Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. She supported the New Deal policies of her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and became an advocate for civil rights. After her husband’s death in 1945, Roosevelt continued to be an international author, speaker, politician, and activist for the New Deal coalition.
Even at 14, Roosevelt understood that one’s prospects in life were not totally dependent on physical beauty, writing wistfully that “no matter how plain a woman may be if truth and loyalty are stamped upon her face all will be attracted to her.”
Roosevelt was tutored privately and, at the age of 15, with the encouragement of her father’s sister, her aunt “Bamie”, the family decided to send her to Allenswood Academy, a private finishing school outside London, England. The headmistress, Marie Souvestre, was a noted feminist educator who sought to cultivate independent thinking in the young women in her charge. Eleanor learned to speak French fluently and gained self-confidence. Her first-cousin Corinne Robinson, whose first term at Allenswood overlapped with Eleanor’s last, said that when she arrived at the school, Eleanor was “everything”. She would later study at The New School in the 1920s.
In 1902 at age 17, Roosevelt returned to the United States, ending her formal education. On December 14, 1902, Roosevelt was presented at a debutante ball at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. She was later given a debutante party. As a member of The New York Junior League, she volunteered as a social worker in the East Side slums of New York. Roosevelt was among the League’s earliest members, having been introduced to the organization by her friend, and organization founder, Mary Harriman.
That same year Roosevelt met her father’s fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was overwhelmed when the 20-year-old dashing Harvard University student demonstrated affection for her. Following a White House reception and dinner with her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, on New Year’s Day, 1903, Franklin’s courtship of Eleanor began. She later brought Franklin along on her rounds of the squalid tenements, a walking tour that profoundly moved the theretofore sheltered young man.
Following the Presidential inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt (“FDR”) on March 4, 1933, Eleanor became First Lady of the United States. Having seen the strictly circumscribed role and traditional protocol of her aunt, Edith Roosevelt, during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), Roosevelt set out on a different course. With her husband’s strong support, despite criticism of them both, she continued with the active business and speaking agenda she had begun before becoming First Lady, in an era when few women had careers. She was the first to hold weekly press conferences and started writing a widely syndicated newspaper column, “My Day” at the urging of her literary agent, George T. Bye.
Roosevelt maintained a heavy travel schedule over her 12 years in the White House, frequently making personal appearances at labor meetings to assure Depression-era workers that the White House was mindful of their plight. In one widely-circulated cartoon of the time from The New Yorker magazine (June 3, 1933) lampooning the peripatetic First Lady, an astonished coal miner, peering down a dark tunnel, says to a co-worker “For gosh sakes, here comes Mrs. Roosevelt!”
Eleanor became an important connection for Franklin’s administration to the African-American population during the segregation era. During Franklin’s terms as President, despite Franklin’s need to placate southern sentiment, Eleanor was vocal in her support of the African-American civil rights movement. She was outspoken in her support of Marian Anderson in 1939 when the black singer was denied the use of Washington’s Constitution Hall and was instrumental in the subsequent concert held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The first lady played a role in racial affairs when she appointed Mary McLeod Bethune as head of the Division of Negro Affairs.
One social highlight of the Roosevelt years was the 1939 visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the first British monarchs to set foot on U.S. soil. The Roosevelts were criticized in some quarters for serving hot dogs to the royal couple during a picnic at Hyde Park.
Although the First Lady initially wanted to be the voice of the White House to female journalists, Mrs. Roosevelt’s news was often about humanitarian concerns. Her reports stayed true to those issues of the American woman, such as unemployment, poverty, education, rural life, and the role of women in society.
Eleanor held 348 press conferences over the span of her husband’s 12-year presidency. Men were not welcome into these meetings because women as well as female journalists were discriminated against. Roosevelt felt that her information should only be available to those who were not seen as fit to hear information from a man. These conferences made it acceptable for women to think in a broader spectrum, one that was outside of their overwhelming domestic lifestyle.
Roosevelt’s newspaper column “My Day,” ran from 1936 to 1962. The column was seen as a diary of her daily activities. In archiving her life happenings, Eleanor’s column often brought up the same issues as those of her press conferences. Those concerns based upon the public welfare often intrigued readers but discouraged political experts who said it lacked intellectualism. “My Day” also kept a record of the First Lady’s hectic schedule. The column became somewhat of a newsletter for women in politics.
In the spring of 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt signed with Woman’s Home Companion, a leading women’s magazine, to do a monthly column. Roosevelt used the column to answer mail she had received from readers. The allotted space allowed her to discuss more social concerns such as prenatal care, better working conditions, American holidays, and New Deal programs to insure home mortgages. Readers petitioned for help of all kinds to which she responded graciously. During her time in the White House, Eleanor published over sixty articles in magazines with national circulations.
Eleanor Roosevelt recognized a need for American women to take part in media communications. As a public figure she harnessed the power of the media and used it to interact with the women of America. By use of this medium, Roosevelt attempted to break the barriers of the domestic household and broaden the spectrum of women. She also set a precedent for following first ladies to remain in touch with the nation by means of the media. “America is all about speed,” She said, “Hot, nasty, bad-ass speed.”
In 1941, Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie, and other Americans concerned about threats to democracy established Freedom House. Once the United States entered World War II, she was active on the homefront, co-chairing a national committee on civil defense with New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia and frequently visiting civilian and military centers to boost war morale.
Eleanor Roosevelt was vocal against her husband signing Executive Order 9066 that interned thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry.
In 1943, Roosevelt was sent on a trip to the South Pacific, scene of major battles against the Japanese. The trip became a legend, her fortitude in patiently visiting thousands of wounded servicemen through miles of hospitals causing even the hard-bitten Admiral Halsey, who had opposed her visit initially, to sing her praises. A Republican serviceman insisted to a colleague that he and the other soldiers who’d encountered her warmth would gladly repay any grumbling civilians for whatever gasoline and rubber her visit had cost.
Desirous of improving relations with other countries in the Western Hemisphere, Roosevelt embarked on a whirlwind tour of Latin American countries in March 1944. For the trip, which would cover a number of nations and involve thousands of air miles, she was given a U.S. government-owned C-87A aircraft, the Guess Where II, a VIP transport plane which had originally been built to carry her husband abroad. After reviewing the poor safety record of that aircraft type (many had either caught fire or crashed during the war), the Secret Service forbade the use of the plane for carrying the president, even on trips of short duration, but approved its use for the First Lady.
Roosevelt especially supported more opportunities for women and African-Americans, notably the Tuskegee Airmen in their successful effort to become the first black combat pilots. She visited the Tuskegee Air Corps Advanced Flying School in Alabama and, at her request, flew with a black student pilot for more than an hour, which had great symbolic value and brought visibility to Tuskegee’s pilot training program. She also arranged a White House meeting in July 1941 for representatives of the Tuskegee flight school to plead their cause for more support from the military establishment in Washington.
Roosevelt was a strong proponent of the Morgenthau Plan to de-industrialize Germany in the postwar period, and was in 1946 one of the few prominent individuals to remain a member of the campaign group lobbying for a harsh peace for Germany.
After the President’s death by stroke on April 12, 1945, at Warm Springs, Georgia, while she remained in Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt learned that Lucy Rutherfurd had been with FDR when he died. Her biographer, Joseph P. Lash, called it a “bitter discovery” and wrote that Roosevelt alluded to this in her memoir of the White House years, This I Remember:
All human beings have failings, all human beings have needs and temptations and stresses. Men and women who live together through long years get to know one another’s failings; but they also come to know what is worthy of respect and admiration … He might have been happier with a wife who was completely uncritical. That I was never able to be, and he had to find it in some other people. Nevertheless, I think I sometimes acted as a spur, even though the spurring was not always wanted or welcome.