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date: 01 December 2020

Roosevelt, Eleanorfree

(11 October 1884–07 November 1962)
  • Geoffrey C. Ward

Eleanor Roosevelt

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-25812 DLC).

Roosevelt, Eleanor (11 October 1884–07 November 1962), first lady of the United States, social reformer, politician, diplomat, was born Anna Eleanor Roosevelt in New York City, the daughter of Elliott Roosevelt and Anna Hall. Her childhood was materially comfortable—both sides of her family were wealthy and prominent in New York society—but it was also emotionally arid. Her mother, beautiful but distant and so disappointed in the looks of her daughter that she called her “granny,” died when Eleanor was eight. Her youngest brother died the following year. She clung to her father, the younger brother of Theodore Roosevelt, but he was an alcoholic so erratic that he was often forbidden to see her. He died when she was ten, leaving her and her surviving brother, Hall, in the care of maternal relatives whose interest in them was more dutiful than affectionate. From these misfortunes Eleanor Roosevelt drew three grim lessons: she was unattractive; no one’s love for her was likely to last; and those whom she counted most could be counted on to let her down. From her earliest years she found solace in helping others. “As with all children,” she wrote in This Is My Story, “the feeling that I was useful was perhaps the greatest joy I experienced.” It would remain her greatest source of joy all her life.

At age fifteen, she was sent away to the Allenswood School outside London. Its founder, Marie Souvestre, the daughter of the French radical philosopher Emil Souvestre, who saw in the tall, slender, diffident young American “the most amiable girl I have ever met” (Cook, p. 110), opened up to her the worlds of art and ideas and service to the less fortunate and encouraged her to think for herself. “Whatever I have become,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in the first volume of her autobiography, “had its seeds in those three years of contact with a liberal mind and strong personality.”

Eleanor returned to America at age eighteen because her relatives insisted she make her formal debut in New York society, but Souvestre’s lessons were not forgotten. Eleanor joined the National Consumer’s League, which championed health and safety standards for workers, and she began teaching calisthenics and “fancy dancing” to the children of immigrants at the Rivington Street Settlement House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

In November 1902 her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom she had known since childhood, began to court her. He was attracted to her intelligence and sympathy—and perhaps by her closeness to the man he admired most, Theodore Roosevelt. She in turn was drawn to his cheerful buoyancy. He was “perfectly secure … while I was perfectly insecure,” she remembered. But she also confessed to a cousin her worry that Franklin was too “attractive” to remain in love with her for long.

They were married in 1905 and would have a daughter and four sons. Franklin’s formidable widowed mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who controlled the family purse strings and often sought to control her son as well, dominated the early years of their marriage. She forbade her daughter-in-law to do settlement work for fear of bringing illnesses home, built and furnished the Roosevelt’s New York home, and supervised the servants and the raising of her grandchildren. Eleanor, starved for maternal affection and unsure of her own skills as wife and mother, was grateful to her mother-in-law at first, but as the years went by grew increasingly resentful.

Then in 1911 Franklin won a seat in the New York State Senate as a Democrat and the Roosevelts moved to Albany, where Eleanor reveled at getting out from under her mother-in-law’s rule and got her first taste of political combat as her home became headquarters for the doomed insurgency her husband helped lead against Tammany Hall. Two years later she accompanied Franklin to Washington where he joined the Woodrow Wilson administration as assistant secretary of the navy. She disliked Washington life at first and found especially wearying the formal Washington dinners that delighted her gregarious husband. When the United States entered into the First World War in 1917 she was grateful to be given a socially acceptable rationale for resuming volunteer work outside her home for the first time in twelve years. She threw herself into Navy Relief, regularly visited the wounded, and helped operate a Red Cross canteen. “I became … more determined to try for certain ultimate objectives,” she recalled in This Is My Story. “I had gained a certain assurance as to my ability to run things, and the knowledge that there is joy in accomplishing good.”

Then, she confided to a friend many years later, “the bottom dropped out of my particular world, and I faced myself, my surroundings, my world, honestly for the first time” (Lash, Love Eleanor, p. 66). In September 1918 she discovered that her husband was in love with a younger woman, her own social secretary, Lucy Mercer. According to family tradition, she offered FDR a divorce. He rejected it, fearing both that his political career would be ruined by a public scandal and that his mother would cut him off without a penny if he left his wife and children. He pledged never to see Lucy Mercer again. Her husband’s betrayal was deeply wounding to Eleanor; it seemed to confirm all her girlhood fears about her own attractiveness. Marital intimacy ended: thereafter there was “no fundamental love to draw on” between her and her husband, she confided to a friend, “just respect & affection” (Scharf, p. 139).

But this personal crisis also liberated her. From 1918 onward, she and FDR would lead increasingly separate lives and she was free to pursue the host of social and political causes that soon consumed her. Her husband’s paralysis, from polio, in the summer of 1921 and his subsequent seven-year withdrawal from active politics was the public explanation for her activism. She was acting as her invalid husband’s “legs and eyes,” she liked to say, just keeping his name before the public until he could return to public life. But in fact she was already active in her own right before he fell ill.

She had been unsure about woman suffrage before 1920, but now that women were armed with the vote she believed that “women must learn to play the game as men do” (Cook, p. 366). Soon her gift for organizing and her astonishing energy and determination to do good, combined with her famous name, had made her an influential figure in both social reform and partisan politics. She helped lead four important organizations—the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Trade Union League, the Women’s City Club, and the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee. “Against the men bosses,” she wrote, “there must be women bosses who can talk as equals, with the backing of a coherent organization of women voters behind them” (Cook, p. 368). Eleanor Roosevelt became such a boss and used her influence on behalf of causes on which many of her male counterparts preferred to waffle—the five-day week, an end to child labor, the League of Nations—but not the Equal Rights Amendment, which she saw as undercutting the hard-won rights of women workers to special protection.

She also wove around her a network of woman activists, among them Esther Lape, Elizabeth Reade, Mary “Molly” Dewson, Mary Dreier, Maud Swartz, and Rose Schneiderman. With former suffragists Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, she bought the Todhunter School for Girls in New York City, at which she taught government and literature. She also shared with them “Val-Kill,” the retreat FDR built for her near the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park, New York, in 1926. It was the first home she had ever had and would remain her real home for the rest of her life. Cook and Dickerman were the first in a series of women and men with whom she would forge intense friendships and from whom she drew emotional sustenance when melancholy threatened to overwhelm her. They would eventually include Earl Miller, a New York State trooper; the journalist Lorena Hickok; her future biographer Joseph P. Lash; and, during her last years, a New York physician, David Gurewitsch.

By the time Al Smith ran for the presidency in 1928, she was the head of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee and not enthusiastic about her husband’s bid for the New York governorship: she feared her role as governor’s wife would curtail her hard-won independence. The prospect of becoming first lady in 1933 filled her with such dread that she spoke privately of divorcing FDR rather than accept its burdens and limitations, and she was bitterly disappointed when he rebuffed her offer to help handle his White House mail.

“I shall have to work out my own salvation” (Lash, Eleanor and Franklin, p. 355), she told a friend. In doing so, she set the standard against which president’s wives have been measured ever since. Believing that “government has a responsibility to defend the weak” (Scharf, p. 93), she worked tirelessly to ensure that no group of Americans in need failed to benefit from New Deal programs. She saw to it that women joined the government in unprecedented numbers and that they were included in the programs of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). She was also instrumental in creating the National Youth Administration (NYA) to aid young people and personally helped organize a planned community for jobless West Virginia miners called Arthurdale. She was also the New Deal’s most consistent champion of civil rights for blacks, working closely with Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to enact antilynching legislation that her husband hesitated to back, and lobbying for integration within the armed forces and defense industries. In 1939 she resigned her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution when that body refused to allow the African-American soprano Marian Anderson to sing in Constitution Hall in Washington.

She acted as FDR’s ally but also as his conscience and sometimes as his goad, making sure that he heard the views of people otherwise without access to him. “No one,” wrote presidential advisor Rexford Tugwell, “who ever saw Eleanor Roosevelt sit down facing her husband, and, holding his eye firmly, say to him, ‘Franklin, I think you should . . . ’ or, ‘Franklin, surely you will not … ’ will ever forget the experience.”

Between 1933 and 1945 she would dictate 2,500 newspaper columns, write 299 magazine articles, publish six books, make more than seventy speeches a year, and travel so many miles that no one ever tried to count them. Her activities won warm support—polls showed that she was often more popular than her husband—but they also inspired fierce opposition. She was denounced as naive, undignified, neglectful of her family, even subversive. When her husband ran for an unprecedented third term in 1940, his opponents wore buttons reading “We Don’t Want Eleanor Either.”

Her dramatic appearance at the turbulent Democratic National Convention that year won her friend Henry A. Wallace renomination as vice president. But after the United States entered World War II and her husband’s attention turned from economic reform to military victory, her influence began to wane. Her brief tenure as assistant director of the Office of Civil Defense ended in embarrassed failure; her efforts to keep alive such New Deal programs as the NYA and WPA were thwarted. But her energies never flagged: she undertook grueling wartime visits to Britain, the Southwest Pacific, and the Caribbean, and even after FDR’s health began to decline continued doggedly to exhort him to do more for the disadvantaged.

The shock of FDR’s death in April 1945 was intensified for her when she discovered that his old friend Lucy Mercer (now a widow, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd) had been with him when he died. “He might have been happier with a wife who had been completely uncritical,” she would write in This I Remember. “That I was never able to be and he had to find it in other people. Nonetheless, I think that I sometimes acted as a spur, even though the spurring was not always wanted … I was one of those who served his purposes.”

Convinced that “when you cease to make a contribution, you die” (Lash, Eleanor Roosevelt: The Years Alone, p. 102), she remained at the center of American and global politics for nearly two more decades. In 1946 President Harry S. Truman appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations, the institution that she believed to be her late husband’s most significant legacy to the world. She served as chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission and with her unique blend of grandmotherly tact and political realism helped hammer out the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights enacted by the General Assembly in 1948. She was now routinely hailed as “the First Lady of the World.”

Although she was disappointed by what she saw as Truman’s unwillingness to push for the liberal policies of her late husband and initially chagrined by the rapid collapse of the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, she refused to join her old friend Henry A. Wallace’s Progressive party in 1948: Wallace was “too idealistic” to be president, she wrote, and she helped found Americans for Democratic Action as a home for those Democrats like herself who favored liberal social and economic domestic programs but distrusted the Soviet Union.

She was an enthusiastic supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson, for whom she campaigned in 1952 and 1956, and an outspoken foe of the reckless anti-Communism of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom she denounced as “the greatest menace to freedom we have in this country” (Black, p. 168). She resigned from the United Nations after President Dwight Eisenhower took office in 1953, although she maintained close ties to the American Association for the United Nations for the rest of her life. She divided the year between Val-Kill and New York City but traveled constantly at home and abroad, delivering more than 100 speeches a year urging greater opportunities for women, civil rights for blacks, civil liberties for all Americans, and a foreign policy built on economic rather than military aid to the Third World.

Although she had initially opposed the presidential candidacy of John F. Kennedy in 1960, she agreed to chair his Commission on the Status of Women. Now seventy-three years old and ill with what was later diagnosed as a rare form of bone-marrow tuberculosis, she also presided over Washington hearings by a citizen’s Commission of Inquiry into the Freedom Struggle in the South. She sharply criticized the administration for being slow to desegregate federal housing and for failing to insure the safety of black and white Freedom Riders who had been attacked by white mobs while protesting segregation in interstate travel. She died in New York City.

Eleanor Roosevelt never conquered the self-doubt that gripped her during childhood. Her headlong pace and determination to do good were in part efforts to outpace the fear and anxiety she once called “the great crippler” (Roosevelt, You Learn By Living, p. 25). Slower than many of her contemporaries to see the value of votes for women, she nonetheless transformed herself into a tough and wily politician; famously timid and reticent as a girl, she became a fearless international champion of progressive causes and perhaps the most influential American woman of the twentieth century.


Eleanor Roosevelt’s papers are in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, N.Y. Other collections at Hyde Park that cast important additional light on her life and career include those of Mary Dewson, Hilda Worthington Smith, Lorena Hickock, Anna Roosevelt Halsted, and the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee. Her own autobiographical writings include This Is My Story (1937), This I Remember (1949), and On My Own (1958). A selection of her newspaper columns has been published in three volumes: Eleanor Roosevelt’s My Day: Her Acclaimed Columns, 1936–1945, ed. Rochelle Chadakoff (1989); Eleanor Roosevelt’s My Day: Her Acclaimed Columns, 1945–1952, ed. David Emblidge (1990); and Eleanor Roosevelt’s My Day: Her Acclaimed Columns, 1953–1962, ed. Emblidge (1991). Her monthly question-and-answer column, “If You Ask Me,” ran in the Ladies’ Home Journal from June 1941 to spring 1949 and in McCall’s from 1949 until her death. She is the subject of a number of biographies, including Allida M. Black, Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism (1996); Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, vol. 1: 1884–1933 (1992); Tamara Hareven, Eleanor Roosevelt: An American Conscience (1968); Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (1971) and Eleanor: The Years Alone (1972); and Lois Scharf, Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady of American Liberalism (1987). Three volumes of her letters have been published: Love, Eleanor (1982) and A World of Love (1984)—both edited by Lash—and Mother and Daughter: The Letters of Eleanor and Anna Roosevelt, ed. Bernard Asbell (1982). She is also given major biographical treatment in biographies of her husband, especially Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny, 1882–1928 (1972), FDR: The New York Years, 1928–1933 (1985), FDR: The New Deal Years, 1933–1937 (1986), and FDR: Into the Storm, 1937–1940 (1993); and Geoffrey C. Ward, Before the Trumpet: The Young Franklin Roosevelt (1985) and A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt (1989). She and her husband are jointly the subject of Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (1994).