Eleanor Roosevelt was the longest-serving First Lady of the United States, from 1933-1945, during her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms as the 32nd President of the United States. She was First Lady during some of the most challenging periods of the 20th century in America, including the Great Depression and World War II. This text discusses her impact on the role of First Lady and the issues that mattered most to her.As you read, take notes on the ways that Eleanor Roosevelt was a different First Lady than those who had come before her, and how the issues she spoke about inspired controversy.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy stands on two pillars. She was an unabashed feminist, refusing to be silenced in the traditionally male world of politics. And she became a symbol of what caring for the downtrodden in society — including the poor, minorities, women, youth, and refugees — should look like. Through these two pillars, Eleanor transformed the role of the First Lady from ornamental to activist.
She was born in New York City on October 11, 1884, to a prominent American family. In fact, her uncle Teddy Roosevelt had been president of the United States. She was a shy child who experienced great loss at a young age — her mother died when she was just eight, and her father died just two years later. She was then sent to boarding school in England for her teenage years.
It was not long after she returned to the States that she married her distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1905 at the age of 21. Franklin was a lawyer. But he was happy to tell anyone who would listen that he wouldn’t be for long. He planned to win a seat in the state legislature, become an assistant secretary of the Navy, and then become governor of New York. This path, he reasoned, was sure to lead to the presidency.
Originally, his wife Eleanor was brought along for the ride. The first years of their marriage were filled with campaigns for him and pregnancies for her. He ran for state senate twice and she became pregnant six times, although only five of the children survived.
And then, in 1918, her life changed drastically. Franklin returned from a trip to Europe with a bad case of pneumonia. Exhausted, he went straight to bed with a raging fever, leaving his wife to unpack his suitcase. When she did, she found love letters from a woman named Lucy Mercer.
Although in 1918 philandering husbands were the norm, Eleanor was devastated. She had built her life around Franklin and his political ambitions. And now she felt betrayed and did not know what exactly was supposed to come next.
They could not get divorced. In 1918, a divorced person had never even received a nomination. If Eleanor left Franklin, it would destroy his political career, the very foundation of both their lives. Instead, they reached a compromise. He would not see Lucy Mercer again.
With the new arrangement, their marriage changed drastically. Suddenly Eleanor was not a wife, stuck on a lower level than her husband. She was an equal partner in an arrangement. Franklin’s polio attack in 1921, through which he lost the use of his legs, only increased his dependency on her, as well as his respect for her.Q1
As First Lady
Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933 and would remain in that role until his death in 1945. At first, Eleanor was worried about what the position of First Lady of the United States would mean for her. The previous First Ladies had been in roles that were limited to hosting guests. Eleanor wanted to redefine the role of First Lady, a controversial move for women at the time. Married women were not supposed to have careers, but Eleanor, in her first year as First Lady, was determined to match her husband’s presidential salary. Eleanor, with the support of her husband, continued her work in business and held lectures and speaking engagements. She gave most of the money she earned to charity.
She was an outspoken First Lady who used the media more than any of her predecessors. She hosted a regular radio program and held 348 press conferences over the span of her husband’s 12 years in the White House. These press conferences were exclusively for female reporters; male reporters were banned from attending the press conferences in order to ensure that newspapers kept female reporters on staff to cover the conferences. This female-only rule was broken just the once during her time in the White House and, even then, not without her consent.
Throughout Franklin D. Roosevelt’s terms in office, Eleanor traveled the country. She met with coal miners and with minorities, and she wrote in her daily newspaper column, “My Day,” about her experiences. She was a political player, urging her husband to support civil rights and privately opposing his order to intern Japanese Americans during World War II.
Eleanor faced a lot of public backlash during her time as First Lady. When she wrote magazine articles and expressed her opinions, she was likely to cause uproar. The Los Angeles Times newspaper called for her to be forced to retire from public life, because of her public criticism of the discrimination that Japanese Americans were facing. She was outspoken on the issue of racial discrimination and declared her support for civil rights. She invited hundreds of African American guests to the White House during her time as First Lady — another controversial move at the time. Her stance on racial discrimination created angry ripples across the country, especially in the South. But the critics never deterred her. Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out for those whom society cared less about at a time when women were not supposed to be speaking out at all.Q2
Later Life and Legacy
Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945, and his successor, President Harry S. Truman, appointed Eleanor Roosevelt as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. She became the first chairperson for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and played a key role in helping to form the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962 after suffering from poor health for a couple of years. Her funeral was attended by a number of notable guests, including President Kennedy and former presidents Truman and Eisenhower. Since her death, Roosevelt has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973, and the Eleanor Roosevelt Monument was unveiled in New York in 1996, with First Lady Hillary Clinton giving the keynote speech. Her legacy continues to be celebrated across the country. She has a number of awards and schools named after her. Her most lasting legacy might be her pioneering work as a First Lady, speaking up on behalf of women and civil rights, and turning the role of “wife to the President” into political advocacy, paving the way for the likes of other First Ladies such as Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama.
Eleanor Roosevelt famously wrote that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” And, as is apparent from her life, no one ever did.Q3
- Unabashed (adjective): not ashamed or apologetic; certain of one’s position x
- Ornamental (adjective): used for decoration x
“Philandering” is a word used to describe a man who is unfaithful to his wife.x
This refers to the nomination for president of the United States. Before each presidential election, each major political party nominates their candidate for president.x
- Controversial (adjective): subject to public debate or argument; not broadly accepted or agreed upon x
a person who comes before another in an office or positionx
In 1941, Japan’s attack on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, led to the United States’ entry into World War II. In response to this attack, the United States relocated and imprisoned many Japanese Americans in what came to be known as internment camps.x
- Deter (verb): to prevent; to discourage from proceeding x
The United Nations is an international organization that was established in 1945 after World War II. It promotes cooperation and prevents conflict among world nations. Another one of its main objectives is to protect human rights across the world.x