Walking Tour: Eleanor Roosevelt's Washington

Though Eleanor Roosevelt was a life-long New Yorker, as an adult she twice relocated outside of that state-- both times to live in Washington DC. In 1913, She followed FDR to Washington after President Woodrow Wilson appointed him assistant secretary of the Navy. The Roosevelts moved with their three living children to take up residence on N street NW, and their last two children were born during their years in the capital. In 1916 they relocated to a larger home on R street, where they lived until their 1920 return to New York. In 1933 ER came to DC a second time, when her husband became president of the country. This time, she used Washington as a base for wider travels, often visiting the far corners of the US and even going abroad three times during the second world war to help bolster the war effort abroad. 

During her residencies in DC, ER performed both the social tasks required of her position as wife of a high-ranking government official and the broader service to which she became increasingly committed. When she first came to DC, she focused on her roles as wife and mother. She later described almost all Washington women of her class as “slaves of the Washington social system,” and reported that she had been “appalled by the independence and courage displayed” by the few women who refused the accepted role played by the wives of government officials. After the United States joined World War I, ER and her husband became, as she put it, “less and less concerned with social life except when it could be termed useful or necessary to the work that had to be done.” She volunteered for the Red Cross and the Navy League, and spent time visiting injured sailors in the Washington-area hospitals. In her autobiography, she described those years as a period of growth and education—she gained confidence, executive ability, and independence that she had not had before the war. She also began regularly interacting with people outside of her elite social circle. When she left DC in 1920, she left behind the accepted role of the politician’s wife for good.

By the time ER returned to the city in 1933, she was a political force in her own right. Still, she feared that as first lady she would be limited again by her social obligations. From her first days in the White House, however, she established herself as a different kind of first lady. She held press conferences, continued to write for publication, and dove into the political discussions she had mostly avoided during the 1910s. She lobbied for programs she believed in, as well as for corrections to programs that were foundering. She pushed for the admission of women and people of color into the halls of the executive branch. She traveled both at home and abroad as an informal representative of the White House. She also hosted dinners, held teas, and took on many of the other tasks of a more traditional first lady. Aware of the criticism her activities provoked, she countered : "I'll just have to go on being myself, as much as I can. I'm just not the sort of person who would be any good at [any] job. I dare say I shall be criticized, whatever I do."

After FDR’s death, ER returned to New York, where she lived for the rest of her life. She continued, however, to visit Washington for meetings and events. Her service on the US delegation to the United Nations and later on the President’s Commission on the Status of Women required her to visit, and the many friendships she developed during her years in the district called her back, as well. She visited for the last time in May 1962, only six months before her death.