For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated (probably more slightly obsessed!) with American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. I have a clear memory of dressing up as Eleanor Roosevelt for a dress-up day at school in the 1990s and no-one knew who she was. To be fair for a young Irish child in c.1995 to know firstly about Eleanor Roosevelt and secondly a woman (!) in history was probably, highly unlikely.
Eleanor Roosevelt is the first in my new ‘Heroine’s of History’ which I hope to include as a regular blog post series on my blog. Eleanor has always been one of my heroine’s of history for how determined she was to be different in an era when women bowed to the ‘superiority’ of men in nearly all things. Perhaps because she did not bow down to what was expected of her she became a childhood heroine of mine along with The Suffragettes, Scarlet O’Hara, Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry. All women who did not do what was expected of them. Shock, horror!
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born Anna Eleanor Roosevelt on 11th October 1884 to Anna Rebecca Hall and Elliott Roosevelt. Eleanor as she was to be known was born into the wealthy Roosevelt family; one of the scions of New York’s elite family’s included the Vanderbilt’s and Astor’s in what became known as ‘The Four Hundred’ in the ‘Gilded Age’ of late nineteenth century New York. ‘The Four Hundred’ were powerful and rich family’s who lived a life of leisure in America with frequent holidays and sojourns to Europe. They were old money and old family’s who had invested wisely in property and industry to afford the lifestyle they had become accustomed to.
Unfortunately, for Eleanor her early life was marked with tragedy with the death of her older brother, mother, and father happening before she was ten years old. Eleanor was shunted and shoved between relatives who did not know what to do with her as she was a shy, sullen child prone to keeping her inner feelings to herself. Eleanor was largely educated at home and was sent to Allenswood Boarding Academy (pictured above c.1902 when Eleanor was attending the academy). Allenswood was revolutionary in that it stressed independence and academic excellence in women at a time when formal education was not geared to women’s independence.
Allenswood was a transformative time in Eleanor’s life as it influenced her key ideas of personal independence, social responsibility, feminist ideas, and an interest in the world outside your own social sphere. Eleanor returned to America where she became a debutante and met her future husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor and Franklin were married on the 17th March 1905 before going on a three month honeymoon tour to Europe. Eleanor and Franklin eventually had six children; Anna, James, Franklin Roosevelt (sadly he was born and died in 1909), Elliott, Franklin, and John. Eleanor found her early married life a struggle as motherhood did not come naturally to her and her overbearing mother-in-law, Sara, lived side-by-side the young couple with a house that had connecting doors and dominated the rearing of Eleanor and Franklin’s children.
In the 1920s, Eleanor faced the worst trial of her marriage; the diagnosis of Franklin’s polio that would leave him disabled from the waist down for the rest of his life. Whilst this was a turbulent and stressful time in her marriage it was also the decade that Eleanor became more interested in the causes she went onto become famous for. Eleanor became interested in educating women on their new right to vote and become highly involved in committee’s that educated women on how and why they should vote. Eleanor also became part of an influential group of women who were also interested in women’s votes as well as feminist labour rights for working women.
Eleanor’s interests in these causes continued throughout the 1920s and early 1930s and her influence became even greater after she became First Lady when Franklin Roosevelt was elected President in 1933. Eleanor found that she had more power and influence as First Lady by encouraging women only press conferences to encourage women to have prominent careers, access to ‘New Deal’ (a Roosevelt era works program during The Great Depression) legislation, and in other women orientated civil organisations.
Eleanor also appointed women to prominent administration posts within the White house, campaigned against racial injustice particularly the draconian ‘Jim Crow’ laws, and was increasingly interested in opportunities for young people during The Great Depression. What could be defined as Eleanor’s ‘finest hour’ came during World War Two; she campaigned for the right for women to be included in female branches of the American armed services, was involved in providing resources for European refugees, and highlighting the work of American women on the American Home Front.
Sadly, Franklin died just before the end of World War Two and Eleanor had to leave the White house. However, this was not the end of Eleanor’s involvement in liberal democracy, civil rights, and women’s rights. In 1946, Eleanor was appointed the 1st United States Representative to the United Nations of Human Rights as well as being appointed 1st Chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1947. Eleanor’s significant international political experience mad her the ideal candidate for these positions. Throughout the 1950s, Eleanor continued her work with the UN and campaigned for Civil Rights in America and was also appointed in 1961 as the 1st Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Sadly, Eleanor only served in this role for one year as she passed away 7th November 1962 at the age of 78.
Eleanor’s legacy of working for women’s and civil rights will live on as well as her hatred of social and racial and injustice. Eleanor’s warm personality and ability to get on with anyone coupled with her active political and civil life are an inspiration for anyone (particularly me!) who strives to be a decent human being. Though it is sixty years from Eleanor’s death it is sure that her legacy will live on for centuries to come.