“Women are like teabags. We don’t know our true strength until we are in hot water” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt Biography
In her unprecedented 12 years as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt accumulated a surprising number of “firsts”. She became the first First Lady to travel by air, first to hold press conferences, first to be a radio commentator, and first to become a syndicated columnist.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on 11th October, 1884, to socialites Elliott Bulloch Roosevelt and Anna Rebecca Hall Roosevelt. She wasn’t their only child and Eleanor had two younger brothers. Elliott Bulloch Junior was born in 1889 and Gracie Hall Roosevelt was born in 1891. Her father also had a son, called Elliott Roosevelt Mann, through an affair with a servant and Eleanor would maintain a correspondence with her half-brother for many years.
Eleanor was only eight years old when tragedy struck her troubled little family when her mother contracted diphtheria and died in 1892. Her father’s drinking had escalated and he was considered too unstable to live with his family. Eleanor and her brothers became wards of their maternal grandmother. Her brother Elliott Junior, died a year later – also of diphtheria. Within two years of her mother’s death, her father died from a seizure following a failed suicide attempt related to deep depression and alcoholism.
Eleanor’s education had been fairly neglected but her aunts and grandmother saw to it that she received regular private tutoring in her grandmother’s home. At 15, Eleanor was sent to Allenswood, a girl’s school in London, where she blossomed out of her deepest shyness. She hoped to remain as a teacher thereafter stating that her three years as a pupil had been the happiest of her life. Instead, her family demanded she return to New York to make her debut.
Eleanor did make her debut, and then took her first steps toward independence. She became part of the social reform movement of the Progressive Era that flourished in the United States from the 1890s to the 1920s. Appalled by the conditions in which women and child labourers lived and worked in New York’s tenements, she began a publicity campaign to bring these conditions to the public’s attention.
A chance meeting on a train trip from her New York City home base to her grandmother’s home led to the next major change in Eleanor’s life. She met her distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the train ride and their relationship evolved into a secret courtship. Franklin’s formidable mother, Sara Roosevelt, was disappointed in her son’s choice of wife and demanded that the young couple wait a year before marrying. However, on 17th March, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt gave his 20-year-old niece’s hand in marriage to his nephew, Franklin.
For nearly 40 years, Eleanor’s new mother-in-law would be a dominant force in her marriage. Sara had a double townhouse built for the newlyweds in Manhattan; she lived in one house, they in the other. Sara would come and go, regulating every aspect of Franklin and Eleanor’s life – from household management to decorating to child rearing. Eleanor would struggle for independence, seeking to develop new friends, activities, and interests.
Early in their marriage, and with Eleanor’s support, Franklin began building a political career in New York state politics as state senator. During World War I, President Wilson appointed Franklin Assistant Navy Secretary and the couple moved to Washington, D. C.
Franklin’s political career expanded when he was nominated as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1920, but the party was defeated in that election. The couple returned to New York.
His political future was in serious doubt after Franklin contracted poliomyelitis in 1921. Eleanor initially managed his medical care and recovery, and encouraged him to plan a return to active politics despite the development of permanent paralysis of his legs.
Her career as political spouse resumed when Franklin was elected governor of New York. By this time, Eleanor’s political experience and skill had become significant and, with Franklin’s limited mobility, she became his stand-in at functions when his schedule precluded his attendance. In her words, she became his “eyes and ears” inspecting schools, hospitals, state-supported institutions – relaying observations and impressions to Franklin, and pressing an agenda for changes.
Franklin became the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1932 and defeated Herbert Hoover in the presidential election. Eleanor would then go on to become the first, and only First Lady, to serve through three terms of office.
Only two days after the inauguration in 1933, Eleanor became the very first First Lady to hold press conferences and went on to hold 348 in total during the next 12 years. Eleanor and the Administration would use these press conferences to inform the American people of White House life, Administration policies, and critical foreign and domestic news.
Within three months, Eleanor would become the first First Lady to contract with a monthly magazine, Women’s Home Companion, to write a column, called “I Want You to Write to Me.” She invited the public to share their opinions and observations with her. Eleanor earned $1000 a month for the column and donated the fee to charities. Her success was enormous: approximately 300,000 people wrote to her within the first five months. She would continue her column writing with various publications through the remainder of her life.
Eleanor used her various columns not only to relay issues of concern or policy, but also to state her convictions and actions. Perhaps one of the most celebrated actions of her tenure occurred when she resigned her membership from the Daughters of the American Republic. That organization had refused to lease their auditorium for a concert by African-American contralto, Marian Anderson.
Over 12 years, the First Lady gave an estimated 1400 speeches. She would write them herself in outline form but would not speak from a prepared text. She also became the first First Lady whose annual income matched her husband’s presidential income: Eleanor earned $75,000 in speaking and writing fees in the first year of his presidency.
Eleanor’s travels continued throughout their 12 White House years. She observed firsthand the devastating effects of the depression and drought years and the deepening international concerns leading up to World War II. During the war, Eleanor traveled on morale-building tours, visiting an estimated 400,000 servicemen at bases and hospitals overseas and at home.
President Roosevelt died on 12th April, 1945, of a cerebral hemorrhage. Eleanor packed and moved from the White House to New York. But although she believed finished with public service, President Harry S. Truman called on her in December 1945 to become a delegate to the United Nations Assembly. She became instrumental in helping draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. From 1948 to 1953, Eleanor also served as the first United States Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She was posthumously awarded one of the UN’s first Human Rights Prizes.
Finally, disease stopped the indefatigable Eleanor Roosevelt. She was diagnosed with Aplastic anemia in 1960 and subsequently bone marrow tuberculosis. She died of cardiac failure at age 78, on 7th November, 1962.
Eleanor’s childhood was filled with sorrow and loss. Her marriage had been a love match that would become troubled with Franklin’s infidelities and her reputed dislike of intimacy. She and Franklin would have six children together, one of whom died in infancy, but her mother-in-law would essentially control the children’s’ upbringing.
Eleanor’s tremendous gifts of compassion and public service touched the lives of many individuals of the 20th century. She was born 36 years before the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote yet she became a major political and social influence and the prototype of the modern working First Lady