Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Eleanor Roosevelt was the most influential woman in 20th century American politics, and it was not just because she was the president's wife.

Born on this day in 1884 in New York City, the niece of Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor grew up in relative material comfort, even if she was emotionally deprived. Shy and insecure, her mother nicknamed her "Granny" for her precocious solemnity. Her parents separated when she was 7; her beloved yet unreliable father was confined to an alcoholic sanitarium when her mother died the following year, so she was packed off to live with her mother's mother in an emotionally austere environment.

When she was 14, however, she was sent to Allenwood -- not the minimum security prison, but a girls' school outside of London -- where her hollowness was filled by her relationship with the headmistress, 70-year old Marie Souvestre, who in addition to giving Eleanor warmth and affection, provided her with a role model as a freethinker who supported unpopular causes, such as the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus and the independence of the Boers in South Africa.

Unpopular causes stayed in Eleanor's bloodstream when she returned to New York debutante society at age 18; while attending fancy dress parties in the evenings, during the days Eleanor went to the East Side slums for the Rivington Street Settlement House, doing social work among the poor. At the same time, she began a secret courtship with her fifth cousin-once removed, a dashing young Harvard man named Franklin D. Roosevelt. He chattered about society-doings, she took him on a tour of the tenements, and he was smitten, proposing to the 19-year old Eleanor in November 1903. Franklin's mother was against the match, but he would not be deterred; they were married on March 17, 1905, with her uncle, then the president of the U.S., giving her away at the ceremony.

Eleanor and Franklin took up residence in New York, where she played second fiddle to Franklin's mother in running the household, and gave birth to 6 children in quick succession (one died in infancy). Apart from volunteer work with the Red Cross and the League of Women Voters, as well as some activities with the then-considered-radical Women's Trade Union League, Eleanor's life was confined to being a mother and political hostess as Franklin scaled the ranks in Albany and Washington.

Everything changed, however, in 1922 when Franklin was stricken with polio and rendered paralyzed from the waist down. In addition to continually spurring her husband to return to public life (he was elected governor of New York in 1928), Eleanor began appearing as her husband's stand-in at political events, soon becoming an active campaigner on social welfare issues in her own right. As head of the national women's campaign for the Democratic Party in 1928, she became the hub of the nation's network of women activists, and when Franklin was elected president in 1932, she brought many of them and their concerns to Washington.

Although from at least 1918, when Eleanor discovered Franklin's ongoing affair with Eleanor's social secretary Lucy Mercer, Eleanor and Franklin grew emotionally distant, they remained a formidable professional team, and Eleanor's proximity permitted her to operate as the White House's conscience of social justice and compassion.

Still unafraid to take unpopular stands, she lobbied forcefully behind closed doors to bring important issues to the president's desk, such as land reclamation for poor Appalachian farmers, textile union grievances, African-American civil rights and equal opportunity for women. In public, she was more visible than any previous first lady, using a daily syndicated newspaper column ("My Day"), a radio program and regular press conferences to further her social welfare agenda. Her dramatically symbolic acts drew as much comment as the activities of congressmen and diplomats (and made her a target of political enemies), such as when she announced in "My Day" her resignation from the Daughter of the American Revolution (DAR) in 1939 after the DAR decided to ban African-American soprano Marian Anderson from giving a concert at its hall, and when she flouted segregation at a public meeting in Birmingham, Alabama by placing her chair between the white and African-American sides of the aisle.

Nevertheless, she could easily play the more traditional role assigned to public women of her time, as she did when she toured the South Pacific during World War II, visiting soldiers in hospitals and at bases to boost morale. When her husband died in 1945, she told her friends that her public life was over, but President Truman cut short her retirement by appointing her as one of the nation's representatives to the newly-created United Nations. Soon afterwards, Eleanor was elected the head of the UN Human Rights Commission, whereupon she drafted the "Declaration of Human Rights" which the UN adopted in 1948. She threatened to resign from the UN if Truman failed to recognize the new state of Israel; and stayed on board until 1952, when she resigned to campaign for Adlai Stevenson.

Even during the Eisenhower years, Eleanor continued to be an influential voice with regard to human rights issues and against McCarthyism, and just before her death from tuberculosis, was invited by President Kennedy to rejoin the UN, as well as to head the President's Commission on the Status of Women. She died on November 7, 1962 in New York City.

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