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From Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History


First Lady, Delegate to the United Nations, Chairperson of the Presidential Commission on Women's Rights

Wife of the most influential Democratic president of the twentieth century, Eleanor Roosevelt was an advocate for the disadvantaged and an ardent supporter of civil rights who used her position as First Lady, her weekly newspaper column, and her connections with important journalists and political and labor leaders to promote social reform. In the 1930s and 1940s, Eleanor worked successfully to establish her own political persona, serving as FDR's emissary to the Democratic Party's labor-liberal wing and often articulating advanced progressive positions on issues such as labor, civil rights, and social justice.

Early Years

A niece of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor, orphaned at an early age, grew up in affluent but lonely circumstances. In 1899, she was sent to Allenswood, a boarding school outside London, where her teachers stressed the importance of personal autonomy and intellectual achievement. At Allenswood, she first became acquainted with social problems such as poverty, inadequate housing, and public health issues. Throughout her life, she sought to apply the lessons learned at Allenswood—the importance of intelligence, the need for personal autonomy, and concern for others. When she returned to New York from London at 18, she entered high society but also began her activities in behalf of the disadvantaged, joining the Consumer League of New York City, whose mission was to improve the lives of working women and children, and volunteering at a settlement house, where she worked with immigrant women and children.

Eleanor married her distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1905. For the next nine years, she was almost totally immersed in her duties as a wife and mother, but as FDR's political career developed—first as a member of the New York state assembly and then as assistant secretary of the navy—she formed important alliances with reform politicians such as Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner. In 1918, when she discovered FDR was conducting an affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, she briefly retreated into her earlier self—quiet and withdrawn—but the shock of Franklin's betrayal ultimately led her to reclaim her independence. In 1920, when the family moved back to New York, Eleanor once again became active in social reform and politics.

When FDR, who had unsuccessfully run for vice-president in 1920, contracted polio in 1921, Eleanor became his surrogate in Democratic Party politics. Her social reform activities put her in touch with key party leaders, upon whom she pressed her view that women should have an equal say in party deliberations. When they ignored her, she took her case to the newspapers, thus beginning her 40-year relationship with the media. By 1928, Eleanor Roosevelt had become one of the most influential and well-known women in American politics. When FDR was elected governor of New York that year, Eleanor again took an active role, in part because of FDR's limited mobility. Throughout his two gubernatorial administrations (1929-1933), she traveled the state, observing and reporting on living and working conditions and maintaining contact with local party leaders. They made an effective team, combining her knowledge of social conditions and her engagement with a wide variety of reform-minded people with his mastery of political and government processes.

The White House

After FDR was inaugurated, on March 4, 1933, Eleanor initially restricted herself to typical social and ceremonial duties, but within a year she had resumed her political and reform activities. She wrote a newspaper column, "My Day," which appeared in scores of newspapers six days a week. Throughout FDR's presidency (1933-1945), she remained active in Democratic Party politics and cultivated a close relationship with the female press corps, holding weekly meetings to answer questions and discuss a wide variety of issues. She traveled extensively across the United States, throughout the Caribbean, and in Europe, reporting her experiences privately to FDR and publicly to the American people in innumerable public appearances and in her column.

Throughout the 1930s, she served as a combination conscience and lightning rod for her husband. She reached out to those active in a broad range of public issues, especially those involving civil rights, labor, youth, and social welfare. An early supporter of organized labor, she enjoyed warm relations with activists in the fledgling Congress of Industrial Organizations. Disappointed by the racial and gender discrimination and by other limitations of FDR's pet Civilian Conservation Corps, Eleanor joined a number of New Dealers in promoting a broader program of public support for young people. Their efforts culminated in the establishment in 1935 of the National Youth Administration (NYA), an arm of the Works Progress Administration, which pioneered in developing work-study programs designed to keep youngsters in school and out of the saturated Depression-era labor market. Her work with the NYA put her in touch with a vigorous cadre of left-wing student leaders who found in her an eager listener and a willing transmitter to the president of their concerns about racial discrimination, economic injustice, and international tensions. Since communists were active in the American Youth Congress, critics charged her with being politically naïve and with encouraging subversive activity.

She was most furiously attacked, however, for her work with African Americans. Eleanor was personally deeply sympathetic to the plight of African Americans, who suffered from discrimination, disfranchisement, and the catastrophic effects of the Great Depression. Throughout the 1930s, she maintained close contact with NAACP executive secretary Walter White and other African American leaders and had a special relationship with educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune. Breaking with accepted protocol, Eleanor frequently entertained African American guests such as White and Bethune in the White House, scandalizing Washington traditionalists and even the president's personal staff.

At the same time, she had to walk a thin line. Her husband's ambitious legislative agenda was, in important respects, hostage to the white Southern politicians who dominated the Democratic Party in the South and who held key committee chairs in Congress. Thus, for example, while she ardently supported the Costigan-Wagner bill, first introduced in January of 1934, that would have made lynching a federal crime, she understood that FDR could not openly back it because of opposition in Congress, especially from white Southern senators and representatives. Throughout the decade, she served as a liaison between black activists and the president, explaining to the former the political realities that made assertive action on lynching and other civil rights matters politically impossible while at the same time making sure that FDR remained keenly aware of the injustices of the Jim Crow system. At times, she was able to make a dramatic public gesture that highlighted the cause of racial equality. Thus, in 1939, she resigned her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) after that organization refused to allow Marian Anderson, an African American contralto, to sing in the DAR's Constitution Hall in Washington. Along with Sec. of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, Eleanor helped to arrange a free open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for Easter Sunday and later invited Anderson to sing at the White House for the president and the king and queen of Great Britain.

These activities attracted widespread notice and much hostile commentary. In particular, her racial liberalism and the unprecedented openness of the White House to African Americans engendered outrage, especially among Southern whites. During World War II, unsubstantiated rumors spread throughout the South that black domestic servants were meeting in clandestine groups, the so-called Eleanor Clubs, for the purpose of challenging white supremacy and perhaps harming members of the families for which they worked. While most of Eleanor's gestures toward racial justice were more symbolic than substantive, they did provide a counterweight to white Southern influence within the Democratic Party and did help to convey a sense that FDR considered himself president of all the people.

During World War II, she continued to press the president about domestic programs, although increasingly now she found him impatient with her insistence on pursuing the liberal racial and economic agenda of the 1930s. As First Lady, she dutifully made the rounds of defense factories and military bases, but her influence with FDR waned. "From time to time," she later recalled, "I tried to impress on him the need for his personal intervention on behalf of some program or agency …, but as time went on he became more inaccessible." (Quoted in Kirkendall 189) FDR's refusal to insist on retaining liberal Vice Pres. Henry A. Wallace, whom Eleanor strongly backed, on the ticket in the 1944 election was a particularly telling indication of her declining influence.

Later Years

After FDR's death in April 1945, however, Eleanor stepped forward to become more vocal and active on behalf of the progressive causes associated with the New Deal. Truman considered her support to be crucial to his success with the public, and Eleanor did not hesitate to use her newspaper column and her public appearances to promote her views as a spokesperson for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. In 1945, Truman appointed her a delegate to the United Nations, where she chaired a committee responsible for the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This document continues to serve as the standard of human rights worldwide. In 1947, she helped found Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal anticommunist organization that focuses on economic and social justice.

Upon the election of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower to the presidency in 1952, Eleanor resigned her position at the United Nations. However, she became an even more vocal advocate of civil rights, endorsing civil disobedience as a tactic to promote change. At the height of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, she denounced Senator McCarthy and the conduct of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. She believed in the right to free speech and the importance of free public expression. In the last 10 years of her life, she continued to be active in party politics, believing that the Democratic Party best reflected her progressive social views. She urged the party to turn to new young leaders and incorporate their ideas into the party's electoral appeals. In 1961, John F. Kennedy, acknowledging her iconic role in the party's liberal wing, appointed her the head of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, on which she served diligently to promote gender equality.

Eleanor Roosevelt died at her home, Val-Kill, a cottage that FDR had had built for her in 1925, of a rare form of bone tuberculosis on November 7, 1962, at the age of 78. In her life, she overcame the deaths of her parents and the disability—and infidelity—of her husband to forge a strong and articulate public persona. She endured vociferous—often scurrilous—criticism to promote her vision of a more just and egalitarian society. Not content with exercising merely the ceremonial duties of a First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was a keen political strategist, an influential political activist, a Democratic Party powerbroker, and a steadfast supporter of civil rights. For more than forty years, she played an important role in keeping social reform at the top of the Democratic Party's agenda and in front of the public.

Bibliography and Further Reading
  • Black, Allida M., ed. Courage in a Dangerous World: The Political Writings of Eleanor Roosevelt. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt. 2 vols. New York: Viking, 1992.
  • Glendon, Mary Ann. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: Random House, 2001.
  • Kirkendall, Richard S. "ER and the Issue of FDR's Successor." In Without Precedent: Eleanor Roosevelt, edited by Hoff-Wilson, Joan and Lightman, Marjorie. 176-197. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
  • Lash, Joseph. Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship, Based on Eleanor Roosevelt's Private Papers. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.
  • Roosevelt, Eleanor. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1937.
Jamie Pimlott
© 2010 CQ Press, A Division of SAGE

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