Eleanor Roosevelt

By: Amiel Padayhag

"You have to accept whatever comes and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and with the best that you have to give."


Eleanor's Influences

Eleanor's Early Life

  • Born on October 11, 1884, to socialite Anna Hall Roosevelt and Elliott Roosevelt, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was brought up in a wealthy family.
  • Elliott Roosevelt, her father, was an alcoholic. Elliott's alcoholism ruined his marriage. He eventually died on August 14, 1894.
  • Eleanor adored her father, to the point where she was willing to overlook his failures. (ex: abandoned her at bar til late at night)
  • Eleanor found comfort in her father. She adored him and waited for him every time he would come over to visit her.
  • In contrast, Eleanor always felt very self-conscious around her mother. ER was always awe-struck at her mom's incredible beauty, and she beat herself up (internally) over her lack of looks, like her awkward height and her bad teeth. Her mother did not provide her with a loving environment.
  • Both Elliott and Anna Hall had a huge lasting impact on Eleanor.
  • One of ER's favorite childhood moments was when she rubbed her mom's forehead. Doing helpful things would always fill Eleanor with a sense of accomplishment, and Eleanor would go out of her way to do helpful things in order to get that sense of love and cherishment she lacked for a large part of her life. This played itself out especially during Eleanor's years of social work.
  • ER's father made Eleanor promise when she was child that she would grow up to be a good girl, that she would become a virtuous young woman. That promise led to ER's strong character and her passion in social work. Her father's death also acquainted Eleanor with the sadness and the ups and downs that one would go through in life. (Eleanor herself would go through small bouts of depression, with one noted time being the days before FDR's inauguration.)
  • In her autobiography, Eleanor noted that her father's death only meant that he lived with her in her heart and mind more than his time alive.
  • Eleanor's Grandmother Hall took her up after her parents' deaths, and she provided Eleanor with the stability that ER lacked in her early years.
  • At 15, Eleanor was sent to England to attend Allenswood Academy. Her years there were some of the happiest of her life.
  • Her time in Allenswood got her to become acquainted with her self-independence. She flourished under her feminist French teacher Madame Souvestre's tutelage. She came to understand that she could become a leader, and the girls all over the school came to really respect her and admire her for her skills. Under Souvestre, Eleanor learned to roam new places all by herself, exploring European cities without the guidance of an adult.

Eleanor & Franklin Delano Roosevelt Marry (March 17, 1905)

The Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd Affair (1918)

Eleanor as the First Lady & the New Deal

Transforming the Role of the First Lady

Voices from the Wives of U.S. Presidents

  • Lucretia Garfield: "I'm going to try harder than ever before to be the best little wife possible."
  • Frances Cleveland, after leaving the White House: "I have not had a life yet. It is all before me..."

The Traditional Role of the First Lady

  • The First Lady is, first and foremost, the official hostess of the White House. She is expected to organize and attend all the various official ceremonies and functions of the state. She is expected to "pour the tea," so to speak, and "chat up the guests."
  • Eleanor, upon hearing of FDR's first inauguration, fell into depression for a time. She feared, more than anything, the loss of her newly-found independence and a life caged up in domesticity.
  • Eleanor, however, was no ordinary First Lady. Her tenure as First Lady transformed the role completely. Eleanor wielded her new status with a power rivaling (and maybe even transcending) that of her husband's.
  • Eleanor actively advised Franklin and dedicated herself to numerous campaigns to expand human rights. There was no other First Lady who could match her level of activity and activism.
  • Eleanor opened the door for her successors to pursue a more active political role.

Women's Rights

  • Although there is widespread debate as to whether Eleanor was a feminist, one thing is clear: she was very much in support of the expansion of women's activities outside the household.
  • After her discovery of FDR's affair, Eleanor acquired a large network of female friends, all of whom encouraged her to become involved politically and socially.
  • After FDR came out in support of women's suffrage, Eleanor herself took up the cause.
  • 1924: Pressured the Democratic Convention to appoint female delegates & alternates.
  • Suggested to FDR several women who could fill executive-level appointments (ex: Frances Perkins, the 1st female Secretary of Labor).
  • Eleanor hosted women-only press conferences in the hopes that she would keep the females of the American public informed and launch them into political action
  • Although they were attacked with heavy criticism, the She-She-She camps set up by Eleanor in the New Deal were intended as the female counterpart to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
  • She supported, among other things: child labor laws, a limited workday for women workers, improved working conditions, the involvement of women in unions, and the right for women to strike and collectively bargain.
  • During her lifetime, ER actually opposed the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would require equal treatment of men and women under federal and state law, fearing that it would undermine the causes she had lobbied for for so long.

Political Partnership with FDR

Voices on Eleanor's Determination to Advocate Her Causes

  • Rexford Tugwell, on Eleanor's lobbying attempts at FDR: "No one who ever saw Eleanor...sit down facing her husband, and, holding his eye firmly, say to him, 'Franklin, I think you should...' or, 'Franklin, surely you will not...' will ever forget the experience..."

  • After the discovery of the affair, Eleanor constructed an emotional and physical wall around herself whenever FDR was around.
  • However, that did not mean that Franklin & Eleanor did not still love each other. Many historians have tried to categorize and pin down the exact love they felt for one another, but one thing is true: they appreciated and drew strength from each other.
  • Eleanor kept alive the New Deal spirit as World War Two was raging on in Europe. She refused to give up on the democratic ideals she & FDR fought for during the Great Depression and the New Deal years.
  • Eleanor was tireless, often pressing FDR to the point of fatigue when she got talking on the issues that concerned her at the time. Eleanor was, then, FDR's conscience.
  • FDR was unable, at times, to personally espouse certain controversial topics he supported. Eleanor was for him a way to indirectly express his approval for the handling of those issues.

African Americans & Civil Rights

Voices on ER's Support for Civil Rights:

  • Vernon Jarrett: "...most black people were struck with the genuineness and the feeling that she was for real... You had to put her into the context of the time, in order to really appreciate this woman..."
  • Malcolm Gross: "...there is probably no other white...who did more and certainly none who took more risk, political and physical, to promote the rights of [blacks]."

  • Although the New Deal was formed in a great effort to combat the effects of the Great Depression on all parts of American society, blacks were largely excluded from the process.
  • ER lobbied against the poll tax and supported the Southern Tenant Farmer's Union, an organization which sought to more federal relief for sharecroppers and tenant farmers.
  • Eleanor's lobbying made New Deal programs more accessible to blacks, and her actions also opened up a new relationship between African Americans and the federal government, a relationship founded on trust and a sincere belief that the government would try to meet their needs.
  • 1938: In a conference in Birmingham, Alabama, Eleanor was asked to stay in the white section of the audience. Doing this would alienate her from her black friends, who sat in the colored section. Eleanor then moved her chair to the middle of the aisle in defiance.
  • 1939: The all-white Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let Marian Anderson, a famous African-American contralto, perform in Washington's Constitutional Hall.
  • Eleanor, outraged, resigned from the group. With the help of several of her friends, Eleanor arranged an large outdoor concert for Marian at the Lincoln Memorial, which was a huge success.

Eleanor's Critics

Eleanor's independence resulted in backlash from those who feared that independence and how it would reflect to younger women all over the U.S. Eleanor was also disliked by Southern racists, who were against discrimination, civil rights, and integration. Her critics derisively called her "The Gab," "The Meddler," and "The Busybody." In a letter addressed to ER, a woman once asked her straightforwardly if she had any "Negro blood" in her. Despite this negativity, Eleanor persevered and earned the respect from people all over the world, even people who lived in Communist countries such as the Soviet Union.

Eleanor & WW2

Democracy at Home and Abroad

  • Executive Order 8802 (1941): banned discriminatory employment practices in institutions that performed war-related work & established the Fair Employment Practices Commission to enforce the new policy
  • Taking advantage of the decreased white male workforce because of the impending threat of war, many blacks were migrating to industrial centers & cities to find work. However, they were met with hostility and discrimination.
  • Eleanor organized a meeting with A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and FDR. The meeting resulted in Executive Order 8802, which was the first presidential law on race since Reconstruction.
  • When the US entered WW2, Eleanor was quick to recognize the inconsistency of the fight against Hitler & Nazi Germany and the racism that black Americans were facing at home.
  • Eleanor intervened in the matter of the S.S. Quanza, a ship that had arrived in North America from war-torn Europe with eighty-three Jewish refugees. Without her, the refugees would most likely have been sent back home to face a terrifying, almost inevitable fate at the hands of the Nazis.
  • ER supported women who were entering the industrial workforce when their husbands were away fighting the war. After WW2, when many women were dropped from their jobs to make way for returning men, Eleanor tried to combat this.
  • It was Eleanor who reminded FDR of the New Deal reform spirit during the WW2 years of his administration. Many historians agree that FDR would have abandoned his earlier resolve for reforms if it weren't for Eleanor.

Eleanor's Travels

Eleanor was probably the most well-traveled First Lady in history, logging over 40,000 miles and visiting all the continents (except for Antarctica) and 48 out of the 50 states during her career. Her tours all over the world contributed to her role as an international correspondent and an informal diplomat. Eleanor always made sure to interact one-on-one with the people during her travels.

The Detroit Race Riots & The South Pacific (1943)

  • ER had previously expressed interest in visiting the South Pacific, especially Australia, New Zealand, and the battle site at Guadalcanal.
  • June 1943: Detroit Race Riots were fought over the right of African Americans to move into the federally-sponsored Sojourner Truth housing projects.
  • Whites protested that their housing units must come first, and they directed their anger at Eleanor when she interceded with FDR to maintain the project's original purpose.
  • Their criticisms at Eleanor, blaming her for the outbreak of the riots, lead to increased pressure and tension. FDR approved the visit to the South Pacific in order to cool this anger.
  • ER especially made note of women's war efforts. In the South Pacific, she applauded the Women's Air Force Auxiliary and the all-female ambulance units.
  • Despite her work-intensive schedule, ER made sure to interact with and write down all the addresses of the soldiers she met abroad, saving them for a time when she could write personally to the families of these men.
  • Her chats reminded the homesick men of their mothers, and many were left in tears after her visit.

The Soviet Union (1957)

  • Eleanor believed that the only way to ease the Cold War tensions between the USSR and the US was to establish direct contact with each other.
  • 1955-early 1966: Nikita Khrushchev's efforts to loosen tensions led to renewed hope that the USSR "might relax...in the wake of Stalin's death"
  • However, with the Soviet Union's tank attacks on Budapest in 1956, which prevented Hungary's new prime minister, Imre Nagy, from liberalizing the government, came renewed hostility and doubt.
  • 1957: ER had the opportunity to visit the Soviet Union with her friend, New York Post editor Dorothy Schiff, after being denied a trip to Communist China.
  • Eleanor, although she visited a multitude of different cities, including Tashkent, Leningrad, Samarkand, and Yalta, lamented the tight control that the Soviet officials held over her.
  • ER had an interview with Khrushchev in which the two debated foreign policy and communist ideology
  • Since ER's return coincided with Sputnik's launch in 1957, Americans paid great attention to her My Day columns
  • Although she did conclude that the USSR was a "mass of contradictions," ER constructed her columns in a way that revealed the misunderstandings between the American and Soviet peoples. By doing this, she hoped to establish friendlier relations between them and a mindset that turned away from using "war and extermination" as the first resort in response to turbulent events.
  • Included depictions of the churches, mosques, food, and individuals she met during her trip in order to impress upon readers the commonalities between the US & the USSR.

FDR Dies (April 12, 1945)

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Adopted December 10, 1948)

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  • ER regarded this as her greatest achievement.
  • The greatest success of the declaration was in how it created "a common standard of achievement" among the United Nations' delegates, who differed greatly in their government systems, economies, philosophies, cultures, and religions.
  • April 29, 1946: ER, with her numerous social works, was elected as President of the Human Rights Commission.
  • She brought to the position her "passionate commitment to human rights," her idealism, and her pragmatism that came out of an extensive knowledge of the possible obstacles that could hinder the progress of the Declaration.
  • At first, the UN delegates did not believe such a declaration was necessary.
  • However, the two world wars and the awareness of the terrible conditions at the Nazi concentration camps led many people to feel that the UN should include the creation of a universal rights doctrine as part of its objective.
  • A meeting with US Secretary of State Edward Stettinius led to unprecedented U.S. support of the establishment of a human rights commission.
  • Between the UN delegates there existed a discrepancy between their backgrounds, which made it harder for them to properly consider each others' POV's.
  • Delegates from western democratic nations stressed the importance of individual rights while Communist nations emphasized the whole people's interests.
  • On the other hand, developing nations wanted more inclusion of civil & political rights in contrast to social & economic rights.
  • There was extensive debate between the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Developing nations were concerned that freedom of speech could lead to chaos.
  • ER didn't want the declaration to become mired in legal terms. She wanted it to be easily understandable, so that any average Joe would be able to comprehend it. She also wanted the declaration's wording to be flexible enough to allow for different countries to implement these rights in different ways.
  • Despite the obstacles that stood in the declaration's way (esp. the Soviet Union's inflexibility), ER and the others succeeded in finishing it. ER made sure to establish within the committee open communication and a sense of community.
  • The Declaration passed adoption with a vote of 48-0. The USSR, its allies, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia abstained from the vote.

ER's Death (November 7, 1962)

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Parallels & Conclusions

Eleanor’s childhood in the late 1800s, during the time period known as the Gilded Age, was lived in the era known as Victorianism. Queen Victoria of Great Britain established the strict morals that were to define her country during her life, as well as the countries of Western Europe and North America (mainly, the U.S.). Social conventions at that time dictated “a strong sense of duty, a conviction of moral righteousness, and a deep feeling for...country.” These were deeply impressed upon Eleanor, who, after her parents’ death, was residing with her Grandmother Hall. Manifesting themselves in her social work at home and all over the world, these conventions led Eleanor to achieve widespread fame and her nickname of “The World’s First Lady.” Victorianism also placed a heavy emphasis on conformity to the gender roles of the time. Mothers were expected to run the affairs over her household and provide a strong, moral example for her children to follow. The “typical wife” during this time period spent about fifteen years in a state of restrictive domesticity, often bearing as many children as she could cram in within that time space. Indeed, Eleanor followed this route in her early years of marriage to Franklin, and she bore six children, one of whom died in the early days after birth. However, Eleanor was also a young woman during the Progressive Era, when big shots such as President Theodore Roosevelt tackled the chaos generated by the Gilded Age head-on. Progressivism encompassed a strong, combative, vibrant national atmosphere, strengthened by the various social reforms (for example, Jane Addam’s efforts with Hull House) going on at the time. Eleanor, like many other young women, took up the crusading spirit by enlisting in the Women’s Trade Union League and revamping her efforts to address the concerns of the poor. The spirit of the time never left Eleanor; in fact, her years as the First Lady strengthened her passion for social work and her concern for the issues plaguing the American people.

Political Cartoon

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Time Period: Before & After the Civil War (1844-1877)


Although Eleanor was a remarkable woman and First Lady, I doubt whether she would have been as successful if she was placed in a different time period. During the Civil War era, the women’s rights (especially the suffrage) movement was just burgeoning. America at the time was not yet ready to accept Eleanor’s efforts to assert her own independence outside that of her husband’s control. Eleanor’s various activities done to support blacks would have come under heavier fire during the Civil War era because slavery and emancipation were fiercely contested issues at the time. Additionally, Eleanor would not have had as wide a reach if she were the First Lady during this era. The travel restrictions of the time would have limited the number of issues she concerned herself with, and they also would have limited her influence on the multitude of people she met and interacted with during her domestic travels and journeys abroad.


Two of Eleanor's outstanding causes during her lifetime were civil rights and women's rights. If she lived during the Civil War era, she would have supported the abolition of slavery and more rights to both women and Native Americans. She would have used her connections to get in touch with the leading activists at the time, such as Frederick Douglass and the Grimke sisters, and trade opinions.


I contrasted this time period with the time periods that comprised Eleanor's life because of several reasons. The main reason was the interesting parallels I found between FDR and Abraham Lincoln. Both men guided America during troubling times, times when the American people needed strong leadership the most, and both men were hesitant to a certain degree. For Lincoln, it was his hesitancy to abandon the border states with the release of the Emancipation Proclamation. For FDR, it was his hesitancy to abandon the Southern Democrats, whose Congressional backing was, in his POV, of utmost importance. A secondary reason was the burgeoning of the civil rights and women's movements at this time. While the Civil War era mainly focused on abolition and women's suffrage, Eleanor saw in her lifetime the focus shift to economic, political, and social civil rights and the rise of the feminist movement.

If I Had the Same Skills as Eleanor...

Eleanor’s grace and sincerity, her determination and ability to communicate with others, her tireless devotion and her organizational skills--all these traits made up the First Lady. If I had the same skills as her, I would follow in her footsteps and become an activist, advocating for the issues I most believe in. In today’s society, I would concentrate my efforts on the feminist movement as well as the education reform movement. My primary concerns would be combatting the gender and wage gap seen clearly in today’s society, as well as the efforts to make education, especially public school education, fit both the needs of the student and the long-term needs of society. I would also advocate for taking volunteerism in high schools and colleges to a new level; instead of focusing on the number of hours served, I would encourage the youth to focus on the connections established and the experiences gained from such ventures. Eleanor had, as one close friend put it, “great energy” in whatever that she did; the First Lady kept up a rigorous schedule that had her up at eight A.M. almost every morning til well past midnight. I would use that tirelessness to, like Eleanor, travel all over the country, delivering speeches, meeting up with leaders, and conversing with the public. Eleanor had great skill at this sort of informal conversation, gathering as much information from individuals as possible. She could gauge the sentiments of the American people and could establish personal connections with individuals in a short amount of time. If I had this skill, I would use it to build up a network of close friends and allies who would be willing to support me in my endeavors.

"The First Kitchen" by Laura Shapiro {Historiography}

The Great Depression. It was a time when the American economy was almost cripplingly wounded, when great whirlwinds of dust and debris ravaged the Great Plains, when the American people as a whole--and minorities such as African Americans and lower-class farmers--suffered exceedingly. In short, it was a time when the US needed its greatest pick-me-up. And they found it when Franklin Delano Roosevelt (commonly known as FDR) stepped in. Over the past few years in New York, where FDR served in the political scene, Shapiro noted Eleanor Roosevelt's increasing awareness of the implications that came with being a politician's (albeit estranged) wife, mainly, the implications that came with duty. {PERIODIC SENTENCE} So when FDR was elected as president, Eleanor was, to put it mildly, terrified. She dreaded the idea of "pouring tea for the next four or eight years," dreaded the prospect of completely giving up her newfound independence for the sake of being a public figure. In an attempt to make her stay at the White House as comfortable as possible, Eleanor employed her longtime friend Mrs. Henrietta Nesbitt as housekeeper. Mrs. Nesbitt's meals were "so gray, so drooping, and so spectacularly inept that they became a Washington legend." Shapiro then draws the conclusion that her meals were a subtler indication of Eleanor's earlier phase of domesticity, a time when Eleanor's favorite dish--in fact, the only dish she knew how to make--was scrambled eggs. Mrs. Nesbitt's meals were also Eleanor's message to the American public. Cooking low-cost, nutritious meals in the White House, Eleanor was communicating her solidarity with the sentiments of her fellow countrymen (and women). {PARTICIPIAL PHRASE} "Conscientious cookery" was what it was called, and the "radical movement" that the Depression launched engaged hundreds of women in households all over America into home economics. To be clear, Shapiro delineates, the field was not intended "to create female scientists but to create scientific homemakers." This intention plainly shows the mindset of the Depression era: make do with what you have and focus on that above anything else. Presumably, that was the opposite of FDR's mindset when it came to Mrs. Nesbitt's food. Raised in Hyde Park and surrounded by personal chefs willing to cater to his every need, Franklin knew full well "the taste of excellent food and missed it badly." Mrs. Nesbitt's redundant meal planning left Franklin utterly desperate, and despite numerous requests to the housekeeper and complaints to Eleanor, FDR was always, ironically, defeated. "Defeated" was too much of an understatement (and also an inaccurate depiction of) how Eleanor felt in 1918, the year when she discovered her husband's affair with social secretary Lucy Mercer Rutherford, and the year when she was forced to restructure her whole entire life in the aftermath of the blow. For about a decade, Eleanor had built her whole existence on meeting the needs of Franklin and her children and her domineering mother-in-law Sarah. To meet those needs, Eleanor squashed her personal desires and dreams and caves in to social and familial pressure. When the affair came to light, Eleanor was swamped with "grief and self-doubt." She offered Franklin a divorce, but he declined, knowing it would permanently terminate his political career. She resolved to set up an emotional and physical barricade between herself and FDR as a precaution to further pain. Slowly, by weaving a close-knit network of friends and political allies and by channeling her enormous capacities for compassion and organization into social work, Eleanor broke out of her self-imposed mold. When she entered the White House and allowed Mrs. Nesbitt to continue her bland cooking, Eleanor was in fact, Shapiro argues, subconsciously doling out her revenge to Franklin. But despite this slight regression, Eleanor's long-held virtues of forgiveness and morality led her to the title of "first lady of the world" in the years after her husband's death.

This song was Eleanor Roosevelt's favorite, and its lyrics reflected her attitude toward the importance of individual action.

Brighten The Corner Where You Are (24-Bit Digitally Remastered 06)
Echoes from Marian Anderson's defiant performance

Works Cited

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  8. Exec. Order No. 8802, 3 C.F.R. 2 (1941). Print.

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  19. Roosevelt, Eleanor. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961. Print.

  20. Roosevelt, Eleanor. Tomorrow is Now. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. Print.

  21. Sears, John F., Anne F. Herdt, and Micheline Calmy-Rey. “Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, 2008. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.

  22. Shapiro, Laura. “The First Kitchen.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 22 Nov. 2010. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.

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  26. Woolner, David. "African Americans and the New Deal: A Look Back in History." Roosevelt Institute. The Roosevelt Institute, 2011. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.