Eleanor Roosevelt

Hello! Today we’ll be discussing another real Rebel Mother, Eleanor Roosevelt. In these special episodes we usually uncover the story of a woman and mother who stands in the shadow of an influential man, but Eleanor really stands on her own as one of the most influential women in the 20th century. She was an American political figure, diplomat, and activist. She was the first lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945, during her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt's four terms in office, a representative to the United Nations, and 1st Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.

Today I’ll give an overview of her early life and influences, explore what made her such a groundbreaking woman of her time, and reflect on her legacy in areas of social justice, human rights, and women’s empowerment, and the impact she had on women and mothers. Let’s dive in!
Early life
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, in Manhattan, New York, to socialites Anna Rebecca Hall and Elliott Roosevelt. From an early age, she preferred to be called Eleanor. Her uncle was Theodore Roosevelt, and yes, eventually she would go on to marry Franklin Roosevelt who was her fifth cousin once removed, but we’ll get to that. She was definitely born into a world of privilege, the Roosevelt family was old money and part of New York’s high society. But even with immense wealth and privilege, she faced some challenges as a young girl. Her mother and one younger brother both died from diptheria when Eleanor was 8, and her father, who was an alcoholic confined to a sanitarium, died after jumping from a window just before her 10th birthday. Eleanor was raised by her maternal grandmother, and helped raise her surviving younger brother, named Hall.

E was insecure as a child, having been told by her mother that she was unattractive, and believed herself to be an ugly duckling. At the age of 15 she was sent to a private school in England where she learned to speak French fluently and gained some self-confidence.

In the year 1902, when she was 18 years old, her grandmother brought her home to New York so she could make her social debut. She’s quoted as saying about her coming out party, “It was simply awful. It was a beautiful party, of course, but I was so unhappy, because a girl who comes out is so utterly miserable if she does not know all the young people. Of course I had been so long abroad that I had lost touch with all the girls I used to know in New York. I was miserable through all that." end quote

She joined the Junior League, which was, at the time, a newly formed women’s volunteer organization that aimed at improving communities and the social, cultural, and political fabric of civil society, where she taught dance and calisthenics in the east side slums. This experience helped open her eyes to the fact that not everyone was as privileged as she was.

She met her fifth cousin Franklin in a chance encounter on a train and the two of them began a secret romance. Franklin’s mother Sara disapproved of this relationship, although in doing research on this episode, it seems like she didn’t disapprove of Eleanor exactly, more like she just disapproved of anyone that Franklin dated. Sara asked Franklin to keep their engagement a secret for a year, hoping that he’d move on. But Franklin and Eleanor were in love and they were married in March of 1905, where she was given away by “Uncle Ted, who was of course, Theodore Roosevelt, at the time America’s 26th president.

After their European honeymoon they settled down in NYC, right next door to Franklin’s controlling mother. Eleanor and Sara reportedly had a contentious relationship, but all Eleanor wrote in her autobiography was that “she was a very strong character.” end quote

Eleanor had six children in the first 11 years of their marriage:
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1906–1975)
James Roosevelt II (1907–1991)
Franklin Roosevelt (1909–1909) who died after only a few months
Elliott Roosevelt (1910–1990)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. (1914–1988)
John Aspinwall Roosevelt (1916–1981)

Mothering did not come naturally to her. She had been raised with trained English nurses, and that’s just how she thought children should be raised. Quote:

Her mother-in-law was also still quite controlling and took a very active role in the children’s lives: Eleanor reflected later that "Franklin's children were more my mother-in-law's children than they were mine."

Her marriage to Franklin was complicated. I mean, 6 kids in 10 years will do that to a relationship. She famously told her oldest daughter Anna that sex was “an ordeal to be borne.” In 1918, so at the age of 34 and married for 13 years, she discovered that Franklin had been having an affair with his secretary, Lucy Mercer for years. He was thinking about leaving Eleanor for Lucy, but apparently his political advisor recommended he not do that. And his mother, despite all the challenges she gave Eleanor, flat out told Franklin that if he got a divorce she’d disinherit him. Franklin ended the affair (allegedly, more on that later) and they did not get divorced, but from that point on their marriage was basically just a political partnership, and after that Eleanor decided to become more involved in public life.

Her husband ran for vice-president in the 1920 campaign, and Eleanor was right there with him on the campaign trail. They lost that race, and while he was making plans to run again, in 1921 he became suddenly ill and was left permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The official diagnosis was polio, and while that’s been questioned over the years, historians still typically stick with polio. He was determined to stay in politics though, and in 1928 he became the governor of New York state, so this was her first official first lady role. Franklin and Eleanor had an understanding - for the rest of his career, she would dutifully serve as the governor's wife but would also be free to pursue her own agenda and interests. And so she did! In 1927 she bought a school for girls where she taught courses in American literature and history, and also helped build a small factory in Hyde Park, NY to provide supplemental income for local farming families.

When her husband was elected president in 1933, she was given a much larger platform and this is when her activism really began. Let’s take a look at her time as First Lady of the United States
First Lady
Eleanor’s biography written by Lorena Hickok was titled Eleanor Roosevelt: Reluctant First Lady, because at the time, the role of the First Lady was really just as a glorified hostess. But she was immediately determined to redefine the position, and in this she still had her husband’s complete support. She continued her businesses that she’d begun, and she also started writing a newspaper column, called “My Day,” and hosted radio shows. She also traveled and lectured frequently. This was revolutionary for a married woman at the time, and she was really the first first lady to openly embrace her role as someone who wielded influence on her own. She embraced radio, newspapers and magazines and throughout her entire life was a prolific writer and speaker.

Her activism during her role as first lady was wide reaching. She spoke out about economic inequality following the great depression and into the new deal, she supported civil rights and an end to racial discrimination, and she was vocal about women’s rights and equality. She did a lot, but here a few examples:

During her husband's early presidential terms, Eleanor helped create a planned community in Arthurdale, West Virginia to support homeless miners who had been blacklisted for union activities; she wanted a place where they could thrive through farming and local industry and support themselves. Construction began in 1934 and in June, fifty families moved in with a plan to repay the government in 30 years time, basically like your standard mortgage. Eleanor had wanted it to be a racially mixed community, but she was outvoted, and this experience motivated her to become much more outspoken on the issue of racial discrimination. The project faced criticism, with people calling it a “communist utopia” and eventually it was sold off. While some deemed it a failure, Eleanor saw it as a success for improving residents' lives.

In 1939 she blasted the Daughters of the American Revolution group for barring world-renowned Black singer Marian Anderson from performing at its Constitution Hall, and instead helped arrange another concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In fact, she grew so popular among African-Americans that they became a strong base of support for the Democratic Party. She also spoke out against Japanese-American prejudice after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, warning against the "great hysteria against minority groups."

She was also influential in promoting the New Deal, a series of programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations enacted by her husband as president between 1933 and 1938. Major federal programs and agencies, including the Civilian Conservation Corps(CCC), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the Social Security Administration (SSA), provided support for farmers, the unemployed, children, and the elderly. The programs focused on the "3 R's": relief for the unemployed and for the poor, recovery of the economy back to normal levels, and reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression

Eleanor worked to ensure that Black people weren’t left out of the New Deal - After Arthurdale and some inspections of New Deal programs in Southern states, she realized that New Deal programs were discriminating against African-Americans, who received a disproportionately small share of relief money. Roosevelt became one of the only voices in her husband's administration insisting that benefits be equally extended to Americans of all races. Eleanor is frequently seen by historians as having been significantly more advanced than her husband on civil rights.

She also ensured the program helped women and mothers - when she learned of the high rate of absenteeism among working mothers, she campaigned for government-sponsored day care, although it didn’t pass. During WWII she began to advocate for women to be given factory jobs a year before it became a widespread practice.

Franklin was president for four terms. The two-term rule hadn’t been put into the Constitution yet, it was simply tradition after George Washington. But when war broke out in Europe in the mid 1940s, he decided to run again and he won. He won again in 1944 but died on April 12, 1945. Eleanor learned that her husband's mistress Lucy Mercer was with him when he died - he had maintained the relationship in secret for decades. Their marriage wasn’t particularly a happy one.

And because this is a podcast about mothers, I do want to bring up her relationship with her children. It’s funny, doing research for this podcast, I was hard pressed to find many negative things about Eleanor, she was so admired and respected that people don’t seem to want to say anything bad about her. But honestly, her role as a mother was not a role that was foremost in her identity. She admitted later in life that quote, “it did not come naturally to me to understand little children or to enjoy them.”

She was totally committed to her public life, her career, and her crusade for social justice, and she accomplished a lot of incredible things, especially for a woman of her time period. Their son James is quoted as saying, “We never had the day-to-day discipline, supervision and attention most children get from their parents.” Her daughter Anna reportedly got married as soon as she could to escape the tension of her parents' marriage. Their other surviving son Elliott wrote a tell-all expose book about his parent’s marriage which so disgusted his siblings they completely disassociated themselves from it. (Also, fascinatingly, did you know he wrote murder mystery novels starring his mother as the detective?? I’m serious. Look up the Eleanor Roosevelt Mysteries. Let me read you some delightful titles in the series - Murder in the Map Room! Murder and the First Lady! Murder in the Oval Office! I have “Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom” on hold for me at my local library.)

So, while Eleanor may be one of the mothers of modern activism and was a truly influential figure in the 20th century, her own children maybe didn’t receive the same amount of attention and devotion that she poured into other projects.

Harry Truman took over as president, and so Eleanor’s role as first lady was officially over. However, she continued to be involved politically. In December of 1945, Truman appointed her as a delegate to the newly formed United Nations, and in April 1946, she became the first chairperson of the preliminary United Nations Commission on Human Rights. As chairperson of that committee, she played an instrumental role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration details an individual's "basic rights and fundamental freedoms" and affirms their universal character as inherent, inalienable, and applicable to all human beings.[1] Adopted as a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations", the UDHR commits nations to recognize all humans as being "born free and equal in dignity and rights" regardless of "nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status". The Declaration is considered a milestone document for its universalist language, which makes no reference to a particular culture, political system, or religion.[4][5] It directly inspired the development of international human rights law, and was the first step in the formulation of the 1966 International Bill of Human Rights.

She went on to support a variety of programs and continued speaking and writing. She published 27 books in her lifetime, including her autobiography. She was hugely admired by many people, according to Gallup's most admired man and woman poll of Americans, she won every year between 1948 (the poll's inception) to 1961 (the last poll before her death) except for one year.

In 1961 JFK named her the 1st Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, which was established to advise the President of the United States on issues concerning the status of women. This was her last public position.

Eleanor Roosevelt died of cardiac failure on November 7, 1962. Even after her death, her legacy continued - she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1973; in 1998, President Bill Clinton established the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights to honor outstanding American promoters of rights in the United States, and in 2023 she was honored on an American Women quarter in 2023.

Nearly the last line in her autobiography reads, “there is so much to do, so many engrossing challenges, so many heartbreaking and pressing needs, so much in every day that is profoundly interesting.”

I think she was a fascinating person, sometimes controversial, and I have just barely touched on some of her many, many, many roles and accomplishments here. Eleanor Roosevelt was a trailblazer for women's rights and empowerment, she shattered stereotypes and paved the way for future generations of women to pursue their dreams and advocate for social change. Her commitment to equality, justice, and human rights inspired countless women to find their voices and stand up for what they believe in. While her relationship with her own children may have been complex, her dedication to public service and her tireless efforts to improve the lives of others set a powerful example for mothers everywhere. Her legacy serves as a reminder that women and mothers have the power to shape history and make a lasting impact on the world around them.

Eleanor Roosevelt
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