A Short Biography of Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most significant American women of the 20th century, and she remains one of the most admired. Learn more about how Eleanor grew into the accomplished woman we know her to be and made her mark on American politics.
- 1884–1920: Becoming a Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt was born October 11, 1884, into a family of lineage, wealth and uncommon sadness. The first child of Anna Hall Roosevelt and Elliott Roosevelt, young Eleanor encountered disappointment early in life. Her father, mourning the death of his mother and fighting constant ill health, turned to alcohol for solace and was absent from home for long periods of time engaged in either business, pleasure or medical treatment. Anna Hall Roosevelt struggled to balance her disillusionment with her husband with her responsibilities toward Eleanor and Eleanor's younger brother, Hall. As the years passed, the young mother became increasingly disconsolate.
An astute and observant child, Eleanor rarely failed to notice the tension between her parents and the strain that it placed on both of them. By the time she was six, Eleanor assumed some responsibility for her mother's happiness, recalling later in her autobiography This Is My Story that "my mother suffered from very bad headaches, and I know now that life must have been hard and bitter and a very great strain on her. I would often sit at the head of her bed and stroke her head . . . for hours on end."
Yet this intimacy was shortlived. Anna Hall Roosevelt, one of New York's most stunning beauties, increasingly made young Eleanor profoundly self-conscious about her demeanor and appearance, even going so far as to nickname her "Granny" for her "very plain," "old fashioned," and serious deportment. Remembering her childhood, Eleanor later wrote, "I was a solemn child without beauty. I seemed like a little old woman entirely lacking in the spontaneous joy and mirth of youth."
Her mother's death in 1892 made Eleanor's devotion to her father all the more intense. Images of a gregarious, larger than life Elliott dominated Eleanor's memories of him and she longed for the days when he would return home. She adored his playfulness with her and the way he loved her with such uncritical abandon. Indeed, her father's passion only underscored the isolation she felt when he was absent. Never the dour child in his eyes, Eleanor was instead his "own darling little Nell." Hopes for a happier family life were dashed however when Elliott Roosevelt died of depression and alcoholism nineteen months later. At the age of ten, Eleanor became an orphan and her grandmother, Mary Hall, became her guardian.
Eleanor's life with Grandmother Hall was confining and lonesome until Mrs. Hall sent Eleanor to attend Allenswood Academy in London in 1899. There Eleanor began to study under the tutelage of Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre, a bold, articulate woman whose commitment to liberal causes and detailed study of history played a key role in shaping Eleanor's social and political development. The three years that Eleanor spent at Allenswood were the happiest years of her adolescence. She formed close, lifelong friendships with her classmates; studied language, literature and history; learned to state her opinions on controversial political events clearly and concisely; and spent the summers traveling Europe with her headmistress, who insisted upon seeing both the grandeur and the squalor of the nations they visited. Gradually she gained "confidence and independence" and later marveled that she was "totally without fear in this new phase of my life," writing in her autobiography that "Mlle. Souvestre shocked one into thinking, and that on the whole was very beneficial." Her headmistress’s influence was so strong that as an Eleanor later described Souvestre was one of the three most important influences on her life.
When Eleanor returned to her family's West 37th Street home in 1902 to make her debut, she continued to follow the principles that Souvestre instilled in her. While she dutifully obeyed her family's wishes regarding her social responsibilities, she also joined the National Consumers League and, as a member of the Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements, volunteered as a teacher for the College Settlement on Rivington Street. Her commitment to these activities soon began to attract attention and Eleanor Roosevelt, much to her family's chagrin, soon became known within New York reform circles as a staunch and dedicated worker. That summer, as she was riding the train home to Tivoli for a visit with her grandmother, Eleanor was startled to find her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), then a student at Harvard, also on the train. This encounter reintroduced the cousins and piqued their interest in one another. After a year of chance meetings, clandestine correspondence, and secret courtship, the two Roosevelts became engaged on November 22, 1903. Fearing that they were too young and unprepared for marriage, and believing that her son needed a better, more prominent wife, Franklin's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, planned to separate the couple and demanded that they keep their relationship secret for a year. Sara Roosevelt's plans did not work, and after a sixteen-month engagement, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt married Franklin Delano Roosevelt on March 17, 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt, who was in town for the St. Patrick's Day parade, gave the bride, his niece, away. The wedding made the front page of the New York Times.
Although Eleanor clearly loved Franklin, married life was difficult from the start. Sara Roosevelt chose their first home, a small brick dwelling three blocks from her own residence, hired the staff, chose all the interior decorations, and became Eleanor's most constant companion. Within a year, a daughter (Anna) was born; followed in rapid succession by James (1906), Franklin (1909, who died soon after birth), Elliott (1910), Franklin (1914), and John (1916). She later said of this period, "for ten years I was always just getting over having a baby or about to have one, and so my occupations were considerably restricted during this period." Moreover, as the Roosevelt family grew, in 1908 Sara Roosevelt gave the couple a townhouse in New York City, which was not only adjacent to her own home but which had connecting doors on every floor. While the two women were very close; their intimacy only reinforced ER’s sense of dependence and inadequacy. ER, as she began to sign her letters, was miserable, recalling that she was "simply absorbing the personalities of those about me and letting their tastes and interests dominate me."
All that started to change in 1911. Dutchess County elected her husband to the New York state senate. FDR asked her to leave Hyde Park and to set up a home for the family in Albany. Eager to leave the vigilance of her mother-in-law, ER tackled the move with enthusiasm and discipline. "For the first time I was going to live on my own," she recalled twenty years later. "I wanted to be independent. I was beginning to realize that something within me craved to be an individual."
By the time FDR left Albany to join Woodrow Wilson’s administration two years later, ER began to view independence in personal and political terms. FDR had led the campaign against the Tammany Hall block in the senate and an indignant ER watched in fascination as the machine attacked its critics. Outraged that a political machine could vindictively deprive its critics of the means to support themselves, ER lost a great deal of the naivete that characterized her earlier attitude toward government. "That year taught me many things about politics and started me thinking along lines that were completely new." FDR agreed, later telling a friend, Albany "was the beginning of my wife's political sagacity and co-operation."
Consequently, when FDR was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy in autumn 1913, ER knew most of the rules by which a political couple operated. "I was really well schooled now. . . . I simply knew that what we had to do we did, and that my job was to make it easy." "It" was whatever needed to be done to complete a specific familial or political task. As ER oversaw the Roosevelts’ transitions from Albany to Hyde Park to Washington, coordinated the family's entrance into the proper social circles for a junior Cabinet member, and evaluated FDR's administrative and political experiences, her independence increased as her managerial expertise grew. When the threat of world war freed Cabinet wives from the obligatory social rounds, ER, with her commitment to settlement work, administrative skills, disdain for social small talk, and aversion to corrupt political machines, entered war work eager for new responsibilities.
World War I gave ER an acceptable arena in which to challenge existing social restrictions and the connections necessary to expedite reform. Anxious to escape the confines of Washington high society, ER threw herself into wartime relief with a zeal that amazed her family and her colleagues. Her fierce dedication to Navy Relief and the Red Cross canteen not only stunned soldiers and Washington officials but shocked ER as well. She began to realize that she could contribute valuable service to projects that she was interested in and that her energies did not necessarily have to focus on her husband's political career. "The war," observed Ruby Black, a friend and early biographer, "pushed Eleanor Roosevelt into the first real work outside her family since she was married twelve years before."
Emboldened by these experiences, ER began to respond to requests for a more public political role. When a Navy chaplain whom she had met through her Red Cross efforts asked her to visit shell-shocked sailors confined in St. Elizabeth's Hospital, the federal government's facility for the insane, she immediately accepted his invitation. Appalled by the quality of treatment the sailors received, as well as the shortage of aides, supplies and equipment available to all the St. Elizabeth's patients, ER urged her friend, Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, to visit the facility. When Lane declined to intervene, ER pressured him until he appointed a commission to investigate the institution. "I became," she wrote, "more determined to try for certain ultimate objectives. I had gained a certain assurance as to my ability to run things, and the knowledge that there is joy in accomplishing good."
The end of the war did not slow ER's pace or revise her new perspective on duty and independence. In June 1920, while she was vacationing with her children at Campobello, FDR received the Democratic nomination for Vice-President. Although both her grandmother and mother-in-law strongly believed that "a woman's place was not in the public eye" and pressured ER to respond to press inquiries through her social secretary, she developed a close working relationship with FDR's intimate advisor and press liaison, Louis Howe. Invigorated by Howe's support, ER threw herself into the election and reveled in the routine political decisions that daily confronted the ticket. By the end of the campaign, while other journalists aboard the Roosevelt campaign train played cards, Louis Howe and ER could frequently be found huddled over paperwork, reviewing FDR's speeches and discussing campaign protocol.
- 1921–1932: New York Politics
When Republican Warren Harding won the 1920 election, the Roosevelts returned to New York. FDR practiced law and planned his next political move as Eleanor Roosevelt considered her options. Dreading "a winter of four days in New York with nothing but teas and luncheons and dinners to take up [her] time," ER "mapped out a schedule for [herself]" in which she spent Monday through Thursday in New York City and the weekend in Hyde Park. She declined invitations to sit on the boards of organizations that wanted to exploit her name rather than use her energy, opting instead to join the Women's City Club, the National Consumers League, the Women's Division of the Democratic State Committee, and the New York chapters of the League of Women Voters and the Women's Trade Union League.
Despite her labeling the 1920s as a time of "private interlude" in This I Remember, in the seven-year span between the onset of FDR's paralysis and his campaign for the New York governorship, Eleanor Roosevelt's political contributions and organizational sagacity made her one of New York's leading politicians. While still fervently committed to democratic ideals, she recognized that ideology alone did not provide the votes and skills necessary to win elections. Repeatedly she goaded women's and other reform groups to set realistic goals, prioritize their tasks, and delegate assignments. Her pragmatism attracted attention within the party and women's political organizations. Soon the New York Times publicized her clout, treating her as the "woman [of influence] who speaks her political mind."
After working with attorney Elizabeth Read and her partner, educator and consumer activist Esther Lape, ER agreed to chair the League of Women Voters Legislative Affairs Committee and to represent the League on the Women's Joint Legislative Committee. Each week, Eleanor Roosevelt studied the Congressional Record, examined legislation and committee reports, interviewed members of Congress and the State Assembly, and met with League officers to discuss the information she gathered. Each month, she assembled her analyses and presented a report for League members outlining the status of bills in which the organization was interested and suggesting strategies to help achieve its legislative goals. Moreover, ER also frequently spoke out at these monthly assemblies on such pressing non-legislative issues as primary reform, voter registration and party identification. Recognizing the extensive contributions she made, the League elected her its vice-chairman eighteen months later, after ER skillfully arbitrated a hostile internal organization dispute.
Ruby Black saw this time as the period when "Eleanor Roosevelt was traveling, not drifting, away from the conventional life expected of women in her social class." ER agreed, later characterizing the last part of 1920 as the beginning of "the intensive education of Eleanor Roosevelt." Polio did not strike FDR until the following summer; consequently, ER was already in a position to keep the Roosevelt name active in Democratic circles before illness sidelined her husband.
Throughout September 1922, ER, Nancy Cook, Marion Dickerman and future New York Congresswoman Caroline O'Day traveled throughout the state to encourage the formation of Democratic women's clubs. Their organizational efforts created such strong support among the Democratic rank and file that at the State Convention in Syracuse the women attendees demanded that ER, Marion Dickerman and Caroline O'Day each be considered as the party's nominee for Secretary of State. The following month, as Democratic Women's Committee vice-president and finance chairman, ER edited and wrote articles for the Women's Democratic News discussing campaign strategies and the fall election.
By 1924, she joined the board of the bi-partisan Women's City Club, whose major objectives were to inform women about pressing political and social issues, introduce them in a pragmatic way to governmental operations and organize lobbing and publicity campaigns for club-sponsored issues. During her four-year tenure as a Club board member ER chaired its City Planning Department, coordinated its responses on housing and transportation issues, chaired its Legislation committee, pushed through a reorganization plan, arbitrated disputes over child labor laws, promoted workmen's compensation and, in a move that made banner headlines across New York State, strongly urged the adoption of an amendment to the Penal Law legalizing the distribution of birth control information among married couples.
Not all of the Roosevelts' friends supported her activism. Indeed, ER's political prominence created some in-house sarcasm among FDR's advisors. That May, Josephus Daniels taunted his former assistant secretary that he was glad that "I am not the only `squaw' man in the country."
Such inside joking did not curtail ER's political work. She attended the 1924 Democratic National Convention as chair of the women's delegation to the platform committee and as Al Smith's liaison to women voters. When the committee rejected her requests and the convention refused to choose Smith as its standard bearer, ER returned to New York undaunted. "I took my politics so seriously" she uncharacteristically recalled in This is My Story, "that in the early autumn I came down to the state headquarters and went seriously to work in the state campaign."
Assiduously, ER courted voters throughout the state. New Yorkers living in the rural areas often neglected by the party heard her personalized appeals for support. She pledged to keep their interests in front of the party leadership, if the farmers would continue to make their demands known and to vote Democratic. But she also appealed to voters' more basic instincts. Despite her aversion to Tammanyesque practices, ER occasionally participated in her own version of negative campaigning, even if the candidate was a member of her own family. The Republicans nominated her cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., for governor. Without a second thought, ER tailed him around the state in a roadster topped with a giant steaming teapot in a flagrant attempt to associate her cousin with Teapot Dome corruption.
ER then took to print to promote her candidates with the same level of energy she displayed in her speeches. She expanded her audience, broadened her themes and carefully tailored her remarks. Within the next twelve months, she continued her regular articles for the League's Weekly News and Women's Democratic News, and published four substantive political articles in publications ranging from the popular women's magazine Redbook to the more scholarly journals Current History and North American Review.
So strong an impression did her organizational and administrative campaign skills make on the state's professional politicians that Belle Moskowitz and Al Smith both recruited her energies for Smith's 1928 presidential campaign. A longtime supporter of Smith, ER agreed to coordinate preconvention activities for the Democratic Women's Committee. The New York Times Magazine recognized ER's increasing political clout and featured a lead article on her influence in its April 8 issue. Ironically, as a result of this continuous activity, by the time her husband received the party's nomination for governor, Eleanor Roosevelt was better known among the faithful party activists than was FDR. The 1928 election presented a new challenge to both Roosevelts. New York state law prevented Al Smith, the Democratic presidential nominee, from seeking reelection as governor and Smith wanted FDR to succeed him. This decision placed ER squarely in opposition to FDR's most trusted aide, Louis Howe. Howe vigorously opposed FDR's candidacy and FDR, following his advisor's advice, refused to take Smith's phone calls. Smith, whose chief political advisor was a woman, appreciated the scope of ER's expertise and the influence she held in her husband's innermost political circle. Consequently, Smith turned to ER, who had enthusiastically endorsed his candidacy and who was the only individual who might counteract Howe's opposition, to intercede with FDR. ER agreed, phoned her husband, told him that "she knew he had to do what he felt was expected of him," handed the phone to Smith, and left to address a Smith campaign rally.
Her action does not mean that Eleanor Roosevelt unequivocally endorsed her husband's electoral aspirations, however. She feared that FDR's victory would undermine all her hard-won independence. "It became clear," James Roosevelt later wrote, "that she felt if father won, she would lose" the autonomy she had worked so painstakingly to develop.
By the early 1920s, the Franklin Roosevelt-Eleanor Roosevelt relationship had begun to move away from an alliance defined by marital responsibilities and more toward a professional collaboration between peers. ER's discovery in 1918 of FDR's affair with Lucy Mercer, her social secretary, destroyed martial intimacy and encouraged ER to look elsewhere for closeness. While both treasured their friendship with Louis Howe and FDR enjoyed most of ER's associates, the separate strong attachments ER and FDR formed with different co-workers and companions were the rule rather than the exception in the Roosevelt households.
Indeed, the few old friends and Democratic party commitments the Roosevelts shared were enough to sustain a friendship, but not an intimate one. Competing pursuits and divergent communities encouraged the Roosevelts to follow different paths and to develop separate lifestyles. "It is essential," ER responded when Good Housekeeping asked her to define a modern wife's job, for the woman "to develop her own interests, to carry on a stimulating life of her own. . . ." As a result, by the time FDR was elected governor, the Roosevelts had developed separate, distinct personal and political support systems.
With her ties to reform movements and women's political associations expanding, ER carefully and deliberately developed her own network. Caroline O'Day and Elinor Morgenthau became her life-long intimate friends. With Democratic Women's Committee colleague Nancy Cook and her partner Marion Dickerman, with whom ER taught and who would later administer the Todhunter School for Girls in New York City, Eleanor Roosevelt built Val-Kill, her home away from the Roosevelt house.
While ER and FDR both expanded their levels of commitment to the state Democratic Party and promoted the same candidates, they began to form different views of the political process. Although both Roosevelts realized that politics was part ego, part drive, and part conviction, they differed as to which component they valued the most. If politics was part game and part crusade, ER tolerated the game for the sake of the crusade. To her dismay, FDR enjoyed all its aspects. To the extent that FDR failed to reverse this trend, he could no longer depend upon ER's unqualified support. Consequently, by 1932, as ER responded to a friend who confessed to voting for Norman Thomas, that "if I had not been married to Franklin," she too would have voted for the Socialist candidate.
ER’s attitude does not mean, however, that once FDR assumed the governorship that she played the game more than she struggled for reform. The dilemma the return to Albany presented ER was one of continuing independence: one of time management, rather than political fidelity. ER's bid for personal freedom was a more strenuous and longlasting campaign than her husband's 1928 run for office.
Thus, Eleanor Roosevelt was not thrilled with the prospect of returning to Albany, a goldfish bowl in which all her movements would be both confined by and interpreted through her husband's political prestige. She told her son James that "she knew that [FDR] had wanted her to become active in politics primarily to keep his case in the public eye" and that he "would expect her to move into the shadows if he moved into the limelight." This shift depressed her immensely. As Marion Dickerman later told FDR biographer Kenneth S. Davis, ER's "dread" was so strong that it fostered a rebellion which "strained at the leash of her self-control."
Yet ER also realized that her political expertise and her new support system was an outgrowth of, and therefore a by-product of, her relationship with FDR. Never did she fully expect FDR to withdraw from public life or expect that she would be immune from its scrutiny. Instead, Eleanor Roosevelt concentrated on how to find the most appropriate manner to promote two careers at once, how best to pursue her separate interests in ways that did not undermine her husband's public standing. The three keys to her freedom, the Democratic Women's Committee (DWC), the Todhunter School for Girls and Val-Kill, lay outside Albany. Therefore, the extent to which ER could maximize her independence was directly parallel to the extent to which she could efficiently divide her life between the Governor's mansion and the family's East 65th Street residence in New York City. She knew how threatening this would be to some pundits. So, immediately after the election, ER launched her own media campaign to make the press treat her various activities in the most positive light possible. When a New York Times reporter asked her the day she became New York's First Lady what her new schedule would be, Eleanor Roosevelt responded that although she would resign her DWC positions, she would still support the furniture factory at Val-Kill and commute to New York City three days a week to continue her government and English literature classes and to fulfill her administrative responsibilities at Todhunter.
Her duties in New York City did not preclude political contributions to FDR's administration. She successfully lobbied Democratic National Chairman John Raskob for increased allocations to the Democratic State Committee and raised seed money for the Women's Activities Committee. Furthermore, in Albany and in other locales throughout the state which she visited, ER began to apply the political finesse she demonstrated earlier in arbitrating League of Women Voters disputes to resolve disagreements within FDR's inner circle. With her friend Henry Morgenthau, ER pressured FDR to invite both Republican and Democratic mayors, rather than just the officials who supported FDR's goals, to the State Mayors's Conference. She regularly brokered conflicts between FDR intimates Louis Howe and Jim Farley and acted as a political stand-in when FDR could not or chose not to participate in the discussion.
ER's contributions were not limited to crisis management. Aware of how difficult it was for a politician and his staff to face unpopular decisions, Eleanor Roosevelt championed the appointment of individuals who had the nerve to disagree with FDR upfront. She lobbied successfully for Frances Perkins' appointment as state Secretary of Labor and for Nell Schwartz to fill the vacancy Perkins' appointment left on the State Industrial Commission. Believing that she knew Smith better than FDR did, ER strongly objected to FDR retaining any of Smith's cabinet. In particular, she opposed Belle Moskowitz's appointment as FDR's personal secretary and Robert Moses' reappointment as secretary of state, writing her husband in Warm Springs that "by all signs Belle and Bob Moses mean to cling to you." If he was not careful, she continued, "you will wake up to find R.M. Secretary of State and B.M. running Democratic publicity at the old stand unless you take a firm stand." Furthermore, she testified before various senate committees on behalf of protective labor legislation and was not afraid to criticize FDR's plan for unemployment insurance.
The 1932 presidential campaign assaulted Eleanor Roosevelt's adaptability with increasing frequency. Although she supported FDR's political ambitions out of loyalty both to him and the Democratic party, ER astutely recognized the attacks she would encounter if she continued to pursue her individual projects with the same vigor she applied in the past. For his part, FDR continued to promote the image of "his Missus" as part of the Roosevelt team. Nevertheless, ER knew that this was a political screen designed to enhance her symbolic value to the campaign. What her future role would be was uncertain.
Therefore, once the election was decided, ER inadvertently turned to the media to test her public standing. Whereas during the race she often told interviewers she "would be very much at home in Washington" if FDR was elected, after FDR won, she confided her dread to reporters she trusted. Riding in a day coach to Albany with Lorena Hickok on November 9, 1932, Eleanor Roosevelt unburdened her thoughts for the record. "I never wanted it even though some people have said that my ambition for myself drove him on. . . . I never wanted to be a President's wife." Fearful that her support for her husband would be misunderstood, she clarified her stance.
"For him, of course, I'm glad - sincerely. I could not have wanted it any other way. After all I'm a Democrat, too. Now I shall have to work out my own salvation. I'm afraid it may be a little difficult. I know what Washington is like. I've lived there."
- 1933-1939: The New Deal
The American press, like the American public, was divided over how professionally active a First Lady should be. Although Eleanor Roosevelt's preinaugural commitments were in the same fields as the positions she held while First Lady of New York, criticism of her commercial radio and journalism contracts increased. Suddenly, ER found herself ridiculed in such diverse publications as The Harvard Lampoon, The Hartford Courant and the Baltimore Sun. By February, the press increasingly interpreted ER's professionalism as commercialism. "All through January and February and right up until March 2, the day they left for Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to do the things she had always done,” Lorena Hickok recalled. The papers continued to carry stories about her. And some people continued to criticize her. They just could not get used to the idea of her being `plain, ordinary Eleanor Roosevelt.'"
Although Eleanor Roosevelt admitted to her friend that she would "curtail somewhat her activities" because she "suppose[d] [she] had made some mistakes," ER refused to abandon the expertise she had worked so diligently to achieve. Aware of the criticism her position would provoke, she argued that she had no choice but to continue. "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."
Eleanor Roosevelt's aversion to any other role was so strong that in the week before the inaugural, she impetuously wrote Dickerman and Cook that she contemplated divorcing FDR. She told Hickok, in a quote for the record, that she "hated" having to resign her teaching position at Todhunter, saying "I wonder if you have any idea how I hate to do it." Increasingly sympathetic to ER's dilemma and aware of the potential repercussions of such statements, Hickok in her Associated Press piece portrayed ER as upbeat and confident: "The prospective mistress of the White House thinks people are going to get used to her ways, even though she does edit Babies-Just Babies, wears $10 dresses, and drives her own car."
Clearly, when Eleanor Roosevelt entered the White House in March 1933, she did so reluctantly. Although she supported FDR's aims and believed in his leadership abilities, ER feared that her husband's political agenda, in addition to restricting her movements and curtailing her personal independence, would force her to minimize the political issues nearest and dearest to her heart. Once FDR won the election, he asked her to resign her positions with the Democratic National Committee, the Todhunter School, the League of Women Voters, the Non-Partisan Legislative Committee and the Women's Trade Union League. She then announced that she would no longer take part in commercial radio events and that she would refrain from discussing politics in her magazine articles. Though she tried to avoid it, public expectation was redefining her career and it hurt. "If I wanted to be selfish," she confessed earlier to Hickok, "I could wish that he had not been elected."
Questions "seethed" in ER's mind about what she should do after March 4, 1933. Afraid of being confined to a schedule of teas and receptions, ER volunteered to do a "real job" for FDR. She knew that Ettie Rheiner (Mrs. John Nance) Garner served as an administrative assistant to her husband the Vice-President, and ER tried to convince FDR to let her provide the same service. The President rebuffed the First Lady's offer. Trapped by convention, she begrudgingly recognized that "the work [was FDR's] work and the pattern his pattern." Bitterly disappointed, she acknowledged that she "was one of those who served his purposes."
Nevertheless, ER refused to accept a superficial and sedentary role. She wanted "to do things on my own, to use my own mind and abilities for my own aims." She struggled to carve out an active contributory place for herself in the New Deal–a challenge not easily met. Dejected, she found it "hard to remember that I was not just `Eleanor Roosevelt,' but the `wife of the President.'"
Eleanor Roosevelt entered the First Hundred Days of her husband's administration with no clearly defined role. Her offers to sort FDR's mail and to act as his "listening post" had been rejected summarily. Moreover, the press continued to pounce on each display of ER's individualism. When she announced in an inauguration day interview that she planned to cut White House expenses by twenty-five per cent, "simplify" the White House social calendar, and serve as FDR's "eyes and ears," reporters discovered ER was just as newsworthy after the inaugural as she was before.
ER's relations with the press during the spring and summer of 1933 did nothing to curtail their interest. On March 6, two days after her husband became president, Eleanor Roosevelt held her own press conference at which she announced that she would "get together" with women reporters once a week. She asked for their cooperation. She wanted to make the general public more aware of White House activities and to encourage their understanding of the political process. She hoped that the women reporters who covered her would interpret, especially to American women, the basic mechanics of national politics.
Despite her initial intent to focus on her social activities as First Lady, political issues soon became a central part of the weekly briefings. When some women reporters assigned to ER tried to caution her to speak off the record, she responded that she knew some of her statements would "cause unfavorable comment in some quarters" . . . [but] I am making these statements on purpose to arouse controversy and thereby get the topics talked about."
ER then made the same argument to the public when she accepted an offer for a monthly column from Woman's Home Companion. Announcing that she would donate her monthly thousand dollar fee to charity, ER then proceed to ask her readers to help her establish "a clearinghouse, a discussion room" for "the particular problems which puzzle you or sadden you" and to share "how you are adjusting yourself to new conditions in this amazing changing world." Entitling the article "I Want You to Write to Me," ER reinforced the request throughout the piece. "Do not hesitate," she wrote, "to write to me even if your views clash with what you believe to be my views." Only a free exchange of ideas and discussion of problems would help her "learn of experiences which may be helpful to others." By January 1934, 300,000 Americans had responded to this request.
From her first days in the White House, this desire to remain part of the public propelled ER's New Deal agenda. She, more often than not, greeted guests at the door of the White House herself; learned to operate the White House elevator; and adamantly refused Secret Service protection. Yet there also were signs that she intended to be a serious contributor to the Roosevelt administration. She converted the Lincoln bedroom into a study and had a telephone installed. She urged FDR to send Hickok out on a national fact-finding tour for the Federal Emergency Relief Association in the summer of 1933. Working closely with Molly Dewson, who replaced ER as chair of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee, she pressured the Administration to appoint women to positions of influence throughout the New Deal programs. The Dewson-ER lobbying effort helped Rose Schneiderman join the NRA Labor Advisory Board, Sue Sheldon White and Emily Newell Blair join the NRA Consumer Advisory Board, and Jo Coffin become assistant public printer. And when the Washington Press Corps refused to admit its women members to its annual Gridiron dinner, ER gleefully threw herself into planning a "Gridiron Widows" banquet and skit for women officials and reporters.
When ER read Hickok's accounts of the squalid conditions in the West Virginia coal town of Scott's Run, she was appalled and moved immediately to address the problems. She met with Louis Howe and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to argue that the Subsistence Homestead provision of the National Industrial Recovery Act would help address the community's problems. She succeeded and became a frequent visitor to the new community, Arthurdale. There she was photographed square dancing with miners in worn clothes and holding sick children in her lap. This image, when linked with her strong commitment to building the best living quarters the funds could provide, served as a lightning rod for critics of the New Deal and they delighted in exposing each cost overrun and each program defect.
While most historians view ER's commitment to Arthurdale as the best example of her influence within the New Deal, ER did more than champion a single anti-poverty program. Continuously she urged that relief should be as diverse as the constituency which needed it.
"The unemployed are not a strange race. They are like we would be if we had not had a fortunate chance at life," she wrote in 1933. The distress they encountered, not their socio-economic status, should be the focus of relief. Consequently, she introduced programs for groups not originally included in New Deal plans; supported others which were in danger of elimination or having their funds cut; pushed the hiring of women, blacks, and liberals within federal agencies; and acted as the administration's most outspoken champion of liberal reform.
Eleanor Roosevelt did not immediately begin to push programs. Rather, as her actions to modify the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Civil Works Administration (CWA) show, she waited to see how the programs FDR's aides designed were put into operation and then lobbied for improvements or suggested alternatives. When the needs of unemployed women where overlooked by FERA and CWA planners, ER lobbied first to have a women's divisions established within both agencies and then to have Hilda Worthington Smith and Ellen Sullivan Woodward appointed program directors. She then planned and chaired the White House Conference on the Emergency Needs of Women and monitored the Household Workers' Training Program which was born during the conference.
ER addressed the problems of unemployed youth with the same fervor she applied to women's economic hardships. This also was not a politically popular position for her to take. The unemployed youth of the 1930s underscored several fears adults had for society. Conservatives saw disgruntled young people as a fertile ground for revolutionary politics while progressives mourned the disillusionment and apathy spreading among American youth.
ER thought that camps in the Civilian Conservation Corps, while providing temporary relief for some youth, did not meet this need. Furthermore, because the camps were supervised by military personnel and only provided instruction in forestry, ER believed that an additional program tailored to the special needs of youth was urgently needed. In mid-1933, she pressured Harry Hopkins to develop a program for youth which would provide a social, rather than a militaristic, focus. ER argued that the specific problems facing youth needed to be recognized, but only in a way which fostered a sense of self-worth. By providing job skills and education, she hoped that the program would foster a sense of civic awareness which in turn would promote a commitment to social justice. Then youth would be empowered to articulate their own needs and aspirations and to express these insights clearly.
Although historians disagree over how major a role ER played in establishing the National Youth Administration (NYA), her imprint upon the agency's development is indelible. Established by an executive order signed by FDR on June 26, 1935, the NYA was authorized to administer programs in five areas: work projects, vocational guidance, apprenticeship training, educational and nutritional guidance camps for unemployed women, and student financial aid. Clearly ER's preference for vocational guidance and education triumphed over the CCC relief model.
Moreover, ER was both the agency's and youth's natural choice for confessor, planner, lobbyist, and promoter. She reviewed NYA policy with agency directors, arranged for NYA officials and youth leaders to meet with FDR in and out of the White House, served as NYA's intermediary with the president, critiqued and suggested projects, and attended as many NYA state administrators conferences as her schedule allowed. Last but not least, she visited at least 112 NYA sites and reported her observations in her speeches, articles and "My Day," the daily column she began in 1936. ER took such satisfaction in the NYA that when she briefly acknowledged her role in forming the agency, she did so with an uncharacteristic candor. "One of the ideas I agreed to present to Franklin," she wrote in This I Remember, "was that of setting up a national youth administration. . . . It was one of the occasions on which I was very proud that the right thing was done regardless of political consequences."
Just as she listened to the concerns of youth, ER also met with unemployed artists and writers to discuss their concerns. When they asked for her support for a Public Works Arts Project, she agreed immediately and attended the preliminary planning meeting. Seated at the head table next to Edward Bruce, the meeting's organizer, ER knitted while she listened to Bruce propose a program to pay artists for creating public art. Advocating a program in which artists could control both form and content, Bruce recruited supporters for federally financed work appropriate for public buildings. Sitting quietly through most of the discussion, ER interrupted only to question procedure and to emphasize her support of the project.
ER became PWAP's ardent public and private champion. When PWAP artists were sent to Civil Conservation Corps camps in mid-1934 and produced over 200 watercolors, oil paintings, and chalk drawings portraying camp life, ER enthusiastically opened their "Life in the CCC" exhibit at the National Museum. When 500 PWAP artworks were displayed at Washington's Corcoran Gallery, she dedicated the exhibit and declared that in addition to its artistic merit, the works liberated society greatly by expressing what many people could find no words to describe.
After Bruce was appointed PWAP director, he proposed that artists be eligible for WPA programs. Immediately he solicited ER's support. She agreed that artists were in need of government aid and supported the WPA venture, in the process entering the internal dispute over whether FERA should fund white collar programs. With the support of FERA administrator Harry Hopkins, ER lobbied FDR to endorse Bruce's concept. The President agreed, issuing an executive order on June 25, 1935 which created the Federal One Programs of the Works Progress Administration: the Federal Writers Project, the Federal Theater Project, and the Federal Art Project (formerly PWAP).
Eleanor Roosevelt continued to run administrative interference after the programs were in operation. When Jean Baker, director of the WPA Professional and Service Products Division, gave into pressure from conservatives who wanted to place the program under local control, ER then convinced Hopkins that Baker should be replaced. Hopkins agreed and filled Baker's post with ER's close friend, Ellen Woodward.
ER also continued to promote the project despite its increasingly controversial image. When Hallie Flanagan asked for assistance in convincing Congress that the Federal Theater Project was not an heretical attack on American culture, ER agreed on the spot. The First Lady told Flanagan that she would gladly go to the Hill because the time had come when America must recognize that art is controversial and the controversy is an important part of education.
Despite the fervor with which ER campaigned for a more democratic administration of relief through the establishment of women's divisions, NYA and the three Federal One programs, these efforts paled in comparison to the unceasing pressure she placed upon the president and the nation to confront the economic and political discrimination facing Black America. Although the First Lady did not become an ardent proponent of integration until the 1950s, throughout the thirties and forties she nevertheless persistently labeled racial prejudice as undemocratic and immoral. Black Americans recognized the depth of her commitment and consequently kept faith with FDR because his wife kept faith with them.
ER's racial policies attracted notice almost immediately. Less than a week after becoming First Lady, she shocked conservative Washington society by announcing she would have an entirely black White House domestic staff. By late summer 1933, photographs appeared showing ER discussing living conditions with black miners in West Virginia, and the press treated her involvement in the anti-lynching campaign as front page news. Rumors of ER's "race-baiting" actions sped across the South with hurricane force.
ER refused to be intimidated by rumor. She mobilized Cabinet and Congressional wives for a walking tour the Washington's slum alleys to increase support for housing legislation then before Congress. After being intensively briefed by Walter White ER toured the Virgin Islands with Lorena Hickok in 1934, investigating conditions for herself only to return agreeing with White's initial assessments. In 1935, she visited the Howard University's Freedman Hospital, lobbied Congress for increased appropriations, and praised the institution in her press conferences. FDR's disapproval kept her from attending the 1934 and 1935 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) annual conventions; however, his cautiousness did not affect her support of the organization. Indeed, she telegraphed her deep disappointment to the delegates. She then joined the local chapters of the NAACP and National Urban League, becoming the first white D.C. resident to respond to the group’s membership drives. And, in contrast to FDR who refrained from actively supporting anti-lynching legislation, a very public ER refused to leave the Senate gallery during the filibuster over the bill.
As the 1936 election approached, Eleanor Roosevelt continued her inspections and finally convinced FDR to let her address the NAACP and National Urban League annual conventions. When The New Yorker published the famous cartoon of miners awaiting her visit, Mrs. Roosevelt aggressively defended her outreach to minorities and the poor in a lengthy article for The Saturday Evening Post. Directly she attacked those who mocked her interest. "In strange and subtle ways," she began, "it was indicated to me that I should feel ashamed of that cartoon and that there was certainly something the matter with a woman who wanted to see so much and know so much." She refused to be so limited, she responded to those "blind" critics who refused to be interested in anything outside their own four walls.
The liberal and conservative press gave such action prominent coverage. When ER addressed the National Urban League's annual convention, NBC radio broadcasted the address nationally. When she visited Howard University and was escorted around campus by its Honor Guard, The Georgia Woman's World printed a picture of ER surrounded by the students on its front page while castigating ER for conduct unbecoming to a president's wife. Mainstream media such as the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor questioned the extent to which ER would be "a campaign issue."
ER increased her civil rights activism in her second term as First lady. She continued her outspoken advocacy of anti-lynching legislation, served as an active co-chair of the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax, spoke out in favor of National Sharecropper's Week, urged Agricultural Adjustment Act administrators to recognize the discriminatory practices of white landowners, pressured FERA administrators to pay black and white workers equal salaries, and invited black guests and entertainers to the White House. With NYA administrator, Mary McLeod Bethune, she convened the National Conference of Negro Women at the White House and publicized the agenda the Conference promoted. She also pressured the Resettlement Administration to recognize that black sharecroppers' problems deserved their attention and lent her active endorsement to the Southern Conference on Human Welfare (SCHW).
Often the public stances ER took were more effective than the lobbying she did behind the scenes. When ER entered the SCHW's 1938 convention in Birmingham, Alabama, police officers told her that she would not be allowed to sit with Bethune, because a city ordinance outlawed integrated seating. ER then requested a chair and placed it squarely between the aisles, highlighting her displeasure with Jim Crow policies. In February 1939, ER resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution when the organization refused to rent its auditorium to the internationally known black contralto, Marian Anderson. ER then announced her decision in her newspaper column, thereby transforming a local act into a national disgrace. When Howard University students picketed lunch stands near the university which denied them service, ER praised their courage and sent them money to continue their public education programs. And when A. Philip Randolph and other civil rights leaders threatened to march on Washington unless FDR acted to outlaw discrimination in defense industries, ER took their demands to the White House.
By the early forties Eleanor Roosevelt firmly believed the civil rights issue to be the real litmus test for American democracy. Thus she declared over and over again throughout the war that there could be no democracy in the United States that did not include democracy for blacks. In The Moral Basis of Democracy she asserted that people of all races have inviolate rights to property. "We have never been willing to face this problem, to line it up with the basic, underlying beliefs in Democracy." Racial prejudice enslaved blacks; consequently, "no one can claim that . . . the Negroes of this country are free." She continued this theme in a 1942 article in the New Republic, declaring that both the private and the public sector must acknowledge that "one of the main destroyers of freedom is our attitude toward the colored race." "What Kipling called `The White Man's Burden'," she proclaimed in The American Magazine, is "one of the things we can not have any longer." Furthermore, she told those listening to the radio broadcast of the 1945 National Democratic Forum, "democracy may grow or fade as we face [this] problem."
- 1940–1945: The Second World War
When during World War II Eleanor Roosevelt dared to equate American racism with fascism and argued that to ignore the evils of segregation would be capitulating to Aryanism, hostility toward her reached an all-time high. Newspapers from Chicago to Louisiana covered the dispute and numerous citizens pleaded with J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, to silence her. Refusing to concede to her opponents, she continuously asserted that if the nation continued to honor Jim Crow, America would have defeated fascism abroad only to defend racism at home.
Eleanor Roosevelt said the same things in private that she did in public. Whether interceding with the president for Walter White, Mary McLeod Bethune, A. Philip Randolph, or W.E.B. DuBois; raising money for Howard University or Bethune-Cookman College; investigating discrimination black women encountered while stationed at the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps base in Des Moines, Iowa; pressing the Fair Employment Practices Commission to investigate complaints; or supporting anti-segregation campaigns and anti-lynching legislation, ER pressed to keep civil rights issues on the top of the domestic political agenda. Consequently, throughout the war years, her standing with civil rights leaders increased while her standing with some key White House aides decreased.
While the advent of World War II reenforced ER’s commitment to the New Deal and social reform, it also allowed her to expand the scope of her activities at home and abroad. Even before the war began, concern for the plight of European refugees fueled her work with such groups as the Emergency Rescue Committee and the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children. She also helped Varian Fry in his efforts to aid Jews escaping Nazi-occupied Europe. At the same time, ER responded to many individual appeals for help but stringent U.S. immigration laws restricted her efforts. In an unsuccessful effort to change the laws, ER lobbied Congress particularly on behalf of the Child Refugee Bill which would have allowed an additional 10,000 children a year above the German quota to enter the United States over a two-year period.
Once the war began in December 1941, she continued to aid individual refugees, work with organized groups and did not hesitate to criticize the State Department’s interpretation of the immigration laws, especially the obstructionist position of visa operations chief Breckinridge Long. She did have allies within the department, however, most notably Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles with whom she worked closely to secure additional entrance visas. Still, ER would have been the first to admit that she never achieved all she hoped for in the cause of refugee relief and resettlement.
On the home front, ER wanted Americans to learn from the mistakes of World War I and win both the war and the peace that would follow. To that end, she did all she could do to promote democracy and maintain civilian morale in a variety of different venues. For example, she actively urged women to work out outside the home, particularly in defense industries, and lobbied to have day care centers and take-out kitchens built in factories. She also strongly supported equal pay for equal work. She encouraged volunteerism generally and even served briefly as deputy director of the Office of Civilian Defense until Congressional criticism over alleged favoritism and boondoggling forced her resignation in February 1942. Mindful of the continuing discrimination against African Americans she played an important role in the establishment of the Fair Employment Practices Commission which outlawed discrimination in industries that received defense contracts and helped ensure that African American units such as the Tuskegee Airmen participated in combat operations.
Nor did ER neglect the military. She was a strong supporter of the new women’s military services and the armed forces in general. She corresponded with several individual soldiers and worked to address their concerns. She helped soften the tone of FDR’s standard condolence letter to the families of military personnel killed in action and used her column to place the GIs’ concerns before Congress and the public. ER also toured military installations at home and abroad. She made extensive visits to both the European and Pacific Theatres where she visited military hospitals, ate in the mess halls and in one case walked down a road to say good by and good luck to truckloads of men on their way to the battlefront.
ER angered some White House aides by her insistent demand that New Deal reforms continue during wartime. Vowing that she would not put the New Deal away in storage, ER pressured FDR's aides, liberal leaders, and concerned Americans to remember that there was an economic emergency in addition to a military one. Thus, by the 1944 presidential election, the two camps within the Roosevelt Administration became even more clearly defined.
This division became apparent as the campaign got under way. ER and FDR’s conservative campaign manager, Robert Hannegan, opposed each other. She thought he was too focused on winning at the expense of issues she considered important while he resented her support of Henry Wallace and her activism on behalf of African Americans. Consequently ER was less influential in Democratic party councils than she had been in previous presidential elections. Publicly she campaigned in a non-partisan fashion----what she described as “making non-political speeches about registering and voting” and used her column to discuss such political issues as full employment and housing without referring to the campaign. Behind the scenes she also encouraged FDR to take a more active role in campaigning especially after his poll numbers dropped in September 1944. Once FDR was elected in November, she urged him to keep domestic matters at the top of his agenda, telling the president and his aide Harry Hopkins, that they were “under moral obligation to see his domestic reforms through, particularly the organizing of our domestic life in such a way as to give everybody a job.”
When FDR died April 12 1945, ER was well prepared personally and politically for the challenges facing her. She had close confidants, colleagues, and friends to turn to for support. And, although she was hurt to find that Mercer had been with FDR when he suffered a fatal stroke, she quickly recovered and resumed her commitments.
- 1945–1952: The United Nations and Harry Truman
The question ER faced in 1945 was what her public role would be. Invitations poured into the White House, her apartment in New York City, and her home at Val-Kill. Now that she was no longer First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was anxious to leave the White House. Within a week of FDR's death, she had coordinated his funeral, responded to friends' condolences, overseen the boxing of possessions acquired and documents generated during her twelve years in Washington, said goodbye to colleagues and staff, and pondered her future. Despite the intensity of this schedule, ER made time April 19th to host a farewell White House tea for the women's press corps. Although the reception was a private affair, ER did answer some questions for the record. After scoffing at various rumors of her own political ambitions, ER declared that her only aspirations were journalistic ones. The next evening after arriving in Manhattan, she faced those questions for a second time. Confronted by a small group of photographers and reporters outside her Washington Square apartment, ER refused to comment on their speculations. "The story," she said, "is over."
Despite these denials, politicians, pundits and the public openly speculated on what actions Eleanor Roosevelt should take next. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and New Jersey Congresswoman Mary Norton urged ER to join the American delegation to the conference charged with planning the United Nations. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes pleaded with her to run for the United States Senate while New York Democratic party leader Ed Flynn argued that she should be the Empire State's next governor. Others proposed that she be the new Secretary of Labor. Even the syndicated columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop belatedly joined the conjecture, satirically suggesting that their cousin become Truman's new political "medium."
Close friends and the media reinforced this expectation. As they rode the train from FDR's Hyde Park funeral back to Washington, Henry Morgenthau Jr. recommended that FDR's estate be settled as soon as possible so she could speak out to the world, arguing that it was most important that her voice be heard. After encouraging her friend to take a brief rest, Hickok reminded ER that she was independent now, freer than she had ever been before, and that “a very important place awaited” her. The Associated Press agreed, succinctly summarizing the pressures confronting ER with this front page headline: "Mrs. Roosevelt Will Continue Column; Seeks No Office Now."
Eleanor Roosevelt had her own expectations about the future; however, unlike her friends and the media, she was undecided about what actions she should take to achieve them. Fearing that her public life died along with FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt struggled to set her own course. Although she declared her determination not to continually be seen as a former First Lady, ER feared that without the ear of the president she would lose the influence she struggled so diligently to attain. At times she succumbed to these anxieties only to encounter jocular criticism from those closest to her. When a self-pitying ER informed young friends that she merely wanted to write, visit her family, and live a peaceful life, Trude Lash teasingly suggested that they all go buy ER a lace cap as a retirement gift.
But as ER reflected on her life, she drew confidence from the way that she had handled previous political expectations. In New York, she had managed her career as teacher, journalist, and political organizer without discounting her responsibilities as the Empire State's first lady. In the White House, she revolutionized the role of First Lady by constantly acting in ways that were new to the position. She was the first (and only) First Lady to hold regular press conferences, write a daily newspaper column, publish books and articles, travel the nation on speaking tours, chair national conferences in the White House, address national conventions of social reform organizations, give a keynote address at her party's presidential convention, represent her nation abroad, travel battlefields, and direct a government agency. Clearly, she had numerous skills which could be applied to politics outside the White House.
Yet these new boundaries did not mean that new politics would follow. Eleanor Roosevelt had no plans to forsake the goals and ideals of the New Deal. In fact, she planned to do the exact opposite. If FDR had abandoned Dr. New Deal to become Dr. Win the War and resented her insistent wartime references to domestic problems, ER anticipated that his successor would be even less likely to pursue the controversial reforms FDR had postponed. She recognized that if the New Deal was to re-enter the political arena, she would have to assist in orchestrating its return. Whether she did this by promoting candidates or policy was up to her. The path she selected was not the pivotal point in her strategy. What was important was that she select a mode of operation which allowed her the greatest leeway in pursuing her own goals while she protected her husband's legacy.
For the next seventeen years of her life, until her death November 7, 1962, Eleanor Roosevelt carefully walked this line. She published This I Remember, her memoirs of her years in the White House. She gladly lent her name to Democratic Party fundraisers, campaigned for local, state and national candidates, and hosted events commemorating FDR's major accomplishments.
But it is her efforts as a politician in her own right that make her post White House years so unique. In December 1945, Harry Truman appointed her to the United States delegation to the United Nation where she stunned delegates with her political finesse she displayed in overseeing the drafting and unanimous passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Although some of her colleagues on the U.S. delegation were initially skeptical of her appointment, ER soon won them over with her political acumen and diplomatic skill. Future secretary of state Dean Rusk who then headed the State Department’s Office of Special Political Affairs described her and another future secretary of state John Foster Dulles as “the two best vote getters we had. Somehow finding room in their schedules, they met and worked hard on every delegate. In those years [they] produced overwhelming majorities on almost anything we wanted in the General Assembly.” Even the Soviets with whom she often clashed respected her skill and tenacity in argument.
Ironically ER’s initial assignment to the UN’s Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee which was considered “safe” turned out to be the most contentious because the group dealt with an early Cold War issue: repatriation of displaced people, particularly those who feared return to the countries of origin because of their political views. In the committee and before the General Assembly, ER refuted the Soviet contention that these people were traitors or collaborators and argued that they should not be forced to return home. Each time the Soviet recommendations were voted down by sizeable margins and ultimately the UN and its subsidiary agency, the International Refugee Organization, came down in favor of resettlement rather than repatriation.
Important as her work on refugee issues was, ER’s efforts on behalf of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) have had the greatest long-term impact. As chair of the subcommittee that drafted the UDHR she played a critical role in the creation of the declaration skillfully creating an atmosphere that permitted blending the ideas and norms of different cultures together in a document nations around the globe could assent to while marshaling U.S. support for swift passage of the declaration by separating it from a legally binding (and more problematic) covenant . Later as chairman of the Human Rights Commission, she presented the document to the General Assembly and was instrumental in its passage. Today, more than 50 years after its passage, the UDHR remains the touchstone of the global Human Rights movement and a key component of an international system that provides for international scrutiny of the way in which a nation treats its citizens.
While conscious of her role and responsibilities as a member of the American delegation, ER rarely hesitated to disagree with the government position especially when she felt the U.S. was not showing enough moral or political leadership on international issues. As a strong supporter of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, she openly criticized President Truman when he withdrew his support for the UN partition plan in favor of a plan to place Palestine under a temporary international trusteeship. In a letter to Secretary Marshall, ER argued that the decision "more or less buried the UN. I can hardly see how it can recover and have the slightest influence, since we are the only ones who could give it any force and we now have been the ones to take it away." Taking her argument public, she told readers of My Day, "We have taken the weak course of sacrificing the word we pledged and, in so doing, have weakened the UN and prevented it from becoming an instrument to keep peace in world."
At the same time she balanced the requirements of her position as an instructed delegate and the dictates of her own conscience especially on issues of civil rights for African Americans and other peoples of color. She ardently supported independence for people seeking to free themselves from colonial rule as well as for those behind the Iron Curtain, and she was tireless in her efforts to foster good relationships with newly-independent nations who wished to remain unaligned with either the Eastern or the Western bloc.
ER was equally indefatigable in her support of the United Nations calling it “the one hope” for peace. During and after her seven years as a delegate, she traveled extensively abroad investigating social, economic and political conditions in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific. Everywhere she went she urged support for the UN and its humanitarian and diplomatic aid. At home she campaigned vigorously for the UN via “My Day,” books and articles and, after 1952, traveled the country as a volunteer for the American Association of the United Nations.
Worried that FDR's death had deprived liberals of the leadership they needed to make America a more just democracy, ER pressured Democratic officials and liberal leaders to practice what they preached. Comfortable with her own power, ER remained uncomfortable with both consensus liberals and communist-front sympathizers. She remained dissatisfied with Truman, and he entered the election of 1948 without her endorsement. Yet as disappointed as she was with the Democratic Party in 1948, she refused to abandon the Democrats to promote a third party unsure of its membership or its principles.
The early postwar years were a difficult time for ER and for the country. Both were grappling with the consequences of unforeseen circumstances of FDR’s sudden death and the problems inherent in converting from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy. Housing shortages, inflation and labor strikes dominated the headlines. At the same time, the reform spirit of the New Deal was dissipating as a more conservative spirit took hold in Congress and the nation at large. No longer tied to FDR’s needs, ER became increasingly vocal on these and other social and economic issues such as health care and education especially when it became apparent that the Truman Administration lacked the will and the ability to resolve them. Her principal vehicle for communicating her views remained My Day but she also did not hesitate to confront Truman personally when she felt it was necessary.
Two themes consistently pervaded her activism during this period. One was that America’s future security depended on a sound economy that promised jobs to all who wanted to work and a healthy, well-educated citizenry committed to the principles of democracy and equality. The other was America’s emerging role as international leader. In her mind the two were linked. In September 1945, she asked readers of My Day, “The eyes of the world are on this nation. How can we expect the nations of the world to sit down together and solve their problems without war if we do not use the same mechanism to successfully in settling our domestic problems?”
Among the issues ER championed in the early postwar years were the continuation of wage and price controls, full employment legislation and national health insurance. She also backed labor’s demands for increases in wages, supported its National Citizens Political Action Committee (NCPAC) and served as honorary co-chair of a committee to raise funds for striking workers. At the same time, she opposed the Taft-Hartley anti-union bill calling it “a bad bill” and advised Truman that the Democrats could not “out conserve the Republicans” and expect to be re-elected.
During this period ER also intensified her activism on behalf of civil rights speaking out more insistently in favor of anti-lynching legislation and an end to the poll tax. She also called for desegregation in housing, education, and other public facilities as well equal opportunities in employment and housing. She supported legislation to make the Fair Employment Practices Commission permanent and argued for the establishment of a Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice.
- 1953–1962: The Cold War at Home and Abroad
ER entered the Eisenhower presidency committed to making the Democratic Party less glued to the consensus agenda of price controls and fair deals and more supportive of racial justice and tolerant of political dissent. Indeed, ER's perception of racial justice grew as she aged. She served on the national board of directors for the NAACP, CORE, and other major civil rights organizations. Her friendships with civil rights leaders and her experience chairing investigations of race riots, visiting internment facilities, and combating violent segregationist backlashes, continually exposed her to the brutal nature of American racism. Soon the Ku Klux Klan had placed a bounty on her head, and the number of death threats she received for her civil rights stance increased.
Despite the opposition she incurred, ER refused to moderate her position. She continued to insist that racial injustice was the biggest threat to democracy. Americans must reject racial stereotypes and “face the fact that equality of opportunity is basic to any kind of democracy.” The complaints of African Americans were in her view “legitimate. We have expected them to be good citizens and yet in a large part of our country we haven’t given them an opportunity to take part in our government.”
As the civil rights movement gathered momentum in the fifties, ER stepped up her critique and regularly criticized the Eisenhower Administration for its poor record on the issue, particularly its non-support of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling and its failure to submit civil rights legislation to Congress. One of her most pointed attacks occurred in 1958 during the controversy over the integration of Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas, when, in her August 23rd column, she challenged Eisenhower in My Day to put the power of the presidency behind the African American teenagers on the front lines of the struggle. “Instead of sending troops, I wish President Eisenhower would go down to Little Rock and lead the colored children into the school.”
Her involvement with Democratic Party leaders and liberal interest groups also showed her daily the superficial nature of liberal commitment to racial justice. Gradually she moved away from counseling patience and working within the system to supporting those activists who staged grand public events designed to force the political system to recognize the shallowness of its promises. She helped raise funds for those young civil rights activists coordinating the “jail, no bail” campaign. She led workshops on human rights for activists enrolled in the Highlander Folk School and she gave consistent support to Allard Lowenstein’s investigative crusade against apartheid, his call for graduate student engagement in campus civil rights protests, and his work with disgruntled, disenfranchised New Yorkers. And she continued to support (despite the opposition of many of her husband’s advisors) the Southern Conference Education Fund.
ER simultaneously struggled to support civil liberties while criticizing American communist activism. Once again uncomfortable with the stringent dictates of vital center liberalism, ER frequently opposed cold war liberals who argued that communism had no place in American politics. Not only was she the first nationally prominent liberal to oppose Joseph McCarthy, she was also the only liberal to oppose the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Smith Act from their inception. Despite the rapidity with which Adlai Stevenson and other liberals deserted Alger Hiss after his conviction, ER refused to let her disappointment in Hiss's judgment dictate her reaction to his conviction. This placed her in heated conflict with Richard Nixon, whom she viewed as one of the most dangerous men in American.
Discouraged by Stevenson's defeats in the 1952 and 1956 elections, ER approached the campaign of 1960 with mixed emotions. Convinced that the party needed a new vigorous vision to win the election and implement reform, ER nevertheless could not convince herself that John F. Kennedy (JFK) was the answer to the liberals' dilemma. His moderation on civil rights, his evasion on McCarthy, his reliance on machine politics, and his father's conduct during World War Two, only reinforced ER's opposition to his election. Yet Kennedy realized that he needed her support and traveled to Hyde Park to meet with her. She was still not convinced that he was a true liberal but she was willing to give him a chance. By October, when JFK had made concessions to civil rights, ER actively campaigned for him.
After JFK’s inauguration, ER pressured the president to appoint women to executive positions within his administration. When he dallied and then only appointed nine women, she requested a meeting and handed him a detailed three-page list of women and the positions for which they were qualified. When his administration received widespread criticism for its lack of attention to women’s concerns and labor and consumer activist Esther Peterson proposed that a President’s Commission on the Status of Women be created to examine policies and positions related to women’s employment and civil, economic, and political rights, JFK appointed ER chair and Peterson its vice-chair. After chairing the commission’s first meeting February 12, 1962, she told readers of “My Day” that “the effort, of course, is to find how we can best use the potentialities of women without impairing their first responsibilities, which are to their homes, their husbands and their children.” In April, she took the commission’s work to Congress when she testified in support of legislation guaranteeing equal pay for equal work. In August, she met with the president to present the commission’s interim report.
Eleanor Roosevelt spent the last two years of her life tired and in pain, but she rarely curtailed her schedule. Battling aplastic anemia and tuberculosis, she nevertheless continued to speak out on issues relating to racial justice, world peace, and women's rights. Outraged by the violence the Freedom Riders encountered in Mississippi and Alabama and discouraged by the tepid response of the Kennedy Administration, ER eagerly agreed to a request from CORE in May 1962 to chair a public hearing charged with investigating law enforcement officials acts against the protestors. When the hearing did not get the attention she thought it deserved, she lobbied the publishers of the major newspapers and the editors of the major television news shows to instruct their reporters to investigate the violence civil rights workers often confronted.. After failed Bay of Pigs invasion, which she labeled “this unfortunate raid,” she joined Walter Reuther to chair the Tractors for Freedom Committee to facilitate the release of Americans held in Cuba. She eagerly accepted appointment to the Peace Corps advisory board and lent vocal support to its work in her columns and speeches. Perhaps most startling, she dropped her four-decade opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, arguing that “law, custom, and the forgetfulness of men” kept women out of many jobs they sought, and telling the Lucy Stone League that she no longer believed the ERA would undermine the women’s safety at work since they could join unions and “there was no reason why you shouldn’t have [the ERA] if you want it.”
During the early fall, she returned home to Hyde Park where she struggled to complete her last book, Tomorrow is Now, in which she pleads for racial, political, and social justice. “Staying aloof is not a solution,” she wrote, “but a cowardly evasion.”
Eleanor Roosevelt died November 7 in a New York City hospital at the age of seventy-eight. She is buried her next to her husband in the rose garden on the family estate in Hyde Park, New York.
- Bibliographical Essay
The papers of Anna Eleanor Roosevelt are housed in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York. The papers are voluminous and are divided into two sections: 1884-1945 and 1945-1962. Those interested in investigating ER's life should also consult the following collections which are also housed at the FDR Library: Franklin D. Roosevelt papers, Lorena Hickok papers, Molly Dewson papers, Henry Morgenthau papers, the Eleanor Roosevelt Oral History Project, Anna Roosevelt Halstead papers, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. papers, Joseph P. Lash papers, and the Democratic Women's Committee papers. Record Groups 59 and 84 of the State Department files housed at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC house invaluable, albeit highly disorganized, material on ER’s work in American diplomacy and human rights. The United Nations records of the activities of the Human Rights Commission and Committee Three, the commission on humanitarian, social, and cultural issues.
The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University houses documents collected from more than 100 archives around the world that relate to ER's post-White House political life. It also houses a complete collection of ER's My Day column, which ER wrote from 1936-1962.
Anthologies of ER documents are available. Joseph Lash has edited two collections of ER's correspondence Love, Eleanor (new York: 1982) and World of Love, Eleanor (New York, 1984) which reflect her political and personal opinions. Robert Cohen’s Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression (Chapel Hill, 2002) offers a thorough portrait of the appeals ER received in during the early years of the New Deal. Other collections focus on ER’s relationship with a one person. Steve Neal’s Eleanor and Harry: The Correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman (New York: 2002) offers a selection of their most important communications. Ruth McClure’s Eleanor Roosevelt, An Eager Spirit: The Letters of Dorothy Dow (New York, 1984) reflects ER’s relationship with this renowned Catholic reformer. Bernard Absell’s Mother and Daughter: The Letters of Eleanor and Anna Roosevelt (New York, 1982) offers a keen insight into the complex, caring relationship the two Roosevelts shared. Lastly, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project and Charles Scribner’s Sons will publish The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers: The United Nations Years, Vols I and II in summer 2006.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a prolific writer. She wrote four autobiographies, This Is My Story, This I Remember, On My Own, and The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt as well as several monographs, the most important of which are It's Up to the Women, This Troubled World, The Moral Basis of Democracy, and Tomorrow is Now. Her column "My Day" was published six times a week from 1936 until 1962 and is a wonderful source for her daily activities and political position. She also wrote a series of monthly columns: "Mrs. Roosevelt's Page" for the Democratic Digest (December 1937 until January 1941) and "If You Ask Me," for Ladies Home Journal (May 1941 - 1949) and McCall's (1949 through 1962). John A. Edens' Eleanor Roosevelt: A Comprehensive Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1994) provides the most extensive and thoroughly annotated compilation of ER's articles to date.
Maurine Beasely has edited all the remaining transcripts from ER's press conferences, The White House Press Conferences of Eleanor Roosevelt (New York, 1983) and assesses ER's career as a journalist in Eleanor Roosevelt and the Media (Urbana, 1987). Susan Ware's study Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (Cambridge, 1981) clearly illustrates ER's influence within the Administration and reform circles.
There have been dozens of works published about ER. Of those contemporaries close to ER who wrote biographies of her, the best are Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt: Reluctant First Lady (New York, 1962 and Ruby Black, Eleanor Roosevelt (New York, 1940).
Although many have tried, most biographers create a superficial one dimension portrait of ER. Blanche Wiesen Cook's Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume One (New York, 1992) is a thorough and thoughtful reconstruction of her life before the White House. Joseph P. Lash's Eleanor and Franklin (New York, 1970) is the most comprehensive study of ER's White House years published to date, despite its protective slant. Joan Hoff Wilson and Marjorie Lightman's anthology Without Precedent: The Life and Career of Eleanor Roosevelt (Indianapolis, 1984) offers a scholastic assessment of ER's political education and political performance before and during her tenure as First Lady. Jan Pottker’s Sara and Eleanor: The Story of Sara Delano Roosevelt and Her Daughter-in-Law Eleanor Roosevelt presents fresh interpretation of this ever-evolving relationship.
Unfortunately, ER's post White House career has not yet received equal treatment. Lash's Eleanor: The Years Alone (New York, 1972) presents only a cursory depiction of her activities after FDR's death. The only serious study of ER's contribution to diplomacy is Jason Berger's A New Deal for the World (New York, 1981). Allida M. Black's Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism discusses ER's evolving commitment to civil rights, civil liberties, and Democratic Party reform.