When her husband was elected president of the United States in 1933, you could say that Eleanor Roosevelt was less than thrilled. Up until that point in time, the traditional duty of First Lady was essentially to act as “hostess” of the White House. No one expected an outspoken, determined, opinionated woman to take on the job—but that’s exactly what Eleanor was, and that’s precisely what she brought to the role of FLOTUS.
So who was this woman that has been at times called the most controversial First Lady in United States history…the First Lady of the World by President Harry Truman…and one of the top 10 most widely admired people of the 20th century, according to Gallup’s 1999 ranking?
Born in New York City in 1884 to socialites Elliott Roosevelt and Anna Rebecca Hall, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was a very privileged but rather sad, shy child. Tragically, before the age of 10 she lost both parents and a little brother. Subsequently, Eleanor (who preferred to be addressed by her middle name) and her other younger brother Hall were sent to the home of their maternal grandmother, where together they were raised until Eleanor’s departure for a finishing school just outside London.
There the young woman was strongly influenced by the school’s founder and headmistress, Marie Souvestre, a noted feminist educator of the time. Having lost her own mother at such a tender age, Eleanor was likely starved for maternal affection. But she grew confident and blossomed under Marie’s watchful eye, becoming very popular among her classmates and getting involved in a variety of organizations and clubs.
Shortly after returning to the U.S. for her coming out party as a debutante in New York society, Eleanor met Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her father’s fifth cousin. The two married in 1905 (with the vehement disapproval of FDR’s mother) and set off on a path together that would shape the course of history.
Despite the fact that she bore six children, Eleanor reportedly disliked sex, categorizing it as “an ordeal” to be endured. And though she had earned the endearing nickname “Granny” for her tendency to be a bit of an old soul even as a little girl, she never felt very maternal toward her own children, who were primarily raised by her prickly and controlling mother-in-law. Eleanor once wrote very frankly that “it did not come naturally to [her] to understand little children, or to enjoy them.”
What was second nature to young Eleanor, however, was her intense desire to right the wrongs she witnessed in the world. Drawing upon the liberal arts education Souvestre had instilled in her at Allenswood Academy, Eleanor spent her entire life fighting on behalf of women, the poor, laborers and minorities. Her work included volunteering with the Red Cross, joining the League of Women Voters, chairing the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission and helping to write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—which she considered her greatest achievement.
At the end of World War I, during which her husband had served as assistant secretary of the Navy, Eleanor came upon a stack of love letters in Franklin’s suitcase. The notes revealed an affair with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s social secretary, for whom Franklin was considering leaving Eleanor. For the sake of his reputation and public persona (he had served as a New York State senator from 1911-13, and already had his eye on the presidency), a divorce was agreed to be unwise. Eleanor and Franklin decided to stay together, but from that point forward, the marriage was considered by the couple to be little more than a political partnership. Over the years following this confrontation, their relationship was plagued by rumors of further extra-marital affairs on both sides.
Eleanor had an extremely close relationship—some say affair—with the famed Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok, who was composing a biography of Mrs. Roosevelt during her husband’s 1932 presidential campaign. Eleanor wrote dozens of pages daily to “Hick,” as she affectionately called her. Three hundred of these letters (more than 3,500 were discovered to have been written between the two over a 30-year span) were printed in a book by Rodger Streitmatter titled Empty Without You, published in 2000. Around the same time as her reported fling with Hick, word around town was that Eleanor and New Deal administrator Harry Hopkins were anitem. Gossip hounds also romantically linked Eleanor to her appointed bodyguard, New York State Police Sergeant Earl Miller. Clearly Eleanor did not intend on standing idly by while Franklin continued to get a little action on the side (Ms. Mercer was but one of several FDR dalliances).
In the political arena, the scope of Eleanor’s activism had been broadened with the onset of her husband’s polio in 1921. Having encouraged him to stay on his career path despite his sudden illness, Eleanor began making public appearances on his behalf, essentially acting as a stand-in. She also became involved in raising funds for the Women’s Trade Union League—work that established her as a leader in the New York State Democratic Party, particularly among its female members. In turn, Franklin’s future campaigns benefited from the solid relations that she forged among these women.
Just before she and Franklin entered the White House in February of 1933, Eleanor published a particularly powerful editorial in the Women’s Daily News. Thus began a long history of voicing her opinions in print—sometimes countering Franklin’s own stances and policies—in more than 60 national magazine articles during her turn as First Lady. Beginning in 1936, Eleanor wrote a syndicated newspaper column that was published six days a week until her death in 1962. She reached millions of Americans with this unique platform, sharing details of her daily activities, but also her thoughts on race relations, equal rights, current events and her humanitarian concerns. Biographer Maurine Beasley asserts that Eleanor’s encouragement of readers to respond to this column represented a true effort to help women in particular to “overcome social isolation” by “making public communication a two-way channel.” With her use of this social media pre-cursor, Eleanor demonstrated herself as a future thinker, well ahead of her time.
Many people fully expected Eleanor to run for office at some point in her life—they pushed her to consider a role as governor, senator, VP…and even president. The encouragement among American Democrats was so prevalent, in fact, that Eleanor was prompted to write an article for Look magazine titled “Why I Do Not Choose to Run.” It was published in July of 1946, a little over a year after FDR’s death. Below is an excerpt.
The plain truth, I am afraid, is that in declining to consider running for the various public offices which have been suggested to me, I am influenced by the thought that no woman has, as yet, been able to build up and hold sufficient backing to carry through a program. Men and women both are not yet enough accustomed to following a woman and looking to her for leadership. If I were young enough it might be an interesting challenge, and we have some women in Congress who may carry on this fight.
However, I am already an elderly woman, and I would have to start in whatever office I might run for as a junior with no weight of experience in holding office behind me. It seems to me that fairly young men and women should start holding minor offices and work up to the important ones, developing qualifications for holding these offices as they work.
Throughout the 1950s, Eleanor was invited to speak at innumerable national and international venues, and made countless influential appearances on TV and radio broadcasts. Even into her mid-to-late 70s, Eleanor continued her tremendous efforts as an appointee to the National Advisory Committee of the Peace Corps, and chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women under JFK.
At Eleanor’s funeral services in November of 1962, American politician and diplomat Adlai Stevenson expressed his admiration for the controversial and groundbreaking former first lady. He stated that in her struggle to make a real difference in the world around her, “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness,” taking action when others spout only words. As a result, Stevenson eloquently concluded, “…her glow has warmed the world.”