“Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticised anyway.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Written by Rehana Akudi
13th January 2020
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, born in 1884, is known to be the wife of the 32nd President, Franklin D. Roosevelt who served from 1933 until his death in 1945. She was the niece of the former President Theodore Roosevelt. She married Franklin in 1905 and they had six children. Eleanor Roosevelt’s strong-willed character challenged the role of the first lady as she was determined to pursue a career of her own. During the four terms her husband served, she had made contributions to policy, diplomacy and politics and even after her husband’s death in 1945, she continued her career and political goals to obtain equality for all. Due to her achievements, President Harry Truman gave her the title, “First Lady of the World.”
The job of the first lady had been one guided by traditional feminine roles, which primarily involve being a dutiful hostess at parties, devoting time in planning state dinners and entertaining political leaders. Much of the first lady’s activities, image and duties were directly attributed to her husband. Her role was considered as only an accessory to the President. After all, it is the position that is attained by virtue of marriage only.
The emergence of Eleanor Roosevelt on the political scene in 1933 as the first lady, was a woman who demonstrated her clear set of values and her independent-minded personality. She transcended that ‘accessory’ archetype and model with both grace and charisma and did not conform to the traditional role. Eleanor was very active in many aspects of public life. Before the 1932 presidential election had even began, Eleanor was a volunteer for the Red Cross during WWI and tended to the wounded soldiers.
The media and the public of that decade, were divided in their opinions of how professionally involved a first lady should be. Nevertheless, despite the criticisms she faced, she actively participated with various organisations in order to improve the positions and rights for women, for example, leading organisations like the League of Women Voters and the Women’s Trade Union League. She put pressure to get as many women appointed to governmental positions and held women-only press conferences at the White House. This smart move would result in publishing organisations hiring women as that was the only way they could gain and feature news from the White House. She was a strong advocate for improving both women and black people’s social conditions through her husband’s New Deal programmes.
In 1935, Eleanor began to write in her own newspaper column titled “My Day” which would last until her death in 1962. She was the most published first lady as she consistently wrote six days a week, and it was only in 1961 she published every other day as she became too sick to write. Her articles were popular and she would report her opinions, and addressed issues surrounding war, poverty, racism, and the Civil Rights Movement.
On May 14th, 1956 Eleanor expressed her view on the subject of civil rights.
A few days ago I met Mrs. Rosa Parks, who started the nonviolent protest in Montgomery, Alabama, against segregation on buses. She is a very quiet, gentle person and it is difficult to imagine how she ever could take such a positive and independent stand.
I suppose we must realize that these things do not happen all of a sudden. They grow out of feelings that have been developing over many years. Human beings reach a point when they say: “This is as far as I can go,” and from then on it may be passive resistance, but it will be resistance.
That is what seems to have happened in Montgomery, and perhaps it will happen all over our country wherever we have citizens who do not enjoy complete equality. It may be that this attitude will save us from war and bloodshed and teach those of us who have to learn that there is a point beyond which human beings will not continue to bear injustice.
Certainly, Eleanor’s reflections have provided historians with plentiful documented American social history.
During tumultous times, Franklin Roosevelt had used the radio as a medium to calm the fears of the public whilst speaking to them during his fireside chats. Eleanor had made over 300 appearences and even broadcasted fireside chats herself. She helped to unify the country during the Depression and alerted the nation of the growing threat of World War Two. In 1933, she received 300,000 postcards and letters. She had without a doubt challenged the restrictions that were placed on women as radio broadcasters and political correspondents.
Frequently, Eleanor travelled around the country and became her husband’s “eyes and ears,” observing the conditions she saw and reported back to him about the fears and hopes of the American public. She became active in organisations attempting to bring relief to impoverished workers and to provide youth employment. She also supported groups opposed to racism and publically demonstrated her opposition to discrimination. This was perhaps never better illustrated than when she attended a conference in Alabama in 1938, where blacks and whites were segregated. Boldly and proudly, she deliberately placed her chair between the two groups. Additionally, Eleanor had arranged for the black talented singer Marian Anderson to perform a concert in front of thousands at the Lincoln memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939 who had previously been denied due to her race.
Eleanor’s legacy lies in her outspoken activism, vision for equality and her advocacy of liberal causes. She became a delegate for the United Nations and had a significant involvement as a chairwoman of the committee that penned the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She was key in shaping the document and securing its ratification in 1948.
CONSIDER: How significant was Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in advocating for humanitarian concerns?
Has the role of the First Lady evolved? Have a think about the works of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.