Eleanor Roosevelt was initially reluctant to step into the role of first lady, fearful about losing her hard-won autonomy and knowing she would have to give up her Todhunter teaching job and other activities and organizations she cared about. However, after Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in as president in March 1933, Eleanor began to transform the conventional role of first lady from social hostess to that of a more visible, active participant in her husband’s administration.
The Roosevelts entered the White House in the midst of the Great Depression (which began in 1929 and lasted approximately a decade), and the president and Congress soon implemented a series of economic recovery initiatives known as the New Deal. As first lady, Eleanor traveled across the United States, acting as her husband’s eyes and ears and reporting back to him after she visited government institutions and programs and numerous other facilities. She was an early champion of civil rights for African Americans, as well as an advocate for women, American workers, the poor and young people. She also supported government-funded programs for artists and writers. Roosevelt encouraged her husband to appoint more women to federal positions, and she held hundreds of press conferences for female reporters only at a time when women were typically barred from White House press conferences. Additionally, Roosevelt wrote a syndicated newspaper column entitled “My Day” from December 1935 until shortly before her death in 1962. She used the column to share information about her activities and communicate her positions on a wide range of social and political issues.
During World War II (1939-1945), Roosevelt advocated on behalf of European refugees who wanted to come to the United States. She also promoted issues that were important to American troops, worked to boost soldiers’ morale, encouraged volunteerism on the home front and championed women employed in the defense industry. She also pushed for the continuation of New Deal programs during the war, against the wishes of some of her husband’s advisors.
The Roosevelts had one of the most notable political partnerships in American history, as well as a complex personal relationship. Early on in their marriage, in 1918, Eleanor discovered her husband was having an affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer (1891-1948). Eleanor offered Franklin a divorce; however, he chose to stay in the marriage for various reasons, including the fact that divorce carried a social stigma and would have hurt his political career. Experts have suggested that Roosevelt’s infidelity prompted Eleanor to become increasingly independent and further devote herself to political and social causes. Although Franklin Roosevelt agreed never to see Mercer again, the two resumed contact, and she was with the president in Warm Springs, Georgia, when he died from a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, at age 63. The previous November, Roosevelt had been elected to an unprecedented fourth term as president.