5 minute read

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt

Further Readings

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of U.S. President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT (FDR), transformed the role of first lady and influenced the course and content of twentieth-century U.S. politics. During FDR's nearly four terms in office (1933–1945), Roosevelt was an acknowledged political adviser with her own progressive agenda.

Roosevelt was a committed reformer. Born into wealth and privilege, she lent early and conspicuous support to child welfare laws, equal pay and employment legislation, CIVIL RIGHTS, and WOMEN'S RIGHTS. Her ideals helped define FDR's NEW DEAL and modern Democratic liberalism. Although Roosevelt was admired by many, her high political profile was harshly criticized by people who believed she was too opinionated and influential.

After FDR's death in 1945, Roosevelt continued to support social and benevolent causes throughout the United States and the world. Although no longer first lady, she secured her reputation as a tireless activist and humanitarian. Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, in New York City. Her parents, Elliott and Anna Hall Roosevelt, were socially and politically prominent. Her father was the younger brother of U.S. President THEODORE ROOSEVELT.

Roosevelt's childhood was lonely; she had an emotionally detached mother and a loving but alcoholic father. Both parents died by the time Eleanor was ten years old. A serious, timid child, Roosevelt was sent by her grandmother in 1899 to Allenswood, a private girls' school near London. There she overcame her shyness and became an active, well-liked student. When Roosevelt returned to New York, she entered high society. At the same time, she taught at a settlement house in a New York slum.

Roosevelt married FDR, her distant cousin, on March 17, 1905. Her domineering mother-in-law, Sara Roosevelt, disapproved of Roosevelt and put an immediate strain on the marriage. The couple had six children, five of whom survived to adulthood.

Roosevelt was not fulfilled by running a large household and attending social functions. When FDR was elected to the New York State Senate in 1910, she turned her attention to politics. In time, she discovered her talent for political organization and strategy.

FDR became the assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913. After the United States entered WORLD WAR I, Roosevelt found an outlet for her tremendous energy, organizing Red Cross efforts and working in military canteens.

In 1918 Roosevelt discovered that FDR was having an affair with her social secretary Lucy Page Mercer. The marriage survived but became a union based primarily on politics, not love.

Roosevelt was determined to carve out her own niche in public service and national affairs. She became active in the League of Women Voters (although she had opposed female suffrage at one time) and the Women's TRADE UNION League. She assumed an increasingly active role in Democratic politics. In 1926 Roosevelt opened a furniture company in Hyde Park, New York, to provide jobs for unemployed workers. In 1927 Roosevelt and some colleagues founded the Todhunter School, where she was vice principal and taught government and history.

FDR was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for vice president in the 1920 U.S. presidential election. In 1921 he contracted poliomyelitis, which left him permanently disabled. Because FDR could no longer walk independently, Roosevelt became his surrogate, filling in for him at meetings, state inspections, and public appearances. Her political skills and confidence grew in her role as FDR's emissary.

FDR was elected governor of New York in 1928. Four years later he became the thirty-second president of the United States, defeating incumbent Republican President HERBERT HOOVER. FDR's mandate was to pull the country out of the Great Depression. His economic recovery plan, popularly known as the New Deal, included sweeping, government-sponsored programs that were supported by Roosevelt.

From the outset Roosevelt was a different kind of first lady. Visible and outspoken, she wrote her own newspaper column, entitled "My Day," from 1935 to 1962. She held regular press conferences with female reporters, and insisted on hard news coverage, not society-page trivia. Roosevelt lectured extensively throughout the United States, donating her fees to charity. Most importantly, she was FDR's legs and eyes, describing to him the actual, on-site progress of his social and economic programs.

Roosevelt wielded considerable influence over the development of the New Deal. She openly supported legislation to create the National Youth Administration, a program that provided jobs for young people. Roosevelt worked hard for measures to improve the lives of children, women, unemployed workers, minority groups, and poor people. She also encouraged the appointment of women to key positions within FDR's administration, such as the appointment of FRANCES PERKINS to secretary of labor.

Roosevelt demonstrated the courage of her convictions. In 1939 she publicly resigned her membership to the elite Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The DAR had denied permission to African American singer Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall. Outraged at the group's racism, Roosevelt helped organize an alternate concert for Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial.

Roosevelt served in an official public capacity for a short time. From 1941 to 1942, she was assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD). When some of her appointments were criticized, however, Roosevelt stepped down from the position.

The United States' involvement in WORLD WAR II meant increased travel for Roosevelt. As a fact finder and a morale booster, she visited U.S. armed forces throughout the world. After the war Roosevelt supported the resettlement of European Jews in newly established Israel.

FDR died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945. After his death Roosevelt remained in the public eye. She was one of the first U.S. delegates to the UNITED NATIONS, appointed by President HARRY S. TRUMAN in December 1945. She served as chair of the Commission on HUMAN RIGHTS and helped draft the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

Roosevelt also remained active in Democratic politics and organized Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal unit within the party. She backed ADLAI STEVENSON in his unsuccessful quest for the U.S. presidency in 1952 and 1956 and was a player in the 1952, 1958, and 1960 Democratic conventions. In 1952, with Republican DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER in the White House, she resigned from the U.N. Democratic President JOHN F. KENNEDY reappointed her to the post in 1961.

Roosevelt published several books, including This Is My Story (1937), This I Remember (1949), On My Own (1958), and You Learn By Living (1960).


Roosevelt died in New York City on November 7, 1962.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Roberts v. United States Jaycees to Secretary of State