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Eleanor Roosevelt: Politician, Diplomat, and Activist


First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884 to Elliott Roosevelt, whose brother was Theodore Roosevelt—her uncle, and godfather Her mother was Anna Hall. She had two younger brothers (Elliott) and Gracie Hall. The first Roosevelt arrived during the 1640s when New Amsterdam (now New York) was a small Dutch settlement at the foot of Manhattan Island.

As a child, her mother, Anna, thought of her as an ugly duckling and sometimes called her “Granny.” Elliott was an alcoholic, who would spend time at a sanitarium in a small time in Virginia.

Orphaned at the age of 10, following the death of her mother died of diphtheria on December 7, 1892 at the age of 29, and her father Elliott on August 14, 1894, she and her brother Hall were raised by their grandmother, Mary Ludlow Hall, in what was described as a dark and gloomy home, where they ate their meals in silence.

She grew up taking ballet, piano lessons. She read all sorts of books from novels and poetry to histories and biographies and attended Allenswood, an all-girls school in English at fifteen where her days were filled with classes, sports and studying.

She would marry Franklin D. Roosevelt, her 5th cousin, on March 17, in 1905 at the age of 21.

In 1920, Franklin Roosevelt was chosen by the Democratic Party to run for vice president with James Cox. That same year, women earned the right to vote when the 19th Amendment to the constitution passed, they’d fought for 40 years to win this basic right.

In 1928, F.D.R., who became afflicted with polio in 1921, would be elected governor of New York in 1928.

Shortly after, on Black Monday, October 28, 1929, the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined nearly 13 percent, prices on the NYSE tumbled. People lost the money they invested in the stock market, soon they couldn’t pay their bills or buy new goods.

Businesses cut down production and laid off worker. One in four Americans was out of work. At mealtimes, people stood line front of soup kitchens for something to eat. Many stuffed newspapers into their jackets and worn-out shoes, trying to keep out the cold.

Eleanor wrote accounts of the America’s condition amidst the Great Depression. Beginning in 1935, she would publish her own newspaper column, called “My Day,” which ran in newspapers across the country, six days a week for nearly 30 years.

In March 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in as the 32nd President of the United States. Eleanor was the initial First Lady to open the White House door to reports and hold on-the-record press conferences, the first to drive her own car, to travel by plane and make official trips by herself. The secret service, worried about her safety, gave her a pistol and begged her to carry it.

She visited American soldiers at home and in foreign nations during World War II where she would write down names and addresses of the families in order to write them when she returned home. She sold war bonds, gave blood, helped the Red Cross raise money, knitted sweaters and jackets for servicemen. She toured hospitals, and even met with British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

In May 1941, Eleanor would serve as assistant director of the newly formed Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), the first time a First Lady held an official seat in the U.S. government.

She fought against segregation laws. In one incident, she quit a group called the Daughters of the American Revolution because it refused to allow opera singer Marian Anderson to perform in its auditorium. She instead arranged for Anderson to give concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of an audience of 75,000 people.

She started the Val-Kill furniture factory, which created jobs for woodworkers. She taught history, literature, and current events at the Todhunter School for girls in New York Center. She took the girls on field trips where they visited police stations, outdoor markets, slums, the courts—anyplace that could show them what life was really like outside of their circle of wealth.

She hosted two radio shows and her own TV show, called Prospects of Mankind where she interviewed world leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and President John F. Kennedy. J.F.K. would ask her to serve as an American representative to the newly formed United Nations is December 1945, a few months after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. The first meeting of U.N. representatives was held in January 1946 in London, England.

Eleanor devoted her days and energy toward improving people’s lives and protecting their basic rights. She worked on social, education, and cultural issues and in 1947 was elected head of the 18-nation U.N. Human Rights Commission.

She headed a group in charge of writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was presented in front of the U.N. General Assembly December 1948 in Paris, France. The declaration listed the rights of people around the world, which included that of being free and equal in all ways under the law, and states that everyone has a right to an education. The UDHR is now translated in more than 300 languages.

Eleanor Roosevelt died November 7, 1962 in her apartment in New York City and is buried beside Franklin D. Roosevelt in the gardens surrounding the Roosevelt family home in Hyde Park.

“You cannot take anything personally. You cannot bear grudges. You must finish the day’s work when the day’s work is done. You cannot get discouraged too easily. You have to take defeat over and over again, and pick up and go.”

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Works cited:

  • Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.” The White House, The United States Government, 18 Jan. 2021
  • Jacobs, William Jay. Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Happiness and Tears. Marshall Cavendish Corp., 1991
  • Nabli, Dina El. Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady of the World. HarperCollins Children's Books, 2006
  • Richardson, Gary. “Stock Market Crash of 1929.” Federal Reserve History
  • Stamberg, Susan. “Denied a Stage, She Sang for a Nation.” NPR, NPR, 9 Apr. 2014

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