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Eleanor Roosevelt was born October 11, 1884 from a family of lineage, wealth, and uncommon sadness. The first child of Anna Hall Roosevelt and Elliott Roosevelt, young Eleanor encountered dissatisfaction early in life. Her father, grief the death of his mother and fighting continuous ill health, turned to alcohol for relief and was absent from home for long periods of time occupied in either business, pleasure or medical treatment. Anna Hall Roosevelt tried 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 unhappy. An astute and observant child, Eleanor hardly ever failed to notice the tension between her parents and the damage that it placed on both of them. By the time she was six, Eleanor assumed several 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 short-lived. Anna Hall Roosevelt, one of New York’s most astonishing beauties, increasingly made young Eleanor extremely self-conscious regarding her conduct and appearance, even going so far as to nickname her “Granny” for her “very plain,” “old fashioned,” and serious behavior. Remembering her childhood, Eleanor later wrote, “I was a serious 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 commitment to her father all the more intense. Images of a gregarious, larger than life Elliott conquered Eleanor’s memories of him and she longed for the days when he would come back home. She adored his playfulness with her and the manner he loved her with such uncritical abandon. Certainly, her father’s passion simply underscored the loneliness 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 on the other hand 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 (1843-1919), became her guardian, an emotionally cold woman, in Tivoli, New York. She was looked down upon by most of her mother’s family, presumably because, to them, Eleanor had very plain looks and an uncommon six foot tall frame. Not only had her mother’s family thought less of her. Her Hyde Park Roosevelt’s cousin and future mother-in-law Sara Delano Roosevelt used to say disparagingly of her less wealthy Manhattan Roosevelt cousins, “we got all the looks and the money.”
In her grandmother’s home, Eleanor’s Hall uncles were mostly wealthy alcoholic playboys and in recent times, there have surfaced allegations that Eleanor may have felt insecure around lecherous eyes. Multiple locks were placed on her room from the inside and one time she visited her aunt Bamie Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s sister, broke down and in tears exclaimed, “Auntie I have no real home.” Aunt Bamie was instrumental in trying to get her out of the Hall home and she tried to find educational opportunities that would take her far from that residence. The chance came for her to go to England as Bamie demanded Eleanor be sent to Allenswood, and Eleanor jumped at the opportunity.
Eleanor’s grandmother Mary Hall limited contact with the Roosevelts after Elliott’s death. Uncle Ted, however, had Eleanor at his Sagamore Hill house where she was given special attention as an emotionally vulnerable child. The only other contact she had with young men was at a house party given by her aunt Corinne Robinson at Christmas and it was at one of these parties that she met her cousin and future husband Franklin Roosevelt. With the encouragement of her aunt, Anna Cowles, Theodore Roosevelt’s sister, she was sent to Allenswood, a girls’ boarding school outside of London where she studied from 1899 to 1902.
At Allenswood the headmistress, Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre (1830-1905), made a lasting impression. Souvestre had a fierce interest in liberal causes and the summers Eleanor spent traveling Europe with her as well as her studies in history, language and literature gave her an abiding interest in social justice as well as the knowledge and poise to articulate her opinions clearly and eloquently. At this school, Eleanor won the affection both of the instructors as well as the students. One of her proudest moments at Allenswood was when she made the field hockey team.
She was one of the school’s favorite students and would be highly missed when she returned to the States. Eleanor would list Souvestre as one of the three major influences in her life and said of her: “Mlle. Souvestre shocked one into thinking, and that on the whole was very beneficial.” At that school, Eleanor seemed to come out of her shell of childhood loneliness and isolation. She thrived both academically and emotionally. Souvestre did her best to prepare her for a return to the far less structured world of the Hyde Park Roosevelts.
In 1902 Eleanor ran into her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Harvard student, and they began a discreet courtship which led to their engagement in November 1903. Eleanor and Franklin were fifth cousins, once removed. Sara Ann Roosevelt, FDR’s mother, was dead set against the match and managed to delay their marriage for 16 months. In a vain attempt to pre-occupy Franklin’s mind in hopes that he would forget Eleanor, she sent him on a trip with friends for an extended period of time. Most of Eleanor’s Hall and Roosevelt clans approved the match with only one of Eleanor’s Hall aunts asking “what does she see in him?”
Theodore Roosevelt “Uncle Ted” approved as well and sent Franklin a letter and after the wedding ceremony told him “Well Franklin, there’s nothing like keeping the name in the family.” On St. Patrick’s Day (17 March) 1905, she married Franklin D. Roosevelt; President Theodore Roosevelt took the place of his late brother in giving Eleanor away in marriage. Her cousins Alice Roosevelt and Corinne Robinson were bridesmaids along with Isabella Greenway. Eleanor’s mother-in-law insisted on dominating the young couple’s daily life. “Mother” went so far as to choose their first home, three blocks from her own; she also decorated and furnished it to her tastes and hired the staff to run it. Their marriage produced six children, Anna Eleanor Jr., James, Franklin Delano Jr. (1909-1909), Elliott, Franklin Delano Jr. and John Aspinwall. As the children grew older and married, Mrs. Roosevelt was often depressed and disappointed by the “lack of self-discipline” her children displayed.
Eleanor Roosevelt often felt more miserable about her children’s unsuccessful private lives than she did about her husband’s infidelity. In her later years, she frequently commented after arguments with her adult son that she “would be better off dead” and that her “being alive caused them to compete because she had overshadowed” them. Following the death of her husband in 1945, Roosevelt continued to live on the Hyde Park Estate, in Val-Kill, the house that her husband had remodeled for her near the main house.
Originally built as a small furniture factory for Val-Kill Industries, it afforded Eleanor a level of privacy that she had wanted for many years. The home served as a private sanctuary from her domineering and oppressive mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt (Faber, 1983). Roosevelt also entertained her circle of friends in informal gatherings at the house. The site is now the home of the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill.
During Franklin Roosevelt’s terms as President, Eleanor was very vocal about her support of the American Civil Rights Movement and of African-American rights. However, her husband needed the support of Southern Democrats to advance other parts of his agenda. FDR therefore did not adopt the cause of civil rights. Eleanor became the connection to the African-American population instead, helping Franklin Roosevelt to win its votes. In 1939, the African-American opera singer Marian Anderson was refused permission to perform at Constitution Hall (owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution) in Washington.
She also resigned her membership in the D.A.R. over the incident. Interestingly, she did not raise a similar protest when the District of Columbia school board, then under the jurisdiction of President Roosevelt and the Democratically-controlled Congress, had turned down Anderson’s request to give the performance to an integrated audience at the auditorium of a white public high school. Later in the year, Secretary of State Harold L. Ickes, at the suggestion of Walter White of the NAACP, arranged for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson sang to a live audience of 70,000, and a nationwide audience of millions on radio.
Eleanor Roosevelt was very active on the home front. At one point she co chaired a national committee on civil defense. She made innumerable visits to civilian and military centers to boost war morale. She especially supported more opportunities for African Americans and women. In 1943, Eleanor, along with Wendell Willkie and other Americans concerned about the mounting threats to peace and democracy during World War II, established Freedom House.
Eleanor opposed her husband’s decision to sign Executive Order 9066 which resulted in the internment of 110,000 Japanese nationals and American citizens of Japanese descent in internment camps in the western United States. Eleanor earned large amounts of money from advertising activities. The Pan-American Coffee Bureau, which was supported by tax revenues from eight foreign governments, paid Roosevelt $1000 a week for advertising. When the State Department found out that the First Lady was being paid so handsomely by foreign governments, they unsuccessfully tried to have the deal cancelled.
Throughout World War II, Eleanor remained an uncompromising voice on civil rights, insisting that America could not fight racism abroad while tolerating it at home. Advancement was slow, but her enduring intervention led to broadened opportunities for blacks in the factories and shipyards at home and in the armed forces overseas. Eleanor’s positions on civil rights were far in advance of her time: 10 years before the Supreme Court rejected the “separate but equal” doctrine, Eleanor argued that equal facilities were not enough: “The basic fact of segregation, which warps and twists the lives of our Negro population, itself discriminatory.”
After World War II, Roosevelt played an instrumental role, along with René Cassin, John Peters Humphrey and others, in drafting the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Roosevelt served as the first chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. On the night of September 28, 1948, Roosevelt spoke on behalf of the Declaration calling it “the international Magna Carta of all mankind” (James, 1948).
The Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The vote of the General Assembly was unanimous except for eight abstentions. The Declaration was Roosevelt’s crowning achievement. From the 1920s until her death in 1962, Roosevelt remained involved heavily in politics. She opposed the Equal Rights Amendment because it would prevent Congress and the states from passing special protective legislation that she thought women workers needed (Pfeffer, 1996).
There were other warps and twists that caught her eye. Long before the contemporary women’s movement provided ideological arguments for women’s rights, Eleanor instinctively challenged institutions that failed to provide equal opportunity for women. As First Lady, she held more than 300 press conferences that she cleverly restricted to women journalists, knowing that news organizations all over the country would be forced to hire their first female reporter in order to have access to the First Lady. Through her speeches and her columns, she provided a powerful voice in the campaign to recruit women workers to the factories during the war.
“If I was of debutante age, I would go into a factory, where I could learn a skill and be useful,” Eleanor told young women, cautioning them against marrying too hastily before they had a chance to expand their horizons. She was instrumental in securing the first government funds ever allotted for the building of child-care centers. And when women workers were unceremoniously fired as the war came to an end, she fought to stem the tide. She argued on principle that everyone who wanted to work had a right to be productive, and she railed against the closing of the child-care centers as a shortsighted response to a fundamental social need. What the women workers needed, she said, was the courage to ask for their rights with a loud voice.
Eleanor Roosevelt is viewed as a leader for many reasons. World-renowned, respected, and admired, Eleanor Roosevelt made many lasting and meaningful contributions to the welfare of mankind which has stood the rigorous test of time. Her humanitarian efforts on behalf of children, the oppressed and the poor earned her the love of millions throughout the world. She was, as President Truman said, “First Lady of the World.” Eleanor was in real demand as a speaker and lecturer, both in person and through the media of radio and television. She was a prolific writer with many articles and books to her credit including a multi-volume autobiography. In late 1935, she began a syndicated column, “My Day,” which she continued until shortly before her death.
She also wrote monthly question and answer columns for the Ladies Home Journal (1941-49) and McCalls (1949-62). For her own part, she never let the intense criticism that she encountered silence her. “If I … worried about mudslinging, I would have been dead long ago.” Yet she insisted that she was not a feminist. She did not believe, she maintained, that “women should be judged, when it comes to appointing them or electing them, purely because they are women.” She wanted to see the country “get away from considering a man or woman from the point of view of religion, color or sex.” But the story of her life–her insistence on her right to an identity of her own apart from her husband and her family, her constant struggle against depression and insecurity, her ability to turn her vulnerabilities into strengths–provides an enduring example of a feminist who transcended the dictates of her times to become one of the century’s most powerful and effective advocates for social justice.
Roosevelt was an accomplished archer, and one of the first modern women to participate in the sport of bow hunting. Her exploits as a 20th-century Diana are well documented in the writings of her male bow hunting contemporaries Fred Bear, Howard Hill and Saxton Pope. A close personal friendship with J.E. Davis, editor of Ye Sylvan Archer, which was a popular bow hunting magazine of the time, led to an invitation to author several articles for that publication.
Roosevelt’s tales of her hunting excursions were well received, though they did not serve to further the cause of women’s liberation: in keeping with the chauvinistic standards of the time, Roosevelt’s stories were published under the masculine pseudonym “Chuck Painton” to avoid offending the magazine’s overwhelmingly male readership. Roosevelt received 35 honorary degrees during her life, compared to 31 awarded to her husband.
Her first, a Doctor of Humane Letters (L.H.D.) on June 13, 1929, was also the first honorary degree awarded by Russell Sage College in Troy, New York. Her last was a Doctor of Law (L.L.D.) degree granted by what is now Clark Atlanta University in June 1962 (Cook, 1999). One of Roosevelt’s prized trophies, the taking of which was immortalized in her poignant 1937 account Outwitting the Rompala Buck (Ye Sylvan Archer, v2), for many years graced the mantle above the fireplace in her husband Franklin’s presidential library. It is now held as one of the organizing artifacts of the Community Forum Collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
In her later years, Mrs. Roosevelt lived at Val-kill in Hyde Park, Dutchess County, New York. She also maintained an apartment in New York City where she died on November 7, 1962. She is buried alongside her husband in the rose garden of their estate at Hyde Park, now a national historic site.
Faber, Harold. (1983). “An Upstate Focus for Eleanor Roosevelt Centennial.” New York Times, Metropolitan Desk: 54. Academic. LEXIS-NEXIS. Indiana University, Bloomington.
James, Michael. (1948). “Soviet Rights Hit by Mrs. Roosevelt.” New York Times. ABI/Inform Global. ProQuest. Indiana University, Bloomington.
Pfeffer, Paula F. (1996). “Eleanor Roosevelt and the National and World Women’s Parties.” Historian Fall. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Indiana University, Bloomington.
Cook, Blanche Wiesen (1999). Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume Two, 1933-1938. Viking Press. ISBN 0-1401-7894-5.