|Anna Eleanor Roosevelt|
White House portrait
|October 11, 1884
New York City, New York, USA
|November 7, 1962
New York City, New York, USA
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884 – November 7, 1962) was an American political leader who used her stature as First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945 to promote the New Deal of her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as Civil Rights. After her husband’s death she built a career as a proponent of the New Deal Coalition, a spokesperson for human rights, an author, and a speaker. She was a First-wave feminist and created a new role for the First Lady.
Roosevelt was a leader in forming the United Nations, the U.S. United Nations Association, and Freedom House. She chaired the committee that drafted and approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Roosevelt considered this the finest accomplishment of her life. President Harry S. Truman called her the First Lady of the World, in honor of her extensive travels to promote human rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt made personal sacrifices throughout her life in continuous public support for her husband, despite his infidelity. Had she done otherwise, his political career could easily have been ruined, and the nation needed F. D. R. He was seen as the right man at the right time both to deal with the nation's recovery from the Great Depression and to lead it during World War II. Yet Eleanor did not live in her husband's shadow. Perhaps their failed marriage helped her to channel her gifts, her intellect, and her passionate commitment to human rights into her work with the United Nations. Eleanor spoke with her own voice and acted as her own woman. She never sought political office but always found avenues to serve through appointed positions, especially at the United Nations. The welfare of humanity was her passion, and she was dearly loved by people worldwide.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born at 56 West 37th Street New York City, New York to Elliott Roosevelt Sr. and Anna Hall Roosevelt. She was the favorite niece and goddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt. The former President was surrogate father to the future First Lady.
Eleanor's family descended from Claes Martenszen van Rosenvelt who immigrated to New Amsterdam (modern day Manhattan) from the Netherlands in the 1640s. His grandsons, Johannes and Jacobus, began the Oyster Bay and Hyde Park, New York branches of the Roosevelt family. Eleanor descended from the Johannes branch. Her future husband, Franklin descended from the Jacobus branch.
Roosevelt was also a descendant, through her mother's family, of William Livingston, a signer of the U.S. Constitution. Two brothers followed young Anna Roosevelt. The Roosevelt family was completed with the addition of Elliott Jr. (1889–1893) and Hall Roosevelt (1891–1941).
She preferred to be called Eleanor, using the name Anna only for signing checks and other official documents.
Following her parents' deaths, young Anna Eleanor was raised by her maternal grandmother Mary Ludlow Hall (1843–1919), an emotionally cold woman, in Tivoli, New York. Roosevelt was looked down upon by most of her mother's family. Her Hyde Park Roosevelt cousin and future mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt, used to say disparagingly of her less wealthy Manhattan Roosevelt cousins, "we got all the looks and the money."
In her grandmother's home, Roosevelt's Hall uncles were mostly wealthy playboys whom she was uncomfortable around. Multiple locks were placed on the door of her room from the inside. One time when visiting her aunt, Anna Cowles (called Aunt Bamie), Theodore Roosevelt's sister, she broke down in tears and exclaimed, "Auntie I have no real home." Aunt Bamie was instrumental in getting her out of the Hall home.
Roosevelt's grandmother Mary Hall tried to limit contact with the Roosevelts after Elliott's death. Uncle Ted, however, had Ms. Roosevelt to his Sagamore Hill home, where she was given special attention.
The only contact she had with young men was at house parties given by her aunt Corinne Roosevelt Robinson at Christmas. It was at one of these parties that she met her cousin and future husband Franklin Roosevelt.
With the encouragement of her Aunt Bamie, Roosevelt was sent to Allenswood, a girls' boarding school outside of London. She studied there from 1899 to 1902.
At Allenswood, the headmistress, Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre, made a lasting impression. Souvestre had a fierce interest in liberal causes and was able to shape a commitment to social activism in Roosevelt and the other students. Roosevelt spent summers traveling Europe with her. Her studies in history, language, and literature gave her an abiding interest in social justice as well as the knowledge and poise to articulate her opinions clearly and eloquently.
Roosevelt won the affection of both the instructors and the students at Allenswood. She was one of the school's favorite students and was deeply missed when she returned to the United States.
Roosevelt listed Souvestre as one of three major influences in her life, saying, "Mlle. Souvestre shocked one into thinking, and that on the whole was very beneficial."
During her time at Allenswood, Roosevelt came out of her shell of childhood loneliness and isolation. She thrived both academically and emotionally. When it was time for her to return to New York, her mentor, Mll. Souvestre did her best to prepare her for a return to the far less structured world of the Hyde Park Roosevelts.
In 1902 Roosevelt and her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Harvard student, reconnected. They began a discreet courtship which led to their engagement in November 1903. Eleanor and Franklin were fifth cousins, once removed. Sara Delano Roosevelt, Franklin's mother, was against the match and managed to delay their marriage for 16 months. In a vain attempt to preoccupy Franklin's mind in hopes that he would forget Eleanor, she sent him on a trip with friends for an extended period. Most of Eleanor's Hall and Roosevelt clans approved the match. Her Uncle Ted approved as well.
On St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1905, she married Franklin D. Roosevelt; President Theodore Roosevelt took the place of his late brother in giving Eleanor away in marriage. Her cousins Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Corinne Alsop Cole were bridesmaids along with Isabella Greenway.
Their marriage produced six children, Anna Eleanor Jr., James, Franklin Delano Jr. (1909–1909), Elliott, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr and John Aspinwall. As the children grew older and married, Mrs. Roosevelt expressed disappointment about the "lack of self-discipline" her children displayed. In her later years, she commented after arguments with her adult son that she "would be better off dead" and that her "being alive caused them to compete because she had overshadowed" them.
Following the death of her husband in 1945, Roosevelt continued to live on the Hyde Park Estate, in Val-Kill, the house that her husband had remodeled for her near the main house. Originally built as a small furniture factory for Val-Kill Industries, it afforded Eleanor a level of privacy that she had wanted for many years. The home served as a private sanctuary for her. Roosevelt also entertained her circle of friends at informal gatherings at the house. The site is now the home of the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill.
Roosevelt had a sometimes contentious relationship with her domineering mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who, at five feet ten inches, was only two inches shorter than Eleanor. Long before Eleanor fell in love with Franklin, she already had a relationship with his mother. She was a distant but highly engaging cousin with whom Roosevelt corresponded.
Although they had a somewhat contentious relationship, Sara sincerely wanted to be a mother to Eleanor and did her best before and during the marriage to fill this role. Sara had her own reasons for attempting to prevent their marriage.
Roosevelt's mother-in-law insisted on dominating the young couple's daily life. "Mother" went so far as to choose their first home, close to her own. She also decorated and furnished it to her tastes and hired the staff to run it.
From Roosevelt's perspective, she herself was relatively young and inexperienced. With a mother long dead, she lacked the support that her own mother, Anna Hall Roosevelt, might have given had she lived. In any case, Sara Roosevelt, despite her forceful personality and her rather domineering manner with her son, had much to offer her new daughter-in-law on virtually all the areas that a young wife of means might need to know.
From Sara's perspective, she was determined to ensure her son's success in all areas of life, including his marriage. Sara had doted on her son to the point of spoiling him, and now intended to help him make a success of his marriage with a woman that she evidently viewed as being totally unprepared for her new role as chatelaine of a great family.
Sara lavished huge presents on her new grandchildren. Eleanor was troubled by the influence that came with "mother's largesse."
Despite its happy start, the Roosevelts' marriage almost split over Franklin's affair with Eleanor's social secretary Lucy Mercer (later Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd). When she found out about the affair, Eleanor immediately threatened a divorce if the affair continued. Franklin told his mother that he was considering a divorce.
Sara was so opposed to divorce that she warned Franklin that she would disinherit him if he pursued it. By the time the affair came to light, Sara had grown extremely fond of Eleanor. Eleanor was told by Sara that "Roosevelts don't do divorce," and pointed out that if a divorce were to materialize, Eleanor would have to raise five children alone.
Aunt Corinne and Uncle Ted were influential in convincing their niece to remain in the marriage, likely for reasons similar to Sara's. Theodore, who was also widely considered a candidate for the presidency in 1920, could not afford a damaging family scandal.
Furthermore, Lucy was a Roman Catholic, which made any thought of her marrying a divorced Protestant problematic at best. Finally, Franklin agreed not to see Lucy, but much evidence points to a continued affair or at least much personal contact between the two, stretching to Franklin's death in 1945.
During Franklin Roosevelt's terms as President, Eleanor was very vocal about her support of the American Civil Rights Movement and of African-American rights. However, her husband needed the support of Southern Democrats to advance his agenda, so he did not adopt the cause of civil rights. Eleanor became the connection to the African-American population instead, helping Franklin Roosevelt to win their votes.
In 1939, the African-American opera singer Marian Anderson was refused permission to perform at Constitution Hall (owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution) in Washington. Eleanor resigned her membership in the D.A.R. over the incident. She did not raise a similar protest when the District of Columbia school board, under jurisdiction of President Roosevelt and the democratically controlled Congress, turned down Anderson's request to give the performance to an integrated audience at a white public high school.
Later in the year, Secretary of State Harold L. Ickes, at the suggestion of Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), arranged for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson sang to a live audience of seventy thousand and a nationwide radio audience of millions.
In addition to racial equality, Eleanor Roosevelt used her position as First Lady to bring attention to the need for decent housing, healthcare, and education for all. She viewed advancement on social welfare to be up to women. She believed these issues would not get the attention they needed if women did not push them.
Eleanor Roosevelt was very active on the home front during World War II. She co-chaired a national committee on civil defense. She also made innumerable visits to civilian and military centers to boost war morale. She strongly advocated for more opportunities for African Americans and women. In 1943, Eleanor, along with Wendell Willkie and other Americans concerned about the mounting threats to peace and democracy during World War II, established Freedom House. The purpose of Freedom House was to promote democracy and freedom around the world.
Eleanor opposed her husband's decision to sign Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the internment of 110,000 Japanese nationals and American citizens of Japanese descent in internment camps in the western United States.
After World War II, Roosevelt played an instrumental role, along with René Cassin, John Peters Humphrey, and others, in drafting the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was the accomplishment that Roosevelt was proudest of. Historians have said this was her most significant contribution to human history.
Roosevelt served as the first chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Commission (Glendon, 1999). She was instrumental in creating this body. One of her most important contributions was that of creating opportunities for the members of the Human Rights Commission to gather informally and get to know one another across their cultural divides and discuss issues off the record. This provided avenues for consensus building on difficult issues where there was serious disagreement.
On the night of September 28, 1948, Roosevelt spoke on behalf of the Declaration calling it "the international Magna Carta of all mankind" (James, 1948). She went on to say that the Declaration was based on "the spiritual fact that man must have freedom in which to develop his full stature and through common effort to raise the level of human dignity." The Declaration was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The vote of the General Assembly was unanimous except for eight abstentions.
From the 1920s until her death in 1962, Roosevelt remained involved heavily in advocating for social change. She opposed the Equal Rights Amendment for a number of years, concerned that it would prevent Congress and the states from passing special protective legislation that she thought women workers needed. Eventually, when she saw the slow progress of women's equality, she changed course and supported the amendment.
In 1928, Eleanor met Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok, a White House correspondent. They became close friends after Hickok conducted a series of interviews with Roosevelt in 1932.
Hickok suggested the idea for what would eventually become Roosevelt’s column My Day. My Day was a daily newspaper column which started in 1935, in which Roosevelt talked about interesting things that happened to her each day as well as her outlook on issues.
In July 1949, Roosevelt attacked proposals for federal funding of certain nonreligious activities, such as bus transportation for students at Catholic schools in her columns. This caused a high visibility fight with Francis Cardinal Spellman, the Catholic Archbishop of New York. Spellman pointed out that the Supreme Court had upheld such provisions, and accused her of anti-Catholicism. Most Democrats rallied behind Roosevelt, so Spellman went to Roosevelt's Hyde Park home and the two made amends.
In 1954, Tammany Hall boss Carmine DeSapio campaigned against Roosevelt's son, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., during the New York Attorney General elections, which Franklin lost. Roosevelt held DeSapio responsible for her son's defeat. She did not agree with his political conduct through the rest of the 1950s.
Eventually, she joined her old friends Herbert Lehman and Thomas Finletter to form the New York Committee for Democratic Voters, a group dedicated to enhancing the democratic process and opposing DeSapio's reincarnated Tammany.
Their efforts were eventually successful, and DeSapio was removed from power in 1961.
Roosevelt was a close friend of Adlai E. Stevenson and a strong supporter of his candidacies in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections. When President Truman backed New York Governor W. Averell Harriman, a close associate of Carmine DeSapio, for the Democratic presidential nomination, Roosevelt was disappointed. She continued to support Stevenson, who ultimately won the nomination. She backed Stevenson again in 1960 but John F. Kennedy received the presidential nomination.
In 1964, Roosevelt established the 2,800 acre Roosevelt Campobello International Park on Campobello Island, New Brunswick. This followed a gift of the Roosevelt summer estate to the Canadian and American governments.
Eleanor Roosevelt was outspoken on numerous causes and continued to galvanize the world with her comments and opinions well into her 70s.
In 1961, all volumes of her autobiography were compiled into The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt, which is still in print some 45 years later.
Eleanor Roosevelt survived her husband by nearly 20 years. In 1960, at the age of 76 she was diagnosed with aplastic anemia. During treatment of the disease, she developed bone marrow tuberculosis, recurring from a primary 1919 infection, and died at her Manhattan apartment on the evening of November 7, 1962 at the age of 78. At her memorial service, Adlai Stevenson asked, "What other single human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many?"
Mrs. Roosevelt was buried next to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park, New York on November 10, 1962. She was so revered by the public that a commemorative cartoon published at the time simply showed two angels looking down towards an opening in the clouds with the caption "She's here." No introduction was needed.
Mrs. Roosevelt maintained a strong loyalty to her Uncle Ted even nearly 45 years after his death. Among her belongings, her membership card for the Theodore Roosevelt Association was found.
In 1968 she was awarded one of the United Nations Human Rights Prizes. There was an unsuccessful campaign to award her a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize; however, the Nobel Prize has only once been awarded posthumously. Roosevelt is the ninth most admired person in the twentieth century, according to Gallup polls.
Roosevelt received 35 honorary degrees during her life, compared to 31 awarded to her husband. Her first, a Doctor of Humane Letters (L.H.D.) on June 13, 1929, was also the first honorary degree awarded by Russell Sage College in Troy, New York. Her final awarded degree was a Doctor of Law (L.L.D.) degree granted by what is now Clark Atlanta University in June 1962.
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