Few have matched Eleanor Roosevelt’s passion for political, social, and economic justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “The impact of her personality and its unwavering devotion to high principle and purpose cannot be contained in a single day or era” . As First Lady, Eleanor prodded her husband and his advisors to make the New Deal better serve women and minorities. She travelled across the country to bear witness to the suffering of the poor, advocated for projects in Appalachia, and worked closely with early Civil Rights leaders .
Eleanor was born in New York City on October 11, 1884 to Elliot Roosevelt (brother of future president Theodore) and Anna Hall. Though born into wealth, her childhood was a struggle. By age ten, both her parents had died and she spent the next several years living a lonely existence with her grandmother, Mary Hall. In 1899, Hall sent Eleanor to study at the Allenswood Academy in London, a godsend for the young woman. There she made many friends, found a mentor in the headmistress of the school, social reformer Marie Souvestre, and achieved a degree of happiness as rarely before .
Eleanor returned to the United States in 1902 and soon began working for the University Settlement on Rivington Street in New York (settlement houses provided living quarters and social services for poor families, especially immigrants). She began dating Franklin Roosevelt, a distant cousin, and both were greatly influenced by the poverty they witnessed in the city . Eleanor and Franklin were married on March 17, 1905. Over the next ten years, the couple had one daughter and five sons (one of whom died shortly after birth). Domestic life did not entirely suit Eleanor, and she later said of this period that she was “simply absorbing the personalities of those about me and letting their tastes and interests dominate me” . In subsequent years, Eleanor slowly but surely returned to an active life in the social justice movement. At the same time, she had to face difficult personal struggles with her husband: Franklin’s affair with her secretary Lucy Mercer and then his crippling illness and long recovery .
When Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933, Eleanor came into her own as a public figure. She filled the role of First Lady as no one had before nor has since. She held press conferences, authored a long-running op-ed column, “My Day,” and toured the country to become “an advocate of the rights and needs of the poor, of minorities, and of the disadvantaged” . She took her ideas and experiences to the president (she would leave reading matter by his bedside), prodded him to action, and significantly influenced the direction of the New Deal.
Especially concerned with younger Americans, Eleanor wrote: “I have moments of real terror when I think we might be losing this generation. We have got to bring these young people into the active life of the community and make them feel that they are necessary” . She played an instrumental role in the creation of the National Youth Administration (NYA), to provide work and education for millions of young men and women. Aubrey Williams, program director, wrote: “One of the NYA’s ablest and wisest friends was Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt…Her unfailing interest, her deep and sympathetic understanding of the problems of youth, and her endless courage were a source of great strength and guidance to the NYA, to the youth on its program, and to the youth of America .”
When the United States entered World War II, Eleanor became Assistant Director of Civilian Defense and fought to see “that the President did not abandon the goals he had put forth in the New Deal” . After the war, Eleanor continued her late husband’s work on behalf of the United Nations – FDR’s great hope for the future of world peace. She became chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and led the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted December 10, 1948 . Section 1 of Article 25 states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control” .
Eleanor Roosevelt died on November 7, 1962 and is buried at Hyde Park next to her husband . For the last thirty years of her life, she was almost certainly the most famous and admired woman in public life, both in the United States and around the world. Her name still resonates, and she was selected to be the first woman on US currency (the $10 bill) by popular vote in 2015 .
Sources: (1) “Eleanor Roosevelt and Civil Rights,” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, George Washington University, accessed December 1, 2015. (2) See, e.g., “Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” The Task Force – Celebrating Eleanor Roosevelt – 2008, accessed December 1, 2015. (3) “Anna Eleanor Roosevelt,” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, George Washington University, accessed December 1, 2015. (4) “College Settlement on Rivington Street,” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, George Washington University, accessed December 3, 2015. (5) See note 3. (6) For information on the relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer, see “Lucy Page Mercer Rutherford (1891-1948),” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, George Washington University, accessed December 3, 2015. (7) “Biography of Eleanor Roosevelt,” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, accessed December 3, 2015. (8) “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt,” New Deal Network (citing New York Times, May 1934), accessed December 3, 2015. (9) Federal Security Agency – War Manpower Commission, Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944, p. viii. (10) See note 7. (11) See note 2. (12) “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” United Nations – Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, accessed December 3, 2015. (13) See note 7. (14) “Eleanor Roosevelt Is Top Choice for the $10 Bill, Poll Finds,” New York Times, August 5, 2015.
Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.
Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.