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Arguably the most well-known—and certainly the most politically active—First Lady of all time, Eleanor Roosevelt made a name for herself as, not only a staunch supporter and partner to her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but also in her own right as a crusader for human and civil rights and an early icon of the women’s rights movement.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Difficult Childhood
Born to a wealthy New York family, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, as she was christened, did not have an easy childhood. Her father, though loving, was a chronic drunk; her mother was strict and severe and overly concerned with the family’s image. She berated her daughter for her homely looks, calling her “Granny” and creating a deep sense of shyness and insecurity in young Eleanor. By the time she was ten years old, both of Eleanor’s parents were dead—her mother from diphtheria, her father from a bad fall—and Eleanor and her siblings were sent to live with their grandmother, another strict and matronly figure who continued to feed Eleanor’s insecurities.
Things finally began to turn around when Eleanor, at the age of fifteen, was sent to England to study at the exclusive Allenswood finishing school. There, under the attentive tutelage of the headmistress, Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre, daughter of a prominent liberal French philosopher, Eleanor experienced encouragement and popularity for the first time. She returned to America two years later with a determination to begin using her position to help better society.
Social Work and Marriage
Largely rejecting the social expectations that were placed upon young women of means at the turn of the twentieth century, Eleanor instead focused on outreach programs, teaching classes at an institute for the poor and disadvantaged, and visiting children in the nearby tenement slums of New York City. She also joined a watchdog group that kept tabs on working conditions in garment factories and department stores, both of which employed primarily young, poor women. ”The feeling that I was useful was perhaps the greatest joy I experienced,” she later said.
During this time, Eleanor also got to know her distant cousin, five times removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The two fell in love and, despite the reservations of Franklin’s mother, they married in 1905, when she was twenty and he twenty-three. Eleanor’s uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, gave the bride away at the wedding. Afterwards, Eleanor quickly came under the domineering personality of her mother-in-law, who virtually ran the Roosevelt household. Over the next ten years, Eleanor gave birth to six children, one of whom died in infancy. During this time, with Eleanor’s strong support and encouragement, Franklin began to build his political career, moving first into state politics, then gaining a position in Washington in 1913 as assistant secretary of the navy. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Eleanor became a tireless volunteer with the Red Cross.
When Franklin returned from an inspection trip to Europe in September 1918, Eleanor discovered evidence of an affair between him and his personal secretary. Devastated, she offered to divorce him, but out of consideration for their children, and Franklin’s political career, he refused. The couple would remain married, but the intimacy had vanished. In its place was a newfound determination on Eleanor’s part to live life on her own terms. She would never again be subjugated by her mother-in-law’s will.
Redefining the Position of First Lady
In 1921, during a sailing trip to the family retreat in New Brunswick, Canada, Franklin was stricken with polio, a degenerative disease that left him unable to walk. His mother strongly favored retirement from public life to the life ofa genteel convalescent, but Eleanor’s will prevailed this time: she alone urged her husband to continue his political career, and she alone helped nurse him back to health. In anticipation of the role she would have to play in the public eye in order to assist Franklin’s political ambitions, she also mastered public speaking and political administration.
Throughout the 1920s, Eleanor was highly active in Democratic politics, campaigning on behalf of New York Governor Al Smith during his unsuccessful runs for the White House in 1924 and 1928. She also, in partnership with two friends, established a nonprofit works program and purchased a progressive private academy for wealthy girls, where Eleanor personally taught classes several days a week. In 1928, Franklin was elected governor of New York, and four years later he was elected president in the midst of the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s election to the presidency in 1932 meant, as Eleanor later wrote, ”the end of any personal life of my own.”
Franklin Roosevelt came into the White House with an ambitious plan of government-funded work and poverty relief programs called the New Deal. Eleanor was, if anything, even more ambitious in her views on what needed to be done to bring the country out of the Depression, and it was at this time that she began publicizing her views in earnest. She quickly became a polarizing figure in American society, earning either devoted support or bitter opposition. Although she had been writing a weekly column for the Women’s Home Companion, in 1936 she switched to a syndicated newspaper column and a series of radio broadcasts, the income from which she donated to charity. From June 1941 until spring 1949, she wrote a monthly question-and-answer column called ”If You Ask Me” for Ladies’ Home Journal, in addition to the monthly column she wrote for McCall’s. It is estimated that Roosevelt wrote 2,500 newspaper columns and 299 magazine articles between 1933 and 1945, her years at the White House. Her column, ”My Day,” which would run until her death in 1962, addressed political topics frankly and openly, going against the tradition of the First Lady as largely being concerned solely with the social side of the presidential lifestyle. Although her prose style was basically pedestrian, filled with cliches and a certain naivete, it was well received by her supporters.
Championing Human Rights
Roosevelt’s politics were mainly concerned with championing the rights of those she felt weren’t getting a fair chance from society. Her press conferences were only open to female reporters, at a time when the news media was still very much a male-dominated profession. She also opened up government posts to qualified women. She was an ardent supporter of many New Deal policies, particularly those that helped people who had already been living below the poverty line when the Depression struck, such as Southern sharecroppers and Appalachian farmers or big city garment workers. She became a tireless advocate for increased civil rights, saying, ”It is a question of the right to work and the right to work should know no color lines.”
Roosevelt’s positions on civil rights were often far more liberal than her husband’s, and much of what she lobbied for, such as anti-lynching laws and desegregation of the armed forces, would not come to pass during the Roosevelt administration. Franklin Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in April of 1945, leaving Eleanor a widow after four decades of marriage. Once again, she bucked tradition, which would ordinarily call for a life of genteel retirement, instead throwing herself into work on behalf of the newly formed United Nations.
Roosevelt was appointed by the new president, Harry Truman, as the American delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. As chairman of the Commission, Roosevelt was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. She remained in her post at the UN through 1952. Increasingly finding herself a target of right-wing attacks during the presidential campaign of that year, she gave up her UN post after the election of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. She remained, however, a very public figure, working towards building international goodwill and friendship as a representative of the American Association for the United Nations. She also did not shy away from the political scene, continuing to write about her views on liberal causes and, in particular, speaking out against the anti-communist witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy during the mid-1950s.
During the last decade of her life Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to numerous foreign countries and authored several books. She continued to articulate a personal and social outlook which, while never profound and sometimes banal and obtuse, still inspired millions. Under the Kennedy administration, beginning in 1961, she kept up her tireless diplomatic schedule, acting as delegate to the UN, adviser to the Peace Corps, and chairman of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. She died in New York City on November 6, 1962.
A year before her death, Roosevelt’s three autobiographical books, This Is My Story (1937), This I Remember (1949), and On My Own (1958), were combined with an additional updated chapter in Autobiography (1961).
Roosevelt summed up her life in her Autobiography thusly: ”About the only value the story of my life may have is to show that … in spite of a lack of special talents, one can find a way to live widely and fully.”
Works in Literary Context
The autobiography—an account of a person’s life written by himself or herself—has a long tradition, going back to classical times. Many autobiographies have stood the test of time as great works of literature. Some of the most widely praised autobiographies include St. Augustine’s Confessions, written in the fourth century, A.D,; Ben Franklin’s, The Autobiography (first published in its entirety in 1868); Henry Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams (first commercial publication 1918); and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1784).
In contrast to these great works, Roosevelt’s writings are not considered particularly noteworthy from a literary standpoint—they often rely on cliched banalities and can sometimes come across as naive or overly optimistic. Yet, throughout her life and in the years since her death, Eleanor Roosevelt has continued to inspire countless millions of readers because of her status as a role model. In effect, Roosevelt led by example, and it is this element of her writing, rather than any technical proficiency, that has captivated readers for decades.
On the worth of autobiographies, Eleanor Roosevelt had this to say in 1950:
Autobiographies are, after all, useful only as the lives you read about and analyze may suggest to you something that you find useful in your own journey through life. … There is nothing particularly interesting about one’s life story unless people can say as they read it, ”Why, this is like what I have been through. Perhaps, after all, there is a way to work it out.”
Works in Critical Context
Critics have largely overlooked Roosevelt’s writings, focusing instead on her public persona or her husband’s accomplishments. Nevertheless, her autobiographies have proven invaluable for the insights they provide into the highest echelons of power during a critical time in American history, when the country was threatened by economic crisis from within and political and military adversaries abroad.
This I Remember
Of the second in Roosevelt’s trilogy of autobiographies, This I Remember, an account of the crucial years between 1921 and 1945, Jeanette P. Nichols writes in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science that the book ”is so simply told, so direct . . . that it adds greatly to our insight into the catastrophic sequence of world depression and total war.” Writing in The American Political Science Review, Harold F. Gosnell states that the ”book is a very human account of what public life does to a man and his family.” Gosnell also points out the more gossipy side of the narrative, noting that the ”book contains many shrewd observations regarding important figures in our times.”
- Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt. New York: Viking, 1992.
- Glendon, Mary Ann. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: Random House, 2001.
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
- Hershan, Stella K. A Woman of Quality. New York: Crown, 1970.
- Kearney, James R. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt; the Evolution of a Reformer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.
- Lash, Joseph P. A World of Love: Eleanor Roosevelt and Her Friends, 1943-1962. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984.
- Scharf, Lois. Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady of American Liberalism. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
- Homberger, Eric. ”Roosevelt, (Anna) Eleanor.” Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writings in English. Eds. Lorna Sage, Germaine Greer, and Elaine Showalter. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
- Nichols, Jeanette P. Review of This I Remember. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 268, Aiding Underdeveloped Areas Abroad (March 1950): 212-13
- Gosnell, Harold F. Review of This I Remember. The American Political Science Review. Vol. 44, No. 2 (June 1950): 496-97
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