Before Eleanor Roosevelt, the role of the first lady was not a political role; it was merely just a formal title of the president’s wife. Eleanor Roosevelt paved the way for all presidents’ wives to come by being active in politics during and after her husband’s presidency. Of course, she did not have instant success; she had many trials which helped her become an important and influential role model. Eleanor Roosevelt’s dedication to her husband, her activeness in politics, and her volunteer work enabled her to change the role of the First Lady. Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884 to Elliot and Anna Hall Roosevelt.
Her mother was very beautiful and thought of Eleanor as a disappointment and would even make fun of her and call her mean nicknames like “Granny” (Cook, 21, vol. 1). Her father adored her and she adored him but he was never around due to the fact that he was an alcoholic and a drug addict (Morey, 14). When Eleanor was seven years old, her parents got a divorce; which left her mother, Anna, to raise the children alone (Spangenburg, 4). Eleanor’s parents both died shortly after, her mother when she was eight, and when she was ten she learned that her father had died as well.
Eleanor and her two younger brothers were sent to live with their Grandmother Hall (Morey, 16-17). Although Eleanor did not have a pleasant childhood, things started to look up when she started dating her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They were married on March 17, 1905 (Cook, 162, vol. 1). Eleanor’s Godfather, Theodore Roosevelt, the current president, agreed to walk her down the aisle at her wedding (Morey, 25-27). After their wedding, Franklin and Eleanor’s house was still not ready, so they lived with Franklin’s mother, Sara, who was not very fond of Eleanor.
Once Eleanor started having children Sara even insisted on helping raise them because she considered herself to be a better mother than Eleanor (Morey, 28). Eleanor gave birth to 6 children, but lost one and from this became depressed. This was a hard time for her especially living with Sara. Finally, in 1910 they moved away from Sara to Albany, New York so Franklin could run for Senator (Cook, 184-186, vol. 1). Eleanor Roosevelt was dedicated to Franklin and was always helping him out behind the scenes. When Franklin became a state senator, she became friends with his political friends and their wives, and she loved to entertain.
She also liked to attend meetings at the Capitol building and listen to speakers (Morey, 30). In the winter and spring of 1917-1918, Franklin came down with pneumonia and Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair with their good friend, Lucy Mercer. During this time they saw each other very little, but did not get a divorce (Cook, 222-224, vol. 1). In fact, Franklin’s mother threatened that if he got a divorce, she would “cut him out without a cent” and he needed her money for his campaign, so they did not get a divorce (Morey, 33).
After Franklin got over his pneumonia, Eleanor still stayed dedicated to him even after his affair and they tried to work on their relationship. They even began to travel together again. Eleanor still went through some periods of depression but through this she developed independence and leadership (Morey, 35-36). In 1920, Franklin was chosen as the vice-presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, but after they lost the election in November, he and Eleanor moved their family back to New York. Shortly after, Franklin was swimming in the Bay of Fundy when he complained that his legs felt weak.
His condition only worsened and he was soon diagnosed with Polio. This paralyzed his legs permanently but he otherwise recovered and was healthy (Spangenburg, 46). Franklin had to become very dependent on Eleanor and together they learned to be a good team. In 1932, when Franklin ran for president, Eleanor went along with him to help campaign and he won (Spangenburg, 58). Due to Franklin’s condition, he wasn’t able to do a lot of traveling so Eleanor became his “eyes and ears” by traveling for him (Lash, 762).
She inspected prisons, checked on the effects of the drought in the Midwest, and unemployment in West Virginia. Then she would come home and report everything to her husband that she observed. She also met with local people and talked about their jobs and lives. Through her, Franklin was one of the best-informed president’s about America’s social conditions (Morey, 49). During World War II, she visited the South Pacific war area and would have breakfast with the troops and visit the wounded in the hospital.
She would send Franklin reports on changes that she thought should be made, and observations she had, like how the blacks and whites worked well together, which pleased her (Morey, 66). Eleanor was quickly changing the role of the first lady, even through her activeness in politics. She was a strong advocate for many groups such as women, children, minorities and the poor. As the First Lady, she was doing things that had never been done before, like holding her own press conferences. She also tried to help women get jobs by asking all women reporters to come to her press conferences.
In doing this she hoped that editors would hire more women (Morey, 46-47). She became very comfortable with public speaking and gave more press conferences than her husband. She also gave many lectures over the years, and also had her own radio program. Eleanor was very active with the women’s social reform network and was closely related with three organizations: the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Trade Union League and the National Consumer’s League (Cook, 62, vol. 2). In Eleanor’s first year in the white house, she somehow found time to write her first book.
It was called It’s up to the Women, published in 1933. The main point of this book was that women must play a role in leading the nation to recover from the Great Depression (Morey, 55). She also started her own newspaper column on December 30, 1935, called “My Day” that ran for almost 30 years. In this column she wrote about all of the events going on in the world and a lot of her own thoughts as well. She felt very strongly about world peace, and on June 1, 1945, she wrote in “My Day” that, “Only the good will of peoples and their leaders can develop understanding and create an atmosphere in which peace can exist.
Something else Eleanor Roosevelt felt strongly about what was the segregation of races, and she did what she could to stand up against it. She had always been very active in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), but when she invited a black singer, Marian Anderson, to sing at a function, they wouldn’t let her perform in their auditorium. Eleanor was so upset by this that she resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution and refused to be associated with them (Spangenburg, 74).
She also went to a meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, with Mary McLeod Bethune, a famous black educator, and was upset to see that whites had to sit on one side and blacks on the other. Eleanor stubbornly sat with the black group until she was asked to move by a police officer. Instead of moving to sit with the white group, she just put her chair right in the middle (Morey, 59-60). She also got involved with associations like the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and would even try to pass anti-lynching bills for them. They never did pass though.
Eleanor loved to help people and did a lot of volunteer work. Even before her husband was president she was helping at the Red Cross (Lash, 762) and would help distribute things to the navy. She even visited the naval hospital once a week to talk to the war victims (Morey, 31-32). Once she became first lady this did not stop her from volunteering and reaching out. During the Great Depression, there were many poverty-stricken areas. One place called Scott’s Run in West Virginia was so bad that everyone was living in tents and only had the clothes on their backs.
Congress had allowed 25 million dollars for depression victims and so Eleanor decided to relocate their village and buy homes and even organize a school for them. The new village was called Arthursdale, and she was very proud of it. She also helped create jobs for these people (Morey 51-52). She also had a heart for young people, and tried to support their rights, too. She supported a group called the American Youth Congress (AYC) and advised them, attended meetings, and gave them money. Some people looked down at her for this because the group was communists-backed, but it didn’t stop her (Morey 61).
Eleanor also supported a school called Wiltwyck School in New York which was for troubled boys thought of as delinquents. She would hold annual picnics with them and spend time visiting with them. The boys loved her and thought of her as a good friend (Levy and Russett, 121). Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Eleanor was invited by the Queen to come to England. While she was there she saw the damage from the German bombs. She also visited with many of the American troops stationed there and they greatly appreciated her.
One British officer even said, “Mrs. Roosevelt has done more to bring a real understanding of the spirit of the United States to the people of Britain than any other single American who has ever visited these islands. ” (Morey, 65-66). After traveling to England, she decided she wanted to travel more so she also visited Australia, New Zealand, and seventeen South Pacific Islands. In 1945, while Franklin was relaxing in Warm Springs, Georgia, he suffered from a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and died on April 12. Later, Eleanor wrote that “I never realized the full scope of the devotion to him until after he died” (Spangenburg, 80-82).
After his death, she returned to being a normal citizen and moved out of the White House. Her role as the first lady of the United States had ended, but her career had not. The new president, Harry Truman, selected her to be a US delegate to the United Nations. During her second term she served on a committee called the Human Rights Commission. For two years, they worked on writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was finally approved on December 10, 1948, and she was given a standing ovation after the UN General Assembly approved it (Spangenburg, 86-87).
Eleanor considered this one of her greatest achievements. Eleanor Roosevelt stayed busy up until the year of her death. She died on November 11, 1962, after being diagnosed with an untreatable blood disease. She was buried next to Franklin in the rose garden at Hyde Park (Lash, 762). Eleanor was a loving, caring and compassionate person who spent most of her life helping others and attempting to make the world a better place. She once said, “I never let slip an opportunity to increase my knowledge of people and conditions. Spangenburg, 99)
Everything she knew had been discovered on her own through her own experiences and observations. Eleanor also said, “I had really only three assets: I was keenly interested, I accepted every challenge and every opportunity to learn more, and I had great energy and self-discipline. ” (Spangenburg, 99) Eleanor Roosevelt changed the role of the first lady by her dedication to her husband through everything, her involvement in politics, and her willingness to help others through her volunteer work.