Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) – First Lady, Diplomat, Activist
Eleanor Roosevelt was born to a prominent socialite New York family on October 11, 1884. She was the first child of Anna Hall and Elliot Roosevelt. Her mother Anna was one of seven children born to a wealthy family. Eleanor’s father, Elliot, was the nephew of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Unlike his Uncle Teddy, Elliot suffered from a childhood illness which left him physically weak.
As a child, Eleanor was solemn and was nicknamed “Granny” by her family for her demeanor. She had two younger brothers, Elliot Junior and Hall. Eleanor’s life is marked by sorrow almost from the beginning. Her father was not only physically weak but was an alcoholic as well. The family relocated to Italy in 1890 for Eleanor’s father to try to recover and stay sober, but in vain as he lapsed once again while the family was still there. Her mother Anna died of diphtheria in 1892, and Eleanor’s younger brother Elliot succumbed to scarlet fever later in the same year.
Because of the turmoil in her life, Eleanor was sent to live with her Grandmother Hall, who still had several of Eleanor’s aunts living at home with her. A decision was made to send Eleanor to a French convent school at the age of five, where she struggled with an unfamiliar language. Her father also died in 1894 due to heavy drinking.
Grandmother Hall was focused on her education and permitted Eleanor to attend an English boarding school called Allenswood after a trip to Europe in 1899. Her stint at the boarding school was punctuated by extensive opportunities for travel. The headmistress, Mlle. Souvestre took an instant liking to Eleanor and took her on trips during Christmas and summer breaks around Europe and the Mediterranean.
It was from Mlle. Souvestre that Eleanor learned to have a sense of responsibility for her own life, and to try to live like a native as much as possible when traveling. It was also during this time that Eleanor developed her self-identified bad habit of talking incessantly about subjects that she did not know much about.
After graduating from the boarding school, Eleanor came back to the United States and moved back in with her Grandmother Hall. She had a difficult time fitting in with other society girls in New York, as she had been used to the life in day schools for most of her childhood. She hated going to balls and especially hated her coming-out party. During this time, her younger brother Hall started at the Groton School, and Eleanor served as his guardian, upon a request that her dying father had made. She expressed her concerns over Hall not having a proper childhood in the letters she wrote to him, a routine she carried out almost daily!
Despite disliking the social whirl of the young New York City society, Eleanor had several escorts to events and eventually reconnected with her father’s 5th cousin, law student Franklin Roosevelt. They met on a train and started corresponding. Eleanor remembered him giving her piggyback rides when she was young and still going through her “Granny” phase. They were married on March 17, 1905. Eleanor wanted her Uncle Teddy, then-President Theodore Roosevelt, to give her away, and the wedding had to be planned around his schedule. As luck would have it, he was planning a trip to New York to review the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The young couple used the opportunity to get married.
Following Franklin’s term at law school, the couple took a honeymoon to Europe, where Eleanor was able to teach Franklin about living as natives when traveling. It was during this time that Eleanor became pregnant with their first child. Upon returning to New York, they settled down three blocks away from Franklin’s mother. His mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, was an overbearing woman who liked to be in control of her family. She took care of Eleanor during her pregnancy to the point where Eleanor did not have to cook, clean, or do anything for herself. Franklin and Eleanor’s first daughter, Anna Eleanor, was born on May 3, 1906. A son, James, quickly followed on December 23, 1907.
During the early years of her marriage and child-rearing, Eleanor was admittedly scared of the nannies that were hired to take care of the children. As a result, she lacked confidence in both her housekeeping and mothering skills.
A notable example of her mother-in-law’s personality that further estranged her was the home she had built for herself and the young couple. It was a duplex with doors that connected the two homes. Eleanor had nothing to do with the house’s design, location, or furnishings, and was deeply unhappy living there, as she did not feel as if it was her house. She disclosed this to Franklin, explaining that “I did not like to live in a house which was not in any way mine, one that I had done nothing about and which did not represent the way I wanted to live”. She went on to say in later years that she should have been more assertive and self-sufficient.
A third child, Franklin Jr., was born on March 18, 1909, and unfortunately died of the flu on November 8, 1909. Eleanor felt deep regret over his being raised primarily by nannies and was devastated that she did not get more time with him. The Roosevelts went on to have three more children – Elliot, born in 1910; another son named Franklin Jr., born in 1914; and John, born in 1916.
In 1910, Franklin decided to run for Senator of the State of New York. He was elected and moved the family to the state capital of Albany. This was the beginning of Roosevelt’s public life and the first time that Eleanor and her family had lived away from Sara Roosevelt. It was also during this time that she began to gain more confidence as a mother and wife. Franklin resigned from the state Senate in 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson appointed him the Assistant Secretary to the Navy. This appointment meant another move, this time to Washington, D.C.
The young Roosevelt family moved into Eleanor’s aunt’s house in D.C. Eleanor’s role, in addition to being a mother to an expanding brood of children, was to provide support to the naval wives. She was expected to host gatherings and make social calls, something that she did not particularly enjoy.
Eleanor was much more in her element when she joined the Red Cross after the United States entered World War I in April 1917. Her brother Hall had enlisted, and she wanted to do something practical to help. While volunteering with the Red Cross, she was deeply affected by seeing shell shocked men and the terrors of war. She helped in starting an occupational therapy program at the Naval Hospital in D.C. Her patience and tolerance continued to increase as she worked with more people.
In July 1918, Franklin traveled to Europe to see the naval operations there. He came home with bad pneumonia that left him weaker still. He and the rest of the family, except Eleanor, also suffered from the flu epidemic in D.C.
The armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, and Franklin insisted on traveling to Europe again in January 1919. Eleanor did not want him to go, as he was already weak from his previous illnesses, and insisted on accompanying him. While they were in Europe, Teddy Roosevelt passed away.
Upon returning home from Europe, Eleanor became involved in the Women’s Suffrage Movement and joined the League of Women Voters in New York City. She also became involved with the International Congress for Women Workers. Young society women at that time were expected to serve on charity boards, which Eleanor did grudgingly. She wanted to help in more practical, hands-on ways. Her new activities and independent thinking continued to help her distance herself from her mother-in-law.
While on vacation in 1921, Franklin contracted polio, which left his legs paralyzed. Eleanor and Sara disagreed about Franklin’s activity levels, with his mother in favor of FDR leading a quiet life. Eleanor knew that Franklin would not be happy being idle, and got back into politics by serving on the Women’s Division of the Democratic State Committee as a way to interest him.
She also implemented several projects to help those affected by the Great Depression and used the money that she earned through writing, speaking, and teaching to donate to charities. One of her pet projects, along with her friends Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, was a place called Val-Kill, a factory that reproduced Early American furniture. This offered local labor employment opportunities.
Franklin got back into politics and was elected governor of New York in 1928. Eleanor commuted between Albany and New York in order to keep working. She knew that he eventually wanted to run for President and was secretly against the idea. However, she felt that it might help make up for his paralysis. He was elected to his first term in 1932, and Eleanor helped strengthen his international relationships by hosting politicians from Canada, France, China, Germany, Italy, and Japan at the White House. She also visited impoverished areas of the United States, such as West Virginia mining towns. As she was pro-integration, the more she traveled and interacted with people; the more the White House advisors worried that she was hurting her husband’s chances at re-election. During this time, she continued to write for the Woman’s Home Companion and the United Feature Syndicate.
As the threat of a Second World War loomed over Europe, crowned heads of Europe came to the United States to confer with FDR. The most notable visit was from the King and Queen of England. Eleanor felt that the war was foreshadowed as they were leaving on the train to go back to England. The Queen was less than pleased at facing this grim reality and as the train pulled away, the crowd gathered at the train station began to sing Auld Lang Syne.
1940 was a sad time for the Roosevelt family, as Franklin’s mother Sara and Eleanor’s brother Hall died within days of each other. War was raging in Europe, and United States involvement seemed inevitable. The US entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill came to visit, the Christmas after Pearl Harbor, to confer with FDR.
In 1942, Queen Elizabeth invited Eleanor to England to see the work the women were doing during World War II. Eleanor was nervous to go to Buckingham Palace, which was observing rationing and blackout procedures for the war effort. She met Mrs. Churchill and inspected both British and American troops. This was seen as a great morale-booster, and so she continued to visit troops in 1943 – this time, in the South Pacific. During this trip, she wore a Red Cross uniform, dined with officers and enlisted men, and wrote numerous letters to the families of injured servicemen.
World War II was officially over in September of 1945, but unfortunately, FDR did not live long enough to see the end. He was ill throughout 1944 and the early days of 1945, and eventually died of a stroke on April 12, 1945. Elliot was the only son who was able to make it to the funeral; all the sons were enlisted at the time. After the funeral, President Truman urged Eleanor to take her time moving out of the White House. However, she felt unsettled and wanted to move to Val-Kill as soon as possible.
After her husband’s death, Eleanor kept herself very busy. She was the only woman who served as a US delegate for the organization of the United Nations. During her time with the U.N., she served on Committee Three, which dealt with humanitarian, cultural, and social concerns. Eleanor felt that she represented all women, and wanted to do a good job so that opportunities were opened for women in the future. She also served on the U.N. Human Rights Commission and helped draft the International Bill of Rights. Always a traveler, she trekked extensively to remote areas that included the Middle East, Israel, India, and other countries. After President Kennedy was elected, she served on his Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.
Eleanor Roosevelt died of aplastic anemia on November 7, 1962, in New York City. Her daughter Anna stayed by her deathbed as she fought for her life. Eleanor left behind a legacy of equal rights for women, racial integration, and care for those less fortunate.
- Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt
- Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph P. Nash, W. W. Norton & Company, 2014
- Eleanor: The Years Alone by Joseph P. Nash, W. W. Norton & Company, 2014
Images on this page
- eleanor-roosevelt-new-york: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration | public domain
- eleanor-roosevelt-family-portrait: FDR Presidential Library and Museum | Flickr | public domain
- eleanor-roosevelt-with-FDR: FDR Presidential Library and Museum | Flickr | CC BY 2.0 Generic
- eleanor-roosevelt-george-vi-elizabeth: FDR Presidential Library and Museum | Flickr | CC BY 2.0 Generic
- eleanor-roosevelt-united-nation: FDR Presidential Library and Museum | public domain
- eleanor-roosevelt-universal-declaration-human-rights: FDR Presidential Library & Museum | Flickr | CC BY 2.0 Generic