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The First Ladies: Eleanor Roosevelt

Her full name was Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and she was born on October 11, 1884 in New York City. She was one of the most interesting first ladies because of her independence and willingness to accomplish great things on her own. As I began to learn about her and write this, I was amazed at the vast number of her accomplishments, making for a very long journal entry and prompting me to put this behind a cut.

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Her father was Elliott Roosevelt, a man who never really held a job, but lived off of his vast inheritance. He was called a “sportsman” by his daughter Eleanor because he loved big game hunting. Elliott Roosevelt suffered from acute alcoholism and narcotics addiction. Between 1890 and 1891, during what was his third overseas trip, Elliott Roosevelt was committed to an asylum in France by his family. A year later, his brother Theodore Roosevelt committed him to the Keeley Center in Dwight, Illinois to seek treatment for his alcohol addiction. He died in the summer of 1894 before Eleanor's 10th birthday. Eleanor's mother was Anna Rebecca Hall. She also died when Eleanor was a child (on December 7, 1892). Eleanor became the ward of her maternal grandmother, Mary Livingston Ludlow.

Eleanor was a tall woman. She was 5 feet 11 inches in height (she and Michelle Obama are believed to be the tallest first ladies.)

She attended Allenswood Girl’s Academy, Wimbledon Common, London, England from 1898-1902. The school was run by Marie Souvestre, who Eleanor later identified as the first greatest influence on her educational and emotional development. Souvestre espoused political views that challenged the status quo, defending the rights of the working-class, an attitude that would greatly shape the later activism of Eleanor Roosevelt. She later called her three years at Allenswood Academy the “happiest years of my life.”

Eleanor Roosevelt was not interested in leading the social life of a debutante as her grandmother and other relatives expected. She began her work as a teacher of dance and calisthenics, a way to use physical exercise and movement to improve health after long hours of work in a confined space. She became a volunteer investigator for a reform organization investigating sweatshops in New York.

During a train trip from New York City up the Hudson River to her maternal grandmother’s home, she had a long, substantive conversation with her fifth cousin, once removed, a Harvard University student named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A secret courtship ensued, resulting in their engagement. FDR’s mother Sara Roosevelt intervened, believing them too young to marry, but eventually she permitted the marriage. The couple was married on March 17, 1905. The bride was 20 and the groom was 22. President Theodore Roosevelt gave the bride away.

The couple had six children together, one daughter and five sons: Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (born May 3 1906), James Roosevelt (born December 23, 1907), Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. (who died in infancy in 1909), Elliott Roosevelt (born September 23, 1910), Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. (born August 17, 1914) and John Aspinwall Roosevelt (born March 13, 1916). The second son named Franklin was born in Canada, on Campobello Island).

Sara Roosevelt dominated the early years of Eleanor Roosevelt’s marriage to FDR, choosing their first home and then a second home adjacent to her own, with doors that connected both places. FDR was elected twice to the New York State Senate as a representative of Dutchess County, where he and his mother maintained residency in the town of Hyde Park (1910, 1912). After relocating to the state capital city of Albany, Eleanor Roosevelt began to attend legislative sessions and to build an interest in politics

Under the Woodrow Wilson Administration, FDR was appointed Assistant Navy Secretary (1913-1920). Eleanor Roosevelt joined some spouses in accepting the invitation of First Lady Ellen Wilson to tour the deplorable housing conditions of Washington’s largely African-American community. When the first world war broke out, Eleanor Roosevelt assumed several volunteer jobs in Washington, D.C. working for two private aid organizations. She successfully lobbied the Wilson Administration’s Interior Secretary to create a commission which prompted Congress to increase the budget of veterans hospitals.

During FDR’s tenure as Assistant Navy Secretary, Eleanor Roosevelt discovered that he was having an affair with her social secretary Lucy Mercer. She offered her husband a divorce. His mother advised him that divorce and subsequent remarriage to a Catholic would be detrimental to his national political ambitions and threatened to cut off his inheritance. FDR promised that he would end his relationship with Mercer. Some three decades later, without Eleanor Roosevelt’s knowledge, FDR resumed his friendship with Lucy Mercer, who was by then the widow of Winthrop Rutherford.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated as the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket in 1920, Eleanor Roosevelt was befriended by his advisor and press secretary, journalist Louis Howe. It was Howe who nurtured Eleanor's interest in politics. The Republican ticket won the presidency and FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt returned to their homes in Hyde Park and New York City, where FDR resumed his legal career.

FDR contracted infantile paralysis in 1921. Eleanor Roosevelt took charge of his initial medical care and encouraged his effort to seek various treatments, though she was doubtful that he would eventually regain mobility. He sought a more specified treatment in Warm Springs, Georgia, accompanied by one of his secretaries Marguerite “Missy” LeHand. LeHand relieved Eleanor Roosevelt of a number of responsibilities, in turn permitting her to pursue an independent career in reform politics, writing and teaching. She became the Vice-President and Finance Chair of the Women's Division of the New York State Democratic Committee. In 1924 she campaigned through all of New York State for Democrat Alfred Smith against her first cousin, Republican Theodore Roosevelt Jr. in his gubernatorial election. She was also active in the League of Women Voters, the World Peace Movement, and numerous other activities. In 1924 Eleanor Roosevelt served as the chair of the women’s delegation of the Platform Committee for that year’s Democratic National Convention. Four years later, during the 1928 Democratic National Convention, she headed all women’s activities for Al Smith and was able to help him convince FDR to run as his successor as Governor of New York.

She was first lady of New York State from 1929-1933. She was instrumental in FDR’s reforming the Public Employment Service, as well as his promoting labor leader Frances Perkins as New York’s Secretary of Labor. She would substitute for her husband when either his immobility or his schedule precluded his presence at political events.

In 1931, she organized the women’s division of “Friends For Roosevelt,” the exploratory committee that would launch his candidacy for president and was active in his successful campaign. She is said to have been apprehensive about the prospect of what life as First Lady would mean for her. She continued her lucrative career as a lecturer, freelance journalist, and radio broadcaster. She was criticized in the media over some of her more enlightened views about the role of women in society.

No presidential wife served as First Lady for a period longer than did Eleanor Roosevelt – twelve years, one month, one week and one day. Eleanor Roosevelt worked closely with FDR and his staff as an unofficial Administration representative and on policy-related issues. Much like Hillary Clinton's later experience, Eleanor faced the criticism that she was not elected to carry out important public tasks, but she was able to ignored the frequent criticism.

As a writer, public speaker and media figure she was able to provoke discussion and debate on causes she believed in. On March 6, 1933, two days after becoming First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt held what was to become the first of 348 press conferences, with nearly 35 women in attendance. The idea was intended in part to help women reporters keep their jobs during the depression and to provoke national consciousness about larger issues and crises of the day. The topics ranged from the threat that Hitler presented to Europe or the endemic problems of Washington, D.C.’s social welfare institutions. Male reporters were not allowed to attend the conferences. The press conferences ultimately helped women break into the ranks of professional journalism. The last press conference was held 12 April 1945, several hours before the President’s sudden death

In May of 1941, she began a monthly column, “If You Ask Me,” for Ladies Home Journal, receiving $2500 a month. Journal editors reviewed the mail sent to Mrs. Roosevelt at the magazine and chose the questions for her to answer, about ten each month. The topics were again a mix of the personal and the political. Her column in this magazine continued through the rest of her White House years, until 1949. She also had a famous syndicated newspaper column, called "My Day". She wrote it six days a week. My Day was syndicated in 62 daily newspapers with a readership of over 4 million. It earned her about $1000 monthly. It was in My Day, for example, that she announced and explained her resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution over the organization’s refusal to lease their auditorium to permit African-American contralto singer Marian Anderson to perform there.

Eleanor Roosevelt contracted to deliver twelve radio news commentaries for the Pond’s cold cream company. She continued to do them as First Lady. This series included her address to the nation on the night of December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day, following the President’s declaration of war. During her tenure as First Lady, it is estimated that she gave about 1,400 speeches. She wrote all of them herself, although it was usually a mere outline rather than a prepared text from which she spoke. She also wrote a number of books as first lady including : It’s Up to the Women (1933), a call upon women to find confidence and strength in facing the hardships of the Depression. This Troubled World (1938) and The Moral Basis of Democracy (1940). In 1935, her first work of fiction was published, A Trip to Washington with Bobby and Betty - although the children’s story ended with a visit to the real-life President Roosevelt. Her second work of fiction, Christmas: A Story (1940) was set in contemporary Nazi-occupied Holland, with a spirited young girl as the protagonist. The book with which she was most widely associated during her tenure as First Lady was This Is My Story (1937), the first of what would be her three-volume autobiography. The subsequent volumes to her autobiography were This I Remember (1949), which covered the period up to FDR’s death, and On My Own (1958). In addition, her post-White House years saw her authoring another dozen works: If You Ask Me (1946), Partners: The United Nations and Youth (co-authored) (1950), India and the Awakening East (1953), UN: Today and Tomorrow (co-authored) (1953), Ladies of Courage (1954), It Seems to Me (1954), The United Nations (1955), You Learn By Living (1960), Your Teens and Mine (co-authored) 1961, The Wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt (1962), Eleanor Roosevelt’s Book of Common Etiquette (1962), and Tomorrow is Now (published posthumously in 1963).

Beginning in August of 1933, she actually encouraged the public to write her directly. In the first year of the first FDR term, she received 300,000 letters, in the first year of the second term, it dipped to 90,000 and in the first election year of the third term, it again rose, to 150,000. As the US entered World War II, a greater percentage of her public correspondence came from US servicemen and their families, often reporting sub-standard conditions or illegal practices which official War and Navy Department reports might otherwise neglect to address.

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She undertook frequent trips around the United States, to inspect various New Deal programs, often without announcement so program directors could not suddenly disguise problems. She drove her car, took the trains and flew by airplane to do this. She travelled alone, refusing to be trailed by Secret Service agents. The agency acquiesced only after she had demonstrated ability for self-protection with a gun they insisted she carry. She agreed to this, but never felt the need to use it.

By 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt’s views had evolved to the point where equality of all races had become one of her core values as a person. Far more than her husband, she believed the U.S. government had a moral duty to initiate and enforce changes that furthered or ensured racial equality. This was viewed by the larger white population at that time as radical. Invited to the African-American Howard University, for example, she wanted herself photographed as she was escorted in by two uniformed Honor Guard male students. The picture was widely printed, often used to prompt angry racist attacks on her. She showed her opposition to segregation laws when she came to the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in November of 1938, in Birmingham, Alabama and moved her chair into the aisle, between the “whites-only” and “colored-only” sections. On February 26, 1939 she resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution when that organization refused to rent its Constitution Hall for a concert by opera singer Marian Anderson. Two months after that, she had Anderson sing in the White House for the King and Queen of England. She vigorously pressed her husband to support a proposed anti-lynching law – but failed to do so. FDR believed that southern Democrats might abandon his ongoing and future legislative agenda.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a strong supporter of labor unions. As a working newspaper columnist, Eleanor Roosevelt joined the American Newspaper Guild, the first known First Lady to join a labor union. As First Lady, she also chose forms of entertainment at receptions, dinners and other social events which reflected more fully the spectrum of the diverse American popular culture – such as her famously serving hot dogs to the King and Queen of England.

Eleanor Roosevelt would become an important symbol during World War II. She was the mother of four sons who were active servicemen, and she put the entire White House system on the same food and gas rationing system as the rest of the country. She had a victory garden planted on the South Lawn and made frequent radio appeals for donations of money and blood to the Red Cross. She was a frequent public critic of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini and they in turn would attack her in their broadcasts. Eleanor Roosevelt was troubled by the Roosevelt Administration’s February 1942 policy of interning Japanese-Americans in ten relocation camps in western states. She voiced her protest to the plan in public, and soon enlisted the Attorney General to fight the policy with the President. With public sentiment vigorously anti-Japanese, however, she lost her case.In April 1943, she visited one camp in Arizona. By November of that year, her disgust and shame at the camps seemed to have had some influence on FDR for he approved plans to begin letting individuals be given exit permits. As early as 1935, Eleanor Roosevelt was receiving word directly from friends in Europe about the increasing mistreatment, harassment and threats to Jews by the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. While she continued to try and facilitate refugee status for individuals, she found resistance within the State Department to support of the Wagner-Rogers Bill which would have permitted Jewish children to emigrate to the United States. As she learned directly of the systematic murder of Jews began, she was unsuccessful in convincing her husband to make their rescue a priority of war. Still, she did not refrain from seeking to raise American public attention to the crisis, joining with Jewish-American leaders in their speaking tours and attending a benefit performance intended to raise sympathy for the victims who remained in concentration camps.

Eleanor Roosevelt went to England from October 21 to November 17, 1942, making her the first incumbent First Lady to make a trip outside of the U.S. without the President. She visited U.S. serviceman, including segregated African-American troops, reporting to the President on needed improvements in recreational facilities and other needs that were not being met. She also became the first First Lady to broadcast a message to foreign people, delivering a radio address on the BBC. She made her second international trip from August 17 to September 24, 1943 as a representative of the Red Cross, to the South Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia. She also reviewed the routine letters sent by the President to families of the military who were killed in action and had them redrafted with a more humane tone.

When FDR died in April of 1945, the widowed Eleanor Roosevelt returned to her home “Val-Kill,” located near the more famous Hyde Park estate of her late husband. She accepted the appointment by President Harry Truman to serve as the only woman among the five American delegates to the newly-created United Nations in December of 1945. She was in attendance at the historic first meeting of the institution in London, in January of 1946. Eleanor Roosevelt became a powerful advocate for millions of oppressed and tyrannized peoples, calling on European colonial powers to grant independence to countries they conquered, advocating the creation of Israel as a Jewish homeland. The most enduring legacy of her life was her drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She wrote and edited portions of the document. In her later capacity as the Human Rights Commission chair, she presented the declaration to the U.N. General Assembly on 10 December 1948, which then passed it.

She resisted various suggestions that she run for public office herself, but remained deeply active in national Democratic Party activities, becoming one of the most powerful figures in the party. She did not refrain from disagreeing with Truman. She was disappointed that he had not continued to fight for health care coverage once it was defeated. She attended the Democratic conventions in 1952 and 1956 in support of Adlai Stevenson and in 1960 in support of John F. Kennedy. Her commitment to civil rights only increased after she left the White House. She worked as a board member of the NAACP, among other civil rights organizations. She defied the threats of the Ku Klux Klan to deliver a speech to activists at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, and visited civil rights worker incarcerated for participating in protests. She criticized the Eisenhower Administration as being too passive in the civil rights struggle and helped fund raise for those civil rights activists who employed nonviolent civil disobedience, most notably doing so with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks to sustain the boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama bus system. Her last official role was as chair of President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, which she chaired, delivering its report in December 1961.

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Eleanor Roosevelt died on November 7, 1962 at the age of 78. She is buried in Hyde Park, N.Y.

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