Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962): First Lady, Social Welfare Advocate, Human Rights Leader
By Allida M. Black, Ph.D., Project Director and Editor, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers
Editor’s Note: This biographical entry is an excerpt from “The Life of Eleanor Roosevelt,” a collection found in its entirety at https://erpapers.columbian.gwu.edu/. Republished with permission.
The Early Years
Eleanor Roosevelt was born October 11, 1884 into a family of lineage, wealth, and uncommon sadness. The first child of Anna Hall Roosevelt and Elliott Roosevelt, young Eleanor encountered disappointment early in life. Her father, mourning the death of his mother and fighting constant ill health, turned to alcohol for solace and was absent from home for long periods of time engaged in either business, pleasure or medical treatment. Anna Hall Roosevelt struggled to balance her disillusionment with her husband with her responsibilities toward Eleanor and Eleanor’s younger brother, Hall. As the years passed, the young mother became increasingly disconsolate.
An astute and observant child, Eleanor rarely failed to notice the tension between her parents and the strain that it placed on both of them. By the time she was six, Eleanor assumed some responsibility for her mother’s happiness, recalling later in her autobiography This Is My Story that “…my mother suffered from very bad headaches, and I know now that life must have been hard and bitter and a very great strain on her. I would often sit at the head of her bed and stroke her head . . . for hours on end.”
Yet this intimacy was short lived. Anna Hall Roosevelt, one of New York’s most stunning beauties, increasingly made young Eleanor profoundly self-conscious about her demeanor and appearance, even going so far as to nickname her “Granny” for her “very plain,” “old fashioned,” and serious deportment. Remembering her childhood, Eleanor later wrote, “I was a solemn child without beauty. I seemed like a little old woman entirely lacking in the spontaneous joy and mirth of youth.”
Her mother’s death in 1892 made Eleanor’s devotion to her father all the more intense. Images of a gregarious, larger than life Elliott dominated Eleanor’s memories of him and she longed for the days when he would return home. She adored his playfulness with her and the way he loved her with such uncritical abandon. Indeed, her father’s passion only underscored the isolation she felt when he was absent. Never the dour child in his eyes, Eleanor was instead his “own darling little Nell.” Hopes for a happier family life were dashed however when Elliott Roosevelt died of depression and alcoholism nineteen months later. At the age of ten, Eleanor became an orphan and her grandmother, Mary Hall, became her guardian.
Eleanor’s life with Grandmother Hall was confining and lonesome until Mrs. Hall sent Eleanor to attend Allenswood Academy in London in 1899. There Eleanor began to study under the tutelage of Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre, a bold, articulate woman whose commitment to liberal causes and detailed study of history played a key role in shaping Eleanor’s social and political development. The three years that Eleanor spent at Allenswood were the happiest years of her adolescence. She formed close, lifelong friendships with her classmates; studied language, literature and history; learned to state her opinions on controversial political events clearly and concisely; and spent the summers traveling Europe with her headmistress, who insisted upon seeing both the grandeur and the squalor of the nations they visited. Gradually she gained “confidence and independence” and later marveled that she was “totally without fear in this new phase of my life,” writing in her autobiography “Mlle. Souvestre shocked one into thinking, and that on the whole was very beneficial.” Her headmistress’s influence was so strong that as an Eleanor later described Souvestre was one of the three most important influences on her life.
When Eleanor returned to her family’s West 37th Street home in 1902 to make her debut, she continued to follow the principles that Souvestre instilled in her. While she dutifully obeyed her family’s wishes regarding her social responsibilities, she also joined the National Consumers League and, as a member of the Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements, volunteered as a teacher for the College Settlement on Rivington Street. Her commitment to these activities soon began to attract attention and Eleanor Roosevelt, much to her family’s chagrin, soon became known within New York reform circles as a staunch and dedicated worker. That summer, as she was riding the train home to Tivoli for a visit with her grandmother, Eleanor was startled to find her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), then a student at Harvard, also on the train. This encounter reintroduced the cousins and piqued their interest in one another. After a year of chance meetings, clandestine correspondence, and secret courtship, the two Roosevelt’s became engaged on November 22, 1903. Fearing that they were too young and unprepared for marriage, and believing that her son needed a better, more prominent wife, Franklin’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, planned to separate the couple and demanded that they keep their relationship secret for a year. Sara Roosevelt’s plans did not work, and after a sixteen-month engagement, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt married Franklin Delano Roosevelt on March 17, 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt, who was in town for the St. Patrick’s Day parade, gave the bride, his niece, away. The wedding made the front page of the New York Times……
Beginning Her Public Life
World War I gave ER an acceptable arena in which to challenge existing social restrictions and the connections necessary to expedite reform. Anxious to escape the confines of Washington high society, ER threw herself into wartime relief with a zeal that amazed her family and her colleagues. Her fierce dedication to Navy Relief and the Red Cross canteen not only stunned soldiers and Washington officials but shocked ER as well. She began to realize that she could contribute valuable service to projects that she was interested in and that her energies did not necessarily have to focus on her husband’s political career. “The war,” observed Ruby Black, a friend and early biographer, “pushed Eleanor Roosevelt into the first real work outside her family since she was married twelve years before.”
Emboldened by these experiences, ER began to respond to requests for a more public political role. When a Navy chaplain whom she had met through her Red Cross efforts asked her to visit shell-shocked sailors confined in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the federal government’s facility for the insane, she immediately accepted his invitation. Appalled by the quality of treatment the sailors received, as well as the shortage of aides, supplies and equipment available to all the St. Elizabeth’s patients, ER urged her friend, Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, to visit the facility. When Lane declined to intervene, ER pressured him until he appointed a commission to investigate the institution. “I became,” she wrote, “more determined to try for certain ultimate objectives. I had gained a certain assurance as to my ability to run things, and the knowledge that there is joy in accomplishing good.”
The end of the war did not slow ER’s pace or revise her new perspective on duty and independence. In June 1920, while she was vacationing with her children at Campobello, FDR received the Democratic nomination for Vice-President. Although both her grandmother and mother-in-law strongly believed that “a woman’s place was not in the public eye” and pressured ER to respond to press inquiries through her social secretary, she developed a close working relationship with FDR’s intimate advisor and press liaison, Louis Howe. Invigorated by Howe’s support, ER threw herself into the election and reveled in the routine political decisions that daily confronted the ticket. By the end of the campaign, while other journalists aboard the Roosevelt campaign train played cards, Louis Howe and ER could frequently be found huddled over paperwork, reviewing FDR’s speeches and discussing campaign protocol….
Eleanor Roosevelt and the New Deal
The American press, like the American public, was divided over how professionally active a First Lady should be. Although Eleanor Roosevelt’s pre-inaugural commitments were in the same fields as the positions she held while First Lady of New York, criticism of her commercial radio and journalism contracts increased. Suddenly, ER found herself ridiculed in such diverse publications as The Harvard Lampoon, The Hartford Courant and the Baltimore Sun. By February, the press increasingly interpreted ER’s professionalism as commercialism. “All through January and February and right up until March 2, the day they left for Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to do the things she had always done,” Lorena Hickok recalled. The papers continued to carry stories about her. And some people continued to criticize her. They just could not get used to the idea of her being `plain, ordinary Eleanor Roosevelt.'”
Although Eleanor Roosevelt admitted to her friend that she would “curtail somewhat her activities” because she “supposed she had made some mistakes,” ER refused to abandon the expertise she had worked so diligently to achieve. Aware of the criticism her position would provoke, she argued that she had no choice but to continue. “I’ll just have to go on being myself, as much as I can. I’m just not the sort of person who would be any good at any job. I dare say I shall be criticized, whatever I do.”
Eleanor Roosevelt’s aversion to any other role was so strong that in the week before the inaugural, she impetuously wrote Dickerman and Cook that she contemplated divorcing FDR. She told Hickok, in a quote for the record, that she “hated” having to resign her teaching position at Todhunter, saying “I wonder if you have any idea how I hate to do it.” Increasingly sympathetic to ER’s dilemma and aware of the potential repercussions of such statements, Hickok in her Associated Press piece portrayed ER as upbeat and confident: “The prospective mistress of the White House thinks people are going to get used to her ways, even though she does edit “Babies-Just Babies,” wears $10 dresses, and drives her own car.”
Clearly, when Eleanor Roosevelt entered the White House in March 1933, she did so reluctantly. Although she supported FDR’s aims and believed in his leadership abilities, ER feared that her husband’s political agenda, in addition to restricting her movements and curtailing her personal independence, would force her to minimize the political issues nearest and dearest to her heart. Once FDR won the election, he asked her to resign her positions with the Democratic National Committee, the Todhunter School, the League of Women Voters, the Non-Partisan Legislative Committee and the Women’s Trade Union League. She then announced that she would no longer take part in commercial radio events and that she would refrain from discussing politics in her magazine articles. Though she tried to avoid it, public expectation was redefining her career and it hurt. “If I wanted to be selfish,” she confessed earlier to Hickok, “I could wish that he had not been elected.”
Questions “seethed” in ER’s mind about what she should do after March 4, 1933. Afraid of being confined to a schedule of teas and receptions, ER volunteered to do a “real job” for FDR. She knew that Ettie Rheiner (Mrs. John Nance) Garner served as an administrative assistant to her husband the Vice-President, and ER tried to convince FDR to let her provide the same service. The President rebuffed the First Lady’s offer. Trapped by convention, she begrudgingly recognized that “the work was FDR’s work and the pattern his pattern.” Bitterly disappointed, she acknowledged that she “was one of those who served his purposes.”
Nevertheless, ER refused to accept a superficial and sedentary role. She wanted “to do things on my own, to use my own mind and abilities for my own aims.” She struggled to carve out an active contributory place for herself in the New Deal–-a challenge not easily met. Dejected, she found it “hard to remember that I was not just `Eleanor Roosevelt,’ but the wife of the President.”
Eleanor Roosevelt entered the First Hundred Days of her husband’s administration with no clearly defined role. Her offers to sort FDR’s mail and to act as his “listening post” had been rejected summarily. Moreover, the press continued to pounce on each display of ER’s individualism. When she announced in an inauguration day interview that she planned to cut White House expenses by twenty-five per cent, “simplify” the White House social calendar, and serve as FDR’s “eyes and ears,” reporters discovered ER was just as newsworthy after the inaugural as she was before.
ER’s relations with the press during the spring and summer of 1933 did nothing to curtail their interest. On March 6, two days after her husband became president, Eleanor Roosevelt held her own press conference at which she announced that she would “get together” with women reporters once a week. She asked for their cooperation. She wanted to make the general public more aware of White House activities and to encourage their understanding of the political process. She hoped that the women reporters who covered her would interpret, especially to American women, the basic mechanics of national politics.
Despite her initial intent to focus on her social activities as First Lady, political issues soon became a central part of the weekly briefings. When some women reporters assigned to ER tried to caution her to speak off the record, she responded that she knew some of her statements would “cause unfavorable comment in some quarters . . . but I am making these statements on purpose to arouse controversy and thereby get the topics talked about.”
ER then made the same argument to the public when she accepted an offer for a monthly column from Woman’s Home Companion. Announcing that she would donate her monthly thousand dollar fee to charity, ER then proceed to ask her readers to help her establish “a clearinghouse, a discussion room” for “the particular problems which puzzle you or sadden you” and to share “how you are adjusting yourself to new conditions in this amazing changing world.” Entitling the article “I Want You to Write to Me,” ER reinforced the request throughout the piece. “Do not hesitate,” she wrote, “to write to me even if your views clash with what you believe to be my views.” Only a free exchange of ideas and discussion of problems would help her “learn of experiences which may be helpful to others.” By January 1934, 300,000 Americans had responded to this request.
From her first days in the White House, this desire to remain part of the public propelled ER’s New Deal agenda. She, more often than not, greeted guests at the door of the White House herself; learned to operate the White House elevator; and adamantly refused Secret Service protection. Yet there also were signs that she intended to be a serious contributor to the Roosevelt administration. She converted the Lincoln bedroom into a study and had a telephone installed. She urged FDR to send Hickok out on a national fact-finding tour for the Federal Emergency Relief Association in the summer of 1933. Working closely with Molly Dewson, who replaced ER as chair of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee, she pressured the Administration to appoint women to positions of influence throughout the New Deal programs. The Dewson-ER lobbying effort helped Rose Schneiderman join the NRA Labor Advisory Board, Sue Sheldon White and Emily Newell Blair join the NRA Consumer Advisory Board, and Jo Coffin become assistant public printer. And when the Washington Press Corps refused to admit its women members to its annual Gridiron dinner, ER gleefully threw herself into planning a “Gridiron Widows” banquet and skit for women officials and reporters.
When ER read Hickok’s accounts of the squalid conditions in the West Virginia coal town of Scott’s Run, she was appalled and moved immediately to address the problems. She met with Louis Howe and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to argue that the Subsistence Homestead provision of the National Industrial Recovery Act would help address the community’s problems. She succeeded and became a frequent visitor to the new community, Arthurdale. There she was photographed square dancing with miners in worn clothes and holding sick children in her lap. This image, when linked with her strong commitment to building the best living quarters the funds could provide, served as a lightning rod for critics of the New Deal and they delighted in exposing each cost overrun and each program defect.
While most historians view ER’s commitment to Arthurdale as the best example of her influence within the New Deal, ER did more than champion a single anti-poverty program. Continuously she urged that relief should be as diverse as the constituency which needed it.
“The unemployed are not a strange race. They are like we would be if we had not had a fortunate chance at life,” she wrote in 1933. The distress they encountered, not their socio-economic status, should be the focus of relief. Consequently, she introduced programs for groups not originally included in New Deal plans; supported others which were in danger of elimination or having their funds cut; pushed the hiring of women, blacks, and liberals within federal agencies; and acted as the administration’s most outspoken champion of liberal reform.
Eleanor Roosevelt did not immediately begin to push programs. Rather, as her actions to modify the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Civil Works Administration (CWA) show, she waited to see how the programs FDR’s aides designed were put into operation and then lobbied for improvements or suggested alternatives. When the needs of unemployed women where overlooked by FERA and CWA planners, ER lobbied first to have a women’s divisions established within both agencies and then to have Hilda Worthington Smith and Ellen Sullivan Woodward appointed program directors. She then planned and chaired the White House Conference on the Emergency Needs of Women and monitored the Household Workers’ Training Program which was born during the conference.
ER addressed the problems of unemployed youth with the same fervor she applied to women’s economic hardships. This also was not a politically popular position for her to take. The unemployed youth of the 1930s underscored several fears adults had for society. Conservatives saw disgruntled young people as a fertile ground for revolutionary politics while progressives mourned the disillusionment and apathy spreading among American youth.
ER thought that camps in the Civilian Conservation Corps, while providing temporary relief for some youth, did not meet this need. Furthermore, because the camps were supervised by military personnel and only provided instruction in forestry, ER believed that an additional program tailored to the special needs of youth was urgently needed. In mid-1933, she pressured Harry Hopkins to develop a program for youth which would provide a social, rather than a militaristic, focus. ER argued that the specific problems facing youth needed to be recognized, but only in a way which fostered a sense of self-worth. By providing job skills and education, she hoped that the program would foster a sense of civic awareness which in turn would promote a commitment to social justice. Then youth would be empowered to articulate their own needs and aspirations and to express these insights clearly.
Although historians disagree over how major a role ER played in establishing the National Youth Administration (NYA), her imprint upon the agency’s development is indelible. Established by an executive order signed by FDR on June 26, 1935, the NYA was authorized to administer programs in five areas: work projects, vocational guidance, apprenticeship training, educational and nutritional guidance camps for unemployed women, and student financial aid. Clearly ER’s preference for vocational guidance and education triumphed over the CCC relief model.
Moreover, ER was both the agency’s and youth’s natural choice for confessor, planner, lobbyist, and promoter. She reviewed NYA policy with agency directors, arranged for NYA officials and youth leaders to meet with FDR in and out of the White House, served as NYA’s intermediary with the president, critiqued and suggested projects, and attended as many NYA state administrators conferences as her schedule allowed. Last but not least, she visited at least 112 NYA sites and reported her observations in her speeches, articles and “My Day,” the daily column she began in 1936. ER took such satisfaction in the NYA that when she briefly acknowledged her role in forming the agency, she did so with an uncharacteristic candor. “One of the ideas I agreed to present to Franklin,” she wrote in This I Remember, “was that of setting up a national youth administration. . . . It was one of the occasions on which I was very proud that the right thing was done regardless of political consequences.”
Just as she listened to the concerns of youth, ER also met with unemployed artists and writers to discuss their concerns. When they asked for her support for a Public Works Arts Project (PWAP), she agreed immediately and attended the preliminary planning meeting. Seated at the head table next to Edward Bruce, the meeting’s organizer, ER knitted while she listened to Bruce propose a program to pay artists for creating public art. Advocating a program in which artists could control both form and content, Bruce recruited supporters for federally financed work appropriate for public buildings. Sitting quietly through most of the discussion, ER interrupted only to question procedure and to emphasize her support of the project.
ER became PWAP’s ardent public and private champion. When PWAP artists were sent to Civil Conservation Corps camps in mid-1934 and produced over 200 watercolors, oil paintings, and chalk drawings portraying camp life, ER enthusiastically opened their “Life in the CCC” exhibit at the National Museum. When 500 PWAP artworks were displayed at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery, she dedicated the exhibit and declared that in addition to its artistic merit, the works liberated society greatly by expressing what many people could find no words to describe.
After Bruce was appointed PWAP director, he proposed that artists be eligible for WPA programs. Immediately he solicited ER’s support. She agreed that artists were in need of government aid and supported the WPA venture, in the process entering the internal dispute over whether FERA should fund white collar programs. With the support of FERA administrator Harry Hopkins, ER lobbied FDR to endorse Bruce’s concept. The President agreed, issuing an executive order on June 25, 1935 which created the Federal One Programs of the Works Progress Administration?: the Federal Writers Project?, the Federal Theater Project?, and the Federal Art Project? (formerly PWAP).
Eleanor Roosevelt continued to run administrative interference after the programs were in operation. When Jean Baker, director of the WPA Professional and Service Products Division, gave into pressure from conservatives who wanted to place the program under local control, ER then convinced Hopkins that Baker should be replaced. Hopkins agreed and filled Baker’s post with ER’s close friend, Ellen Woodward.
ER also continued to promote the project despite its increasingly controversial image. When Hallie Flanagan asked for assistance in convincing Congress that the Federal Theater Project was not an heretical attack on American culture, ER agreed on the spot. The First Lady told Flanagan that she would gladly go to the Hill because the time had come when America must recognize that art is controversial and the controversy is an important part of education.
Despite the fervor with which ER campaigned for a more democratic administration of relief through the establishment of women’s divisions, NYA and the three Federal One programs, these efforts paled in comparison to the unceasing pressure she placed upon the president and the nation to confront the economic and political discrimination facing Black America. Although the First Lady did not become an ardent proponent of integration until the 1950s, throughout the thirties and forties she nevertheless persistently labeled racial prejudice as undemocratic and immoral. Black Americans recognized the depth of her commitment and consequently kept faith with FDR because his wife kept faith with them.
ER’s racial policies attracted notice almost immediately. Less than a week after becoming First Lady, she shocked conservative Washington society by announcing she would have an entirely black White House domestic staff. By late summer 1933, photographs appeared showing ER discussing living conditions with black miners in West Virginia, and the press treated her involvement in the anti-lynching campaign as front page news. Rumors of ER’s “race-baiting” actions sped across the South with hurricane force.
ER refused to be intimidated by rumor. She mobilized Cabinet and Congressional wives for a walking tour in Washington’s slum alleys to increase support for housing legislation then before Congress. After being intensively briefed by Walter White, ER toured the Virgin Islands with Lorena Hickok in 1934, investigating conditions for herself only to return agreeing with White’s initial assessments. In 1935, she visited the Howard University’s Freedman Hospital, lobbied Congress for increased appropriations, and praised the institution in her press conferences. FDR’s disapproval kept her from attending the 1934 and 1935 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) annual conventions; however, his cautiousness did not affect her support of the organization. Indeed, she telegraphed her deep disappointment to the delegates. She then joined the local chapters of the NAACP and National Urban League, becoming the first white D.C. resident to respond to the group’s membership drives. And, in contrast to FDR who refrained from actively supporting anti-lynching legislation, a very public ER refused to leave the Senate gallery during the filibuster over the bill.
As the 1936 election approached, Eleanor Roosevelt continued her inspections and finally convinced FDR to let her address the NAACP and National Urban League annual conventions. When The New Yorker published the famous cartoon of miners awaiting her visit, Mrs. Roosevelt aggressively defended her outreach to minorities and the poor in a lengthy article for The Saturday Evening Post. Directly she attacked those who mocked her interest. “In strange and subtle ways,” she began, “it was indicated to me that I should feel ashamed of that cartoon and that there was certainly something the matter with a woman who wanted to see so much and know so much.” She refused to be so limited, she responded to those “blind” critics who refused to be interested in anything outside their own four walls.
The liberal and conservative press gave such action prominent coverage. When ER addressed the National Urban League’s annual convention, NBC radio broadcast the address nationally. When she visited Howard University and was escorted around campus by its Honor Guard, The Georgia Woman’s World printed a picture of ER surrounded by the students on its front page while castigating ER for conduct unbecoming to a president’s wife. Mainstream media such as the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor questioned the extent to which ER would be “a campaign issue.”
ER increased her civil rights activism in her second term as First lady. She continued her outspoken advocacy of anti-lynching legislation, served as an active co-chair of the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax, spoke out in favor of National Sharecropper’s Week, urged Agricultural Adjustment Act administrators to recognize the discriminatory practices of white landowners, pressured FERA administrators to pay black and white workers equal salaries, and invited black guests and entertainers to the White House. With NYA administrator, Mary Mc Leod Bethune, she convened the National Conference of Negro Women at the White House and publicized the agenda the Conference promoted. She also pressured the Resettlement Administration to recognize that black sharecroppers’ problems deserved their attention and lent her active endorsement to the Southern Conference on Human Welfare (SCHW).
Often the public stances ER took were more effective than the lobbying she did behind the scenes. When ER entered the SCHW’s 1938 convention in Birmingham, Alabama, police officers told her that she would not be allowed to sit with Bethune, because a city ordinance outlawed integrated seating. ER then requested a chair and placed it squarely between the aisles, highlighting her displeasure with Jim Crow policies. In February 1939, ER resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution when the organization refused to rent its auditorium to the internationally known black contralto, Marian Anderson. ER then announced her decision in her newspaper column, thereby transforming a local act into a national disgrace. When Howard University students picketed lunch stands near the university which denied them service, ER praised their courage and sent them money to continue their public education programs. And when A. Philip Randolph and other civil rights leaders threatened to march on Washington unless FDR acted to outlaw discrimination in defense industries, ER took their demands to the White House.
By the early forties Eleanor Roosevelt firmly believed the civil rights issue to be the real litmus test for American democracy. Thus she declared over and over again throughout the war that there could be no democracy in the United States that did not include democracy for blacks. In The “Moral Basis of Democracy” she asserted that people of all races have inviolate rights to property. “We have never been willing to face this problem, to line it up with the basic, underlying beliefs in Democracy.” Racial prejudice enslaved blacks; consequently, “no one can claim that . . . the Negroes of this country are free.” She continued this theme in a 1942 article in the New Republic, declaring that both the private and the public sector must acknowledge that “one of the main destroyers of freedom is our attitude toward the colored race.” “What Kipling called `The White Man’s Burden’,” she proclaimed in The American Magazine, is “one of the things we can not have any longer.” Furthermore, she told those listening to the radio broadcast of the 1945 National Democratic forum, “democracy may grow or fade as we face this problem.”
Eleanor Roosevelt died November 7, 1962 in a New York City hospital at the age of seventy-eight. She is buried next to her husband in the rose garden on the family estate in Hyde Park, New York.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Black, A. M. (2010). Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962): First lady, social welfare advocate, human rights leader. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/eleanor-roosevelt/