The wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt was one of America's great reforming leaders. She was an important influence on national policy towards youth, African Americans, women, the poor, and the United Nations. As well as being one of the most active First Ladies, she was also an important public personality in her own right.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York. Her parents, Elliott and Anna Hall Roosevelt, were members of socially prominent families, and she was a niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. She had a very unhappy childhood. Her mother, widely known for her beauty, called Eleanor “Granny.” Eleanor was very fond of her father, but he was banished from the family because of alcoholism. Her parents died when she was young, and she was raised strictly by her grandmother Hall. These experiences made her feel insecure and inadequate, leaving her with a longing for praise and affection.
After attending private classes, Eleanor was sent at the age of 15 to Allenswood, a finishing school in England. With the encouragement of the headmistress, Marie Souvestre, the shy girl emerged as a school leader. She returned to New York in 1902 to make her debut in society, but she soon became frustrated by its narrowness and took work with the city's poor at a settlement house. In March 1905 she married her distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was given in marriage by President Theodore Roosevelt.
During the next 11 years Eleanor Roosevelt gave birth to six children, five of whom survived. Her somewhat domineering mother-in-law assisted in the children's upbringing. After her husband's election to the New York State Senate in 1910, Eleanor performed the social role expected of the wife of a public official. When her husband became assistant secretary of the navy during World War I, she became involved in war work with the Red Cross.
At the end of the war came a grave personal crisis when Eleanor discovered that her husband loved another woman. Despite a reconciliation, she decided to build a life of her own after their return to New York in 1921. She became active in the League of Women Voters, the Women's Trade Union League, and the women's division of the Democratic Party. Within a year Franklin Roosevelt was stricken with polio.
Eleanor Roosevelt was determined to keep alive her husband's interest in public affairs. Encouraged and trained by Louis Howe, Roosevelt's close adviser, she became her husband's political stand-in. By 1928, when Franklin Roosevelt was well enough to stand as a candidate for the post of governor of New York, Eleanor had become a public figure in her own right, having founded a project to help the unemployed in 1926 and become part owner of the Todhunter School in New York in 1927.
When her husband became president in 1933, Eleanor was afraid that the move to the White House would cut her off from her own activities. Determined to avoid this, she changed the traditional role of First Lady, holding weekly press conferences with women reporters, lecturing throughout the country, and running her own radio programme. Her newspaper column, My Day, was published daily for many years. Travelling widely, she served as her husband's eyes and ears and influenced his administration towards measures to aid the underprivileged and racial minorities.
In 1941 Eleanor Roosevelt ventured into public office herself, as codirector of the Office of Civilian Defense, though she later resigned when some of her appointments were criticized. During World War II she visited troops in England, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean, as well as on U.S. military bases.
After her husband died in April 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt gave a further 17 years' public service, perhaps the most significant of her career. In December 1945 she was appointed a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations by President Harry Truman. As chair of the Commission on Human Rights, she helped draft the UN Declaration of Human Rights. She resigned from the United Nations in 1952 but was reappointed by President John Kennedy in 1961. Eleanor Roosevelt remained active in Democratic Party politics; she was a strong supporter of Adlai Stevenson in the presidential campaigns of 1952 and 1956 and at the Democratic convention in 1960.
In her later years Eleanor Roosevelt maintained a home for her large family at Val-Kill, Hyde Park. She continued to receive and write numerous letters and led a busy social life. “I suppose I should slow down,” she said on her 77th birthday. She died in November of the following year in New York and was buried in the rose garden at Hyde Park next to her husband. Her many books include This Is My Story (1937), This I Remember (1949), and On My Own (1958).
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