman of the Commission, she worked the other delegates overtime to complete the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. She remained in her post at the UN through 1952. She became the target for virulent right-wing attacks during the presidential campaign of that year. After the election of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, she gave up her UN post, but continued to work for international understanding and cooperation as a representative of the American Association for the United Nations.
During the last decade of her life Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to numerous foreign countries, including two trips to the Soviet Union, and authored several books. She continued to articulate a personal and social outlook which, while never profound and sometimes banal and obtuse, still inspired millions. But by the early 1960s, although she had accepted three new government appointments from President John F. Kennedy (delegate to the U.N., adviser to the Peace Corps, and chairman of the President's Commission on the Status of Women), her strength was waning. She died in New York City on Nov. 6, 1962.
Further Reading on Eleanor Roosevelt
Her candid autobiographical writings are invaluable: This Is My Story (1937); This I Remember (1949); and On My Own (1958). These works are combined with an additional updated chapter in Autobiography (1961). An even more intimate view of Eleanor can be gained from Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of their Relationship Based on Eleanor Roosevelt's Private Papers (1971) and Eleanor: The Years Alone (1972). Also helpful is Tamara K. Hareven, Eleanor Roosevelt: An American Conscience (1968). James R. Kearney, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt: The Evolution of a Reformer (1968), is less a biography than a topically organized analysis of various facets of Roosevelt's public life. Less critical though useful are Alfred Steinberg, Mrs. R. (1959); Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Friend's Memoir (1965); and Archibald MacLeish, The Eleanor Roosevelt Story (1965). Information about Roosevelt's role in relation to her husband's career is in Frank Freidel's uncompleted biography Franklin D. Roosevelt (3 vols., 1952-1956); Alfred B. Rollins, Roosevelt and Howe (1962); and James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (1963).