Eleanor Roosevelt was an amazing woman who not only defined the position of the first lady of the United States but also established herself as a feminine political icon. She won much of her respect as the first lady of the United States, but Eleanor Roosevelt also gained a lot of her international esteem as a civil rights activist long before her husband’s arrival in the White House. Eleanor’s interest in politics coincided with her husband’s career in politics as she was very involved in every aspect of his public life from the very beginning, but her realization of that political interest was not apparent to her until later on when Franklin Roosevelt was named to the Democratic ticket as the Vice Presidential candidate.
Early on in their careers, while Franklin Roosevelt was becoming governor of New York she was instrumental in campaigning for him all the while advancing her own political career, and once she became the first lady, it was already apparent that she had made a political name for herself as well as for her husband. Eleanor’s background in politics goes back to her Uncle Teddy Roosevelt who was once the President of the U.S. Eleanor married a young amiable Harvard student by the name of Franklin Roosevelt. But soon Franklin became bored with Business Law and Eleanor pushed him to go into politics. Aided by a Democratic landslide and his mother’s money he was elected State Senator from the Hyde Park District of New York. But Eleanor disliked Albany and was soon very happy to leave. Franklin liked his newfound success in politics and his career prospered swiftly.
He soon became an early backer of Woodrow Wilson as he ran for president, for his efforts he was awarded the job of Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the same job that propelled Eleanor’s Uncle Teddy to the presidency. But Eleanor liked Washington about as much as she liked Albany and spent little time there. In the years after their move to Washington, Franklin Roosevelt had contracted polio and it was now up to Eleanor to keep his name before the public. Aided by Louis Howe she went on a mission to salvage her husband’s career. Louis went to meetings that she spoke at and though it took much criticism he managed to get rid of her nervous giggle. Soon Eleanor gained confidence and accepted offers to write in magazines and appear on radio talk shows.
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She had joined many groups including the Women’s Trade Union League and was also the chair of the Finance Committee of the Women’s Division of the Democratic State Committee. She was fast becoming a prominent public figure, much to her amazement. In 1928 at the Democratic National Convention Governor Al Smith asked Eleanor to run the entire national Women’s activities in his national campaign for president. Smith soon requested more as he asked Franklin to run for Governor of New York. Eleanor now was exerting more force into Smith’s campaign than her husband’s and even though her husband won she seemed more disappointed that Smith lost.
Now back in New York, Eleanor had a new job to do and that was to assist her husband in his duties as governor of New York. Eleanor welcomed feminine groups who were formerly unwelcome in the state now in with open arms. Trying to advance their social programs with Franklin and the legislature. Eleanor helped her husband by taking unannounced inspection trips to state institutions and reporting directly to her husband. It soon became clear that Franklin was ready to take the next step and run for president, as he was the leading candidate for the Democratic Party. When the dust had settled Franklin had won the election and Eleanor was heading for the White House. Just before her husband’s inauguration, Eleanor published the book “it’s up to the Women” and also accepted an offer to edit a magazine called Babies-Just Babies.
Once she became First Lady Eleanor became better known to Americans. She held press conferences in the White House that were for women only, she said, ” So few women reporters, many of whom are just as capable of handling the big stories as the men, get a chance to be front-page writers.” At first male White House correspondents disliked the idea but soon they wanted to go as well but Eleanor never allowed them. Eleanor followed this policy in almost every possible way. The Gridiron often gave an all-male dinner and invited most Washington officials and visiting politicians. So Eleanor held the Gridiron Widows Dinner for all the women reporters, cabinet wives, and women bureaucrats. Eleanor took a special interest in increasing women’s role in the U.S. government and in the Democratic Party. She often invited the few females who held an office to the White House.
Seeing the first woman alternate chosen for the Resolutions Committee at the 1936 Democratic convention was a reward for her efforts. Shortly after Franklin’s inauguration in March 1933, an army of unemployed veterans set up camp in Washington. When Eleanor asked Howe what to do he answered, ” I’m going to take a nap, and you are going out there to talk to them.” Eleanor walked into the tent city all alone to talk to them. She told them of her volunteer work during World War I and promised to do whatever she could to help them. The unemployed veterans cheered as she left. Said one, in words that would become famous, ” Hoover sent the Army. Roosevelt sent his wife.” The president regularly sent “his wife” to many strange places as she continued her random inspections as she showed up alone and unexpected. She often visited the poorest parts of the country and tried to do something about the slums of Washington.
One time she took carloads of cabinet wives to the tenements trying to awaken their interest in the city. Eleanor was well known as a first lady who cared about the people and received nearly 300,000 letters from them in the first year. She, her secretary and her staff read each and every one of them. If the problem was in a federal agency she did what needed to be done to fix it, and if it was a personal problem she attempted to counsel the person or seek assistance, using the Women’s Trade Union League to check out the situation. Everyone wanted to learn more about Eleanor; she went on two lecture tours a year and often surprised the audience with her knowledge and savvy. She presented to the Conservative Daughters of the American Revolution a new idea of patriotism one that called for “living for the interests of everyone in our country, and the world not just preparing to die for our country.
She often spoke on the radio and in 1935 earned a total of $72,000 from this radio work, which she gave to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). When a Republican congressman charged her with tax evasion she then received the money, paid taxes on it, and then gave the rest to the AFSC. In 1936 Eleanor took up the task of writing a newspaper column, which was basically a diary of her life and times as the first lady. She would change up the topics from; disagreeing with the idea that women could not be great playwrights, to her opposition to war toys, or to the sympathy of children in the Spanish Civil War. Any topics that were possibly too controversial she took up with her husband and he used them to test public reaction. This new job gave Eleanor, a long-time supporter of unions, the chance to join one as she became a member of the Newspaper Guild, but she declined the offer to become their president.
Eleanor had always backed unions in fact her interest in the Women’s Trade Union League is what had swayed her to the side of the workers against management. She tried to stay neutral but her bias in favour of such unions as the New York-based International Ladies Garment Workers Union could easily be seen. Eleanor would not cross a picket line no matter what the circumstances. She once cancelled a meeting with a very esteemed dressmaker because his workers were on strike. ” I will have to wait before coming to see you again,” she explained to the owner of the store, “until you have made some agreement with your people who is satisfactory to both sides. She did not forget the farm labourers either. In Arkansas, many sharecroppers were run off their land and pushed to relocate. Eleanor tried to use the acquaintance of Senator Joseph Robinson as an ally in the situation, telling him the story just as she heard it but was denied the help she wanted.
So she dropped the correspondence and began working behind the scenes to get immediate relief payments for the evicted farmers. It was apparent that Eleanor had become a major political asset to her husband. Eleanor’s personality would not allow her to take a second off and now she had a new calling as she moved towards a problem that was everywhere racism. It was clear to everyone that the blacks were getting the short end of the New Deal Aid, in both the North and the South. From the very beginning of the Roosevelt programs, Eleanor said that the wage and benefit scale should not be set lower for Negroes but she was denied that policy. All she could hope for was that New Deal programs would spill over and that blacks would get some appreciable share of the benefits.
Mrs. Roosevelt battled on, asking the Secretary of the U.S. Navy why the U.S. Navy would enlist Negroes only as kitchen help? The answer she received was that the blacks might work their way up from non-rated jobs and become petty officers to be placed in authority over whites, which was unacceptable at that time. Eleanor never touched that issue after that answer but did everything she could to help to console the Negroes. Her failures with the Navy did not detour Eleanor, as she was instrumental in placing Negro aviators in combat roles. The impressive combat record of the “Tuskegee Airmen,” was a validation of her work for blacks in the service. Eleanor not only tried to get government assistance for the blacks but she also identified herself with their problem. She helped the Negroes get to the head of many New Deal agencies and for the first time since the days of Woodrow Wilson, a small but noticeable number of blacks maintained mid-level government jobs.
Eleanor worked hard on the issue and refused to give up. She often had discussions with Walter White, head of the NAACP, and even arranged a meeting between FDR and White over the anti-lynching bill. In November of 1938, Mrs. Roosevelt attended the first Southern Conference of Human Welfare in Birmingham. Birmingham being a strongly segregated town had it set so that whites would sit on one side of the hall while blacks would sit on the other. As Mrs. Roosevelt came in talking to Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, a prominent civil rights advocate, Eleanor sat down right next to her in the black section. Promptly a police officer came up to her and loudly cleared his voice. She moved her chair to the center of the aisle, the police officer turned red but left. Eleanor says in her biography, “at a later meeting we were informed that the audience would be arrested and taken to jail, however, nothing happened.”
In early 1939 Mrs. Roosevelt was allowed to show how serious she was when the DAR barred the use of Washington’s Constitutional Hall to Marian Anderson, a prominent black singer at the time. Eleanor decided to break tradition, she didn’t like the idea of resignation to protest but this was an exception, the DAR would not budge. “…I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing the use of Constitution Hall to a great artist. You have set an example, which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obligated to send into you my resignation. You had the opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed (taken from Eleanor’s resignation letter to the DAR, NARA).” In April of that year, Miss Anderson gave a triumphant open-air concert on federal property near the Lincoln Memorial. A few months later Eleanor presented her with Spingarn Medal, the NAACP’s medal for achievement.
Eleanor also took interest in another powerless group, the National Youth Administration. She would sit in the front row and knit placidly. One friend said to her at a meeting that she had voted for the Socialist candidate, Eleanor replied saying she would have too had her husband not been a Democrat. In her column, she warned that if such witch-hunting continued, “It is going to be hard to take quite a strong-minded person with great indifference to what may be said about him to join an organization even one with whose principles he is in agreement. After Franklin’s death Eleanor did not quit her role in politics nor did she not abandon her conviction that she had to be useful. After the war, Mrs. Roosevelt went on to become the U.S. delegate to the United Nations. Once she became a member of the U.N., Eleanor began to work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The delegates to this committee quickly elected her the Chairperson for they knew of her work in the White House as well as before her husband was president. Her common-sense approach to things proved to be a big asset to the committee. Her humour and colloquial were not only geared to win but also shifted towards a certain U.S. position. As one N.Y. Times reporter wrote: “The Russians seem to have met their match in Mrs. Roosevelt. The proceedings turn into a long vitriolic attack on the U.S. when she is not present. These attacks, however, generally denigrate into flurries in the face of her calm and undisturbed but often pointed replies. Eleanor’s personal sense of accomplishment with the finished Declaration was unparalleled in her life. Her speech to the General Assembly demonstrates this:
We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere. We hope its proclamation by the General Assembly will be an event comparable to the proclamation in 1789 [of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man], the adoption of the Bill of Rights by the people of the U.S., and the adoption of comparable declarations at different times in other countries. Clearly, Eleanor Roosevelt had a well-known political career without the obvious fame her husband had gained. When her husband started out in politics she disliked it but the more she was exposed to it she realized her role was to be useful and politics was the instrument in which to be this. Her husband Franklin saw her as a great asset to his career and she also made a name for herself that lived on after he died. Eleanor Roosevelt is a woman to be celebrated and revered by all.
- “Eleanor Roosevelt”, Eleanor Roosevelt Letter, March 1996, National Archives and Records Administration, 21 November 2000, http://www.nara.gov/exhalls/originals/eleanor.html
- “Eleanor on Human Rights”, Eleanor Roosevelt Biography, August 05 1998, National Coordinating Committee for UDHR50, 18 November 2000, http://www.udhr50.org/history/Biographies/bioer.htm
- Roosevelt, Eleanor, This I Remember, ed., New York, Harper, 1949.
- Weinstein, Allen, and Frank Otto Gattell, Freedom and Crisis: An American History, 3rd ed., New York, Random, 1981.