Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 - 1962)
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
When it comes to summarizing the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, the term “First Lady” takes on so many meanings. No wonder she often is ranked among the most influential women of the 20th century. So much more than the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt marked firsts in so many ways. She was the first president’s wife to take an activist role and present her causes directly to the people through her own press conferences, syndicated columns and radio broadcasts. She took a leading role in addressing the needs of women, children, laborers and minority groups, never shying away from unpopular positions. She got out of the White House and connected directly with Americans of every stripe, both here and abroad. And after the death of her husband, she expanded her reach around the world as a U.N. delegate and champion of human rights, nicknamed “First Lady of the World” by President Harry S.Truman.
Born into privilege in 1884, Eleanor’s young life took a tragic turn with the death of a brother and both her parents by age 10. Painfully shy and awkward, she was shipped off to boarding school in England at 15, where she was deeply influenced by the feminist headmistress, laying a foundation for her future social activism. In 1905, she married her handsome and politically ambitious distant cousin, with the blessing of her adored uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt. Before long, she was juggling the responsibilities of raising six children, running multiple homes and hosting political gatherings. But during World War I, now the wife of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, she managed, too, to speak at patriotic rallies and work with the Red Cross, visiting wounded soldiers and working to improve conditions for the mentally ill. After ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, she forgot her opposition to women’s suffrage and actively worked with the League of Women Voters.
Despite knowledge of her husband’s infidelities, Eleanor steadfastly supported him after he contracted polio, taking a leading role in shaping his political career. Often traveling as his surrogate campaigner in the 1932 presidential election, she helped FDR win office with the widest margin in history, in large part due to her political astuteness and rapport with the downtrodden in post-Depression America. Entering the White House, Eleanor was poised to fight for equal pay legislation, child labor limitations, and civil rights.
Despite criticism from Southern conservatives, Eleanor vocally promoted equal treatment of women and African Americans. She worked to get many women appointed to governmental positions. She held women-only press conferences. And when in 1936 the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow popular African-American singer Marian Anderson to give a concert in their Constitution Hall, the First Lady resigned her membership.
After FDR’s death in 1945, Eleanor did not fade into the shadows. As U.S. delegate to the United Nations, she fought for the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She would remain an advocate for people everywhere, pushing for progress and never shy of stepping out first.