Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and niece of Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States of America. She was born on October 11, 1884, in New York City and died on November 7th, 1962. In her autobiography she wrote very modestly, "About the only value the story of my life may have is to Show that one can, even without any particular gifts, overcome obstacles that seem insurmountable if one is willing to face that fact that they must be overcome; that, in spite of timidity and fear, in spite of a lack of special talents, one can, find a way to live widely and fully. Life is meant to be lived, and curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life" (Roosevelt. xix).
Eleanor was raised in a very religious atmosphere. She learned verses from the Bible, which she had to read to her mother every morning. Her, mother died when Eleanor was eight years old. From then on she lived with Grandmother Hall, her mother's mother, on West 37th Street in New York City. Eleanor's father died of a brain tumor in 1894 when Eleanor was ten. The two had been very close. Eleanor had loved her father very much, a love that dominated her life for many years beyond his death.
Early in life she came to realize that there were poor and needy people around her. Her father used to take her to distribute food to the hungry on Thanksgiving Day. Her grandmother, uncle and aunts did the same thing with her on every Christmas Day in the charity wards of New York hospitals.
Eleanor attended a private school, Allenswood, in England from 1899 to 1902 during her 15th to 18th years. She traveled in Europe during the summer holidays to such places as Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France, and Italy. On one occasion she traveled to Florence, Italy alone. Eleanor used her quick mind to survive these years abroad.
On returning to New York in 1902, Eleanor came out as a debutante in the fall of that year. She worked briefly in the Junior League, in the Rivington Street Settlement House. During this period her cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, began courting her and eventually asked her to marry him. Of these years she wrote in her autobiography, I had a great curiosity about life and a desire to participate in every experience that might be the lot of a woman. . .yet I know now that it was years later before I understood what being in love or what Loving really meant" (Roosevelt.41).
The young lovers, Eleanor and Franklin were married on March 17, 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt, her uncle, gave her away. Her Auntie Bye, Theodore Roosevelt's sister, was a great help and comfort to her during all her difficult early years.
Auntie Bye advised her as follows, "No matter what you do, some people will criticize you, and if you are entirely sure that youwould not be ashamed to explain your action to someone whom you loved and who loved you, and you are satisfied in your Own mind that you are doing right, then you need not worry about criticism nor need you ever explain what you do" (Roosevelt.43).
The Roosevelt children came fast. Anna was born on May 3, 1906; James on December 23, 1907; Elliott on September 23, 1910 (after the death of an infant on November 8, 1909); Franklin Jr. on August 17, 1914; and lastly, John on March 13, 1916. After bearing these five children, Eleanor Roosevelt felt she had fulfilled her job as a dutiful wife to Franklin. Later her son Elliott reported that his parents never again lived together as husband and wife. Eleanor felt she had performed her duty in marriage and that bearing and raising five children were proof enough.
Apparently, either Mrs. Roosevelt did not know about or did not care to use contraceptives. Abstinence from sexual intercourse was her method of birth control. Also, the culture in which she grew up did not allow or encourage women to enjoy exuberant living or sexual pleasures even within the legal framework of marriage. Franklin on the other hand, was noted for living an aggressive life, full of social activities, pleasure, and bon-vivance. His wife wrote of these years "For ten years (1906-1916) I was always just getting over having a baby or about to have one and so my occupations were considerably restricted during this period" (Roosevelt.62).
In the meantime, F.D.R. finished law school at Columbia, and won a seat in the Legislature in New York State in 1910. The public life of Eleanor Roosevelt now started. Eleanor wrote, "Here in Albany began for the first time a dual existence for me, which was to last all the rest of my life. Public service.. .was to be part of our daily life from now on. I still lived under the compulsion of my early training; duty was perhaps the motivating force of my life... .1 looked at everything from the point of view of what I ought to do" (Roosevelt.66).
In 1912 F.D.R. supported. Woodrow Wilson for the presidency and Woodrow Wilson won. Wilson appointed F.D.R. Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The Roosevelts moved to 1733 N. Street, Washington D.C. Eleanor was becoming a veteran at moving her large family from Washington, to Hyde Park, to New York, to Campobello, and back, to and fro, again and again.
When the First World War started in Europe, Eleanor Roosevelt did her duty. For example, she accompanied her husband on inspection tours of the Naval facilities in the U.S., traveling to many different states. She distributed and collected knitting for the troops. She worked at the Naval Red Cross Canteen~ She took an interest in the Naval Hospital where facilities so shocked her that she enlisted the help of the Secretary of the Interior, Franklin Lane. Lane pushed Congress for extra funds to improve the treatment of the patients there. Mrs. Roosevelt gradually overcame her shyness and learned to work well with people.
In 1919 she had her first experience with the women's political movement when she had tea with the International Congress for Women Workers. They were working for women's suffrage. In those days women did not vote and did not take part in politics. Men ran the political world. Women usually waited outside the doors where important political meetings took place. Passage of women's suffrage in 1920 started to change this situation. This was the year when Mrs. Roosevelt accompanied her husband on his campaign for the vice-presidency.
Louis Howe, F.D.R.'s campaign manager, started to teach her the fine points of good politics. It was at this time that Eleanor began the process of becoming an independent thinker in her own right.
Infantile paralysis crippled F.D.R. in the slimmer of 1921. This was a most trying time, for Mrs. Roosevelt as well as a time of growth. While being responsible for five children she successfully championed her husband's cause of remaining active in politics rather than retiring to Hyde Park as his mother had suggested. She became his stand-in and kept his name in the limelight while he went to warmer climates seeking to regain the use of his legs. She helped organize women's groups in the various precincts of New York state and raised funds for them. Her interest in the League of Women Voters, the Women's Trade Union League and the Democratic State Committee gave her wide political contacts. She was finance chairperson for the State of New York Democratic Committee Many women assisted her growth in politics. Among them were' Nancy Cook, Marion Dickerman, Carrie Can, Elinor Morgenthau Jr., Esther Lape, Elizabeth Read, Molly Dewson, and Rose Schneiderxnan. Eleanor helped Governor Al Smith talk F.D.R into running for governor of New York in 1929. She worked hard for the ticket in which Al Smith was defeated for the presidency while her husband was elected governor of New York.
F.D.R. took over the governorship on January 1, 1929. Because he could walk only with crutches, he sent Mrs. Roosevelt on inspection tours of public facilities. She served as his eyes and ears and as his gatherer of information from outside the government. Eleanor Roosevelt put it this way, "Consciously, I never tried to exert any political influence on my husband or anyone else in the government. However, one cannot live in a political atmosphere and study the actions of a good politician without absorbing some rudimentary facts about politics" (Roosevelt.133).
F.D.R. started campaigning for the U.S. Presidency in 1932. His wife helped him get elected. From then on Eleanor had to live in the public limelight. She had to become a keen observer so as to be able to answer Franklin's questions on a wide range of topics. She stated that she learned to make an evaluation of the bills on which he needed support. F.D.R. calculated votes closely on the' administration policy proposals and most legislation. Eleanor wanted to get all-out support for the anti-lynching bill and removal of the poll tax. Although the President was in favor of both measures, they never became legislation of the highest priority. Mrs. Roosevelt was far ahead of the government and Congress in demanding racial equality for blacks and restoration of legal and civil rights to all minorities in the U.S.
Mrs. Roosevelt did not push F.D.R. to run for the Presidency in 1940. Eleanor did not see anyone ready to take his place, even under the threat of a pending war. The President did not attend the Democratic Convention but asked Mrs. Roosevelt to go. When the convention was thrown into disarray over the selection of the vice-president, Mrs. Roosevelt restored order and saw her husband nominated and eventually elected for a third term.
War finally cane to the U.S. on December 7,1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Eleanor Roosevelt worked briefly in the Office of Civil Defense with Mayor La Guardia and visited Civil Defense facilities on the West Coast. Many allied leaders came to Washington to consult with F.D .R., and of course the First Lady was their hostess. Those who did not come to the United States wrote letters. Eleanor noted a conversation between F.D.R. and the Russian leader Stalin.
Stalin said, "You have come a long way in the US from your original concept of government and its responsibilities, and your original way of life. I think it is quite possible that we in the U.S.S.R., as our resources develop and people can have an easier life, will find ourselves growing nearer to some of your' concepts and you may be finding yourselves accepting some of ours" (Roosevelt.236).
Mrs. Roosevelt visited England in 1942 to observe and encourage U.S. servicemen. She took their hometown addresses from many of them and planned to write to as many of their families as was possible. She also toured the Pacific War Theater and visited the men who were hospitalized. She felt genuine sorrow for them, especially those who became mentally deranged. Eleanor's four sons were in the armed services. She identified with all the mothers who sent their children to war knowing that their farewells might be the last time that they would ever see their children alive. Eleanor had been against the First World War. During the Second World War she pledged herself to do her best to prevent future wars and all their evil consequences. She wrote, "I have tried, ever since, in everything I have done to keep that promise I made to myself, but the progress that the world is making toward peace seems like the crawling of a little child, halting and slow" (Roosevelt.252).
Allies launched an invasion on D-Day on June 6, 1944, to defeat Hider in his homeland. F.D.R. visited the Pacific war zone and then attended the Quebec War Conference in January of 1945.
Mrs. Roosevelt thought F.D.R. did not look healthy after his fourth inauguration on January 20,1945. He went to Warm Springs in early April and died there on April 12, 1945. Eleanor Roosevelt was left alone and on her own. She said her good-byes with difficulty to those who had lived and worked for her for many years in the White House. She did not want to accumulate wealth and possessions. She deeded Hyde Park over to the U.S. on April 12, 1946. She also gave generously to many charities.
President Harry Truman appointed Mrs. Roosevelt as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations in 1946. She served until the end of his administration in 1953. She always believed in the goodness of the U.N., and thought it was our great hope for a peaceful world. Her seven years association with it as a delegate cost her much more than the $14,300 allotted each year to an official U.S. delegate. She became a member of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. She worked very hard for the U.N. because she felt she represented all womankinds. Being one of the few women delegates in the assembly, she did not want to let them down.
Eventually, she became chairperson of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. It consisted of 18 members--five from the Big Five on a permanent basis and 13 from the other countries on a yearly rotation basis. Their job was to create a universal Human Rights Declaration. This was not easy, especially since the Soviet delegates tried to insert Communist ideology into the document. She reminded the members that they were to write a document to ensure human rights to all; men and women were not to attack different systems of government with which they did not agree. She was able to do most of the negotiations in the informal teas, dinners and parties that she held for the delegates in addition to the grueling work in the formal meetings. The civil and political rights were worked out before the economic and social rights because the countries varied so greatly in their economic and social systems. However, she prodded the Commission to conclude the job and presented the document to the General Assembly.
The document listed in detail all the rights of an individual--political, civil, economic, social and cultural. It recommended a treaty among the countries, which accepted these rights for their citizens, a treaty which would be legally binding and incorporated a system for the enforcement of these rights.
The General Assembly accepted the proposals of the U.N. Human Rights Commission by a unanimous vote. The U.S.S.R., the Eastern European countries and South Africa abstained from voting. Mrs. Roosevelt had done such a good job that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, who had originally opposed her appointment by President Truman, praised her work and her methods. Mrs. Roosevelt had also succeeded in getting the refugees of Eastern Europe to be able to freely choose the country in which they desired to re-settle.
Mrs. Roosevelt was a great traveler, who covered almost every part of the globe. In 1952 she visited Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, India, Japan and returned home by way of China and Taiwan. The next year she visited Africa, Morocco, and the East Indies and Bali.
In 1957 and again in 1958 she made trips to the U.S.S.R. to study conditions there. She was impressed by the great economic strides of the millions of people who just forty years previously were poor, starving peasants. The literacy rate in the U.S.S.R. was as high as in the U.S.A.. Quality housing was being provided as well as free medical care for all from birth to death. Eleanor also reported on the paucity of personal freedom and the great anxiety caused by constant surveillance and total state control over individuals.
Eleanor wanted Americans to understand the Soviet people, and to know that their way of life was still evolving. She pointed out that conditioning from birth had made them into a unified, disciplined people willing to do anything to preserve theft country. When interviewing Nikita Khrushchev in 1958, the two agreed that both the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. must strive to create more confidence in each other, more understanding of their different systems and more exchange of people and ideas. But they agreed to disagree on almost everything else. Khrushchev said `When we increase our arms, it means we are afraid of each other. Until the troops are withdrawn out of Europe and military bases liquidated the disarmament will not succeed" (Roosevelt.382).
Mrs. Roosevelt advised America in these words, "While we must have guns and missiles for retaliation against aggression, they are not going to win this struggle or prevent a catastrophic world war. Nor is the belief in the idea of democracy likely to have great effect in areas where democratic institutions are not established. We must never forget that the freedom that is uppermost in the minds of the people of Asia and Africa is the freedom to eat. This is a challenge to democracy. It cannot be met by mere words. We have to show the world by our actions that we live up to the ideals we profess and demonstrate that we can provide all the people with the basic decencies of life, spiritually as well as materially" (Roosevelt.384-85).
To this end she proposed that every American citizen should be given some basic training in foreign languages, develop an agricultural, technical or professional skill. Then we can go out into the world for a few years and share our know-how with countries and people who need it. Thus we could help them improve theft own condition in theft own countries. We cannot afford to become lazy and selfish so that we only want to amass wealth and luxury for ourselves. We cannot afford to take jobs only for our own security. If we continue in our selfish ways we will not be able to lead the world to freedom, to prosperity; and we will not be able to prevent them from engaging in large wars. We will lose a peaceful world unless we take Mrs. Roosevelt's advice, "Do not stop thinking of life as an adventure. You have no security unless you can live bravely, excitingly, imaginatively-, unless you can choose a challenge instead of a competence" (Roosevelt.409).
This brave woman continued to work and inspire the world as its first citizen until her death on November 7, 1962.
- The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt by Eleanor Roosevelt. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961.
- An Untold Story: The Roosevelt of Hyde Park by Elliott Roosevelt. G2. Putnam N.Y. 1973