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Eleanor Roosevelt

Famous First Lady and U.N. Delegate

By Dani Alexis Ryskamp, Contributing History Writer

Picture of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Portrait of Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, American author, diplomat and humanitarian. She was the wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt and served as a delegate to the United Nations and was chairperson of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. (December 31, 1942)

(Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)
Historical Importance of Eleanor Roosevelt: Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most respected and beloved women of the twentieth century. She overcame a sad childhood and severe self-consciousness to become a passionate advocate for the rights of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and the poor. When her husband became President of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt transformed the role of First Lady by taking an active role in the work of her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt. After Franklin’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed a delegate to the newly formed United Nations, where she helped create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Dates: October 11, 1884 -- November 7, 1962

Also Known As: Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, “Everywhere Eleanor,” “Public Energy Number One”

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Early Years

Despite being born into one of the “400 Families,” the richest and most influential families in New York, Eleanor Roosevelt’s childhood was not a happy one. Eleanor’s mother, Anna Hall Roosevelt, was considered a great beauty; while Eleanor herself was definitely not, a fact Eleanor knew greatly disappointed her mother. On the other hand, Eleanor’s father, Elliott Roosevelt, doted on Eleanor and called her “Little Nell,” after the character in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. Unfortunately, Elliott suffered from a growing addiction to alcohol and drugs, which ultimately destroyed his family.

In 1890, when Eleanor was about six years old, Elliott separated from his family and began receiving treatments in Europe for his alcoholism. At the behest of his brother, Theodore Roosevelt (who later became the 26th president of the United States), Elliott was exiled from his family until he could free himself from his addictions. Anna, missing her husband, did her best to take care of her daughter, Eleanor, and her two younger sons, Elliott Jr. and baby Hall.

Then tragedy struck. In 1892, Anna went to the hospital for a surgery and afterwards contracted diphtheria; she died soon after, when Eleanor was just eight years old. Just months later, Eleanor’s two brothers came down with scarlet fever. Baby Hall survived, but 4-year-old Elliott Jr. developed diphtheria and died in 1893.

With the deaths of her mother and young brother, Eleanor hoped that she would be able to spend more time with her beloved father. Not so. Elliott’s dependency on drugs and alcohol got worse after the deaths of his wife and child and in 1894 he died.

Within 18 months, Eleanor had lost her mother, her brother, and her father. She was just ten years old and an orphan. Eleanor and her brother Hall went to live with their very strict maternal grandmother, Mary Hall, in Manhattan.

Eleanor spent several miserable years with her grandmother until she was sent abroad in September 1899 to Allenswood School in London.

Eleanor’s School Years

Allenswood, a finishing school for girls, provided the environment 15-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt needed to blossom. While she was always disappointed by her own looks, she had a quick mind and was soon picked as a “favorite” of the headmistress, Marie Souvestre.

Although most girls spent four years at Allenswood, Eleanor was called home to New York after her third year for her “society debut,” which all wealthy young women were expected to make at age 18. Unlike her wealthy peers, however, Eleanor did not look forward to leaving her beloved school for an endless round of parties she found meaningless.

Meeting Franklin Roosevelt

Despite her misgivings, Eleanor returned to New York for her society debut. The entire process proved tedious and bothersome and made her once again feel self-conscious about her looks. There was, however, a bright side at her coming home from Allenswood. While riding on a train, she had a chance encounter in 1902 with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Franklin was a fifth cousin once removed of Eleanor’s and the only child of James Roosevelt and Sara Delano Roosevelt. Franklin’s mother doted on him -- a fact that would later cause strife in Franklin and Eleanor’s marriage.

Franklin and Eleanor saw each other frequently at parties and social engagements. Then, in 1903, Franklin asked Eleanor to marry him and she accepted. However, when Sara Roosevelt was told the news, she thought the couple too young to marry (Eleanor was 19 and Franklin was 21). Sara then asked them to keep their engagement a secret for one year. Franklin and Eleanor agreed to do so.

During this time, Eleanor was an active member of the Junior League, an organization for wealthy young ladies to do charitable work. Eleanor taught classes for the poor who lived in tenement houses and investigated the horrible working conditions many young women experienced. Her work with poor and needy families taught her a great deal about the hardships many Americans faced, leading to a life-long passion of trying to solve society’s ills.

Married Life

With their year of secrecy behind them, Franklin and Eleanor publicly announced their engagement and then married on March 17, 1905. As a Christmas present that year, Sara Roosevelt decided to build adjoining townhouses for herself and Franklin’s family. Unfortunately, Eleanor left all the planning up to her mother-in-law and Franklin and thus was very unhappy with her new home. Plus, Sara would frequently stop by unannounced since she could easily just enter by going through a sliding door that joined the two townhouses’ dining rooms.

While being somewhat dominated by her mother-in-law, Eleanor spent between 1906 and 1916 having babies. In total, the couple had six children; however, the third, Franklin Jr., died in infancy.

In the meantime, Franklin had entered politics. He had dreams of following his cousin Theodore Roosevelt’s path to the White House. So in 1910, Franklin Roosevelt ran for and won a State Senate seat in New York. Just three years later, Franklin was appointed assistant secretary of the navy in 1913. Although Eleanor was disinterested in politics, her husband’s new positions moved her out of the adjoined townhouse and thus out of the shadow of her mother-in-law.

With an increasingly busy social schedule due to Franklin’s new political responsibilities, Eleanor hired a personal secretary, named Lucy Mercy, to help her stay organized. Eleanor was shocked when, in 1918, she discovered that Franklin was having an affair with Lucy. Although Franklin swore he would end the affair, the discovery left Eleanor depressed and dejected for many years.

Eleanor never truly forgave Franklin for his indiscretion and although their marriage continued, it was never the same. From that time onwards, their marriage lacked intimacy and began to be more of a partnership.

Polio and the White House

In 1920, Franklin D. Roosevelt was chosen as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, running with James Cox. Although they lost the election, the experience had given Franklin a taste for politics at the top level of government and he continued to aim high -- until 1921, when polio struck.

Polio, a common disease in the early twentieth century, could kill its victims or leave them permanently disabled. Franklin Roosevelt’s bout with polio left him without the use of his legs. Although Franklin’s mother, Sara, insisted that his disability was the end of his public life, Eleanor disagreed. It was the first time Eleanor had openly defied her mother-in-law and it was a turning point in her relationship with both Sara and Franklin.

Instead, Eleanor Roosevelt took an active role in helping her husband, becoming his “eyes and ears” in politics and assisting with his attempts to recover. (Although he tried for seven years to regain the use of his legs, Franklin finally accepted that he would not walk again.)

Franklin reentered the political spotlight in 1928 when he ran for governor of New York, a position he won. In 1932, he ran for president against incumbent Herbert Hoover. Public opinion of Hoover had been decimated by the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed, leading to a presidential victory for Franklin in the 1932 election. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt moved into the White House in 1933.

A Life of Public Service

Eleanor Roosevelt was not overjoyed to become the First Lady. In many ways, she had created an independent life for herself in New York and dreaded leaving it behind. Most especially, Eleanor was going to miss teaching at the Todhunter School, a finishing school for girls that she had helped purchase in 1926. Becoming First Lady took her away from such projects. Nevertheless, Eleanor saw in her new position the opportunity to benefit disadvantaged people nationwide and she seized it, transforming the role of the First Lady in the process.

Before Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office, the First Lady generally played an ornamental role, mainly one of a gracious hostess. Eleanor, on the other hand, not only became a champion of many causes, she continued to be an active participant in her husband’s political plans. Since Franklin could not walk and did not want the public to know it, Eleanor did much of the traveling he could not do. She would send back regular memos about the people she talked to and the sorts of help they needed as the Great Depression worsened.

Eleanor also made many trips, speeches, and other acts to support disadvantaged groups, including women, racial minorities, the homeless, tenant farmers, and others. She hosted regular Sunday “egg scrambles,” in which she invited people from all walks of life to the White House for a scrambled-egg brunch and a talk about the problems they faced and what support they needed to overcome them.

In 1936, Eleanor Roosevelt began writing a newspaper column called “My Day,” on the recommendation of her friend, newspaper reporter Lorena Hickok. Her columns touched on a wide range of often-controversial topics, including the rights of women and minorities and the creation of the United Nations. She wrote a column six days a week until 1962, missing only four days when her husband died in 1945.

The Country Goes to War

Franklin Roosevelt won reelection in 1936 and again in 1940, becoming the only U.S. President ever to serve more than two terms. In 1940, Eleanor Roosevelt became the first woman ever to address a national presidential convention, when she gave a speech to the Democratic National Convention on July 17, 1940.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese bomber planes attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Within the next few days, the U.S. declared war on Japan and Germany, officially bringing the U.S. into World War II. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration immediately began enlisting private companies to make tanks, guns, and other necessary equipment. In 1942, 80,000 U.S. troops were sent to Europe, the first of many waves of soldiers that would go overseas in the coming years.

With so many men fighting the war, women were pulled out of their homes and into factories, where they made war materials, everything from fighter planes and parachutes to canned food and bandages. Eleanor Roosevelt saw in this mobilization the opportunity to fight for the rights of working women. She argued that every American should have the right to employment if they wanted it.

She also fought against racial discrimination in the workforce, the armed forces, and at home, arguing that African-Americans and other racial minorities should be given equal pay, equal work, and equal rights. Although she vehemently opposed putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps during the war, her husband’s administration did so anyway.

During World War II, Eleanor also traveled all over the world, visiting soldiers stationed in Europe, the South Pacific, and other far-flung places. The Secret Service gave her the code name “Rover,” but the public called her “Everywhere Eleanor” because they never knew where she might turn up. She was also called “Public Energy Number One” due to her intense commitment to human rights and the war effort.

First Lady of the World

Franklin Roosevelt ran for and won a fourth term in office in 1944, but his remaining time in the White House was limited. On April 12, 1945, he passed away at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia. At the time of Franklin’s death, Eleanor announced that she would withdraw from public life and when a reporter asked about her career, she said it had ended. However, when President Harry Truman asked Eleanor to become the U.S.’s first delegate to the United Nations in December 1945, she accepted.

As an American and as a woman, Eleanor Roosevelt felt that being the U.N. delegate was a huge responsibility. She spent her days before the U.N. meetings researching issues of world politics. She was particularly concerned about failing as a U.N. delegate, not only for herself, but because her failure might reflect badly on all women.

Rather than being seen as a failure, most regarded Eleanor’s work with the United Nations as a resounding success. Her crowning achievement was when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which she had helped to draft, was ratified by 48 nations in 1948.

Back in the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to champion civil rights. She joined the board of the NAACP in 1945 and in 1959, she became a lecturer on politics and human rights at Brandeis University.

Eleanor Roosevelt was getting older but she didn’t slow down; if anything, she was busier than ever. While always making time for her friends and family, she also spent a lot of time traveling around the world for one important cause or another. She flew to India, Israel, Russia, Japan, Turkey, the Philippines, Switzerland, Poland, Thailand, and many other countries.

Eleanor Roosevelt had become a goodwill ambassador around the world; a woman people respected, admired, and loved. She had truly become the “First Lady of the World,” as U.S. President Harry Truman had once called her.

And then one day her body told her she needed to slow down. After visiting a hospital and undergoing lots of tests, it was discovered in 1962 that Eleanor Roosevelt was suffering from aplastic anemia and tuberculosis. On November 7, 1962, Eleanor Roosevelt died at age 78. She was buried next to her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in Hyde Park.

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