Eleanor Roosevelt’s tireless advocacy for social and economic justice made her one of the most admired women of the 20th century. In her 12 years in the White House alongside her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she engaged in activism and public service far beyond what any other first lady had ever done. And after her husband’s 1945 death, she evolved her mission further onto the international stage.
Her causes were wide-ranging, inclusive—and to some, radical. Against the calamitous backdrop of the Great Depression, Eleanor promoted efforts to curb economic inequality. She vocally rejected racial prejudice and promoted economic empowerment and civil rights for Black Americans. She defended the civil liberties of Japanese Americans her husband ordered incarcerated during WWII. And she vigorously supported the expansion of women’s rights. When she oversaw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the newly formed United Nations—and lobbied delegations to adopt it in 1948—President Harry S. Truman called her “the First Lady of the World.”
Roosevelt’s life and work were filled with paradox. Born an aristocrat, she became a fierce champion for underdogs. Shy and insecure in her youth, she cultivated a ubiquitous national presence on radio, in print and through public appearances. In her highly untraditional marital partnership, she privately helped FDR shape his progressive political agenda, but wasn’t afraid to diverge with him publicly. She wielded an influential disruptive voice while still part of the establishment.
According to her biographer, historian Blanche Wiesen Cook, Roosevelt committed herself to change, especially when it came to the need for tolerance. “We must wipe out, wherever we find it, any feeling of intolerance, of belief that one group can go ahead alone,” the first lady declared in a 1934 speech. “We will go ahead together, or we will all go down together.”
From Privilege to Progressivism
Born in 1884 into wealth and privilege, Roosevelt endured a childhood of pain and loss. Her mother, a beautiful socialite who derided her shy, plain daughter, died when Eleanor was eight. Her toddler brother Elliott died the following year. Soon after, her beloved but troubled father, brother of Theodore Roosevelt, perished after jumping from a third-story balcony in an asylum.
At age 15, her grandmother sent her to Allenswood Academy, a private finishing school outside London. At a time when women had no vote and seldom had a voice or a career, the school fostered confident, educated and independent young women. That radical mission—and unwavering support—gave the solemn and astute Roosevelt crucial tools to blossom.
Soon after returning to New York for her social debut in 1902, Eleanor began engaging with the wider world. She volunteered with progressive women’s groups to teach poor immigrant girls in Manhattan’s Lower East Side settlement houses and to investigate working conditions for women in garment factories. That summer, she met her father’s fifth cousin Franklin, a Harvard student, on a train; after a secret engagement, the two married three years later in New York City. President Theodore Roosevelt, her uncle, walked her down the aisle.
Naturally Shy, Eleanor Grew Vocal
When FDR contracted polio and lost the use of his legs, Eleanor encouraged his ambition to remain in politics. He won election as governor of New York in 1928 and then as president in 1932. Traveling the country and the world as her husband’s eyes and ears, she delved deeply into public and political affairs.
She reported back to FDR on New Deal programs that gave jobs to millions of unemployed people. She broadcast some of her weekly radio shows from these visits, where she also met with citizens.
In a first for first ladies, she held hundreds of her own press conferences. The catch? They were only for women reporters, forcing news outlets to hire more women. In addition to writing for women’s magazines, Roosevelt began a syndicated newspaper column, called “My Day.” It ran six days a week in 1938 for 62 newspapers. By the 1950s, readership grew to 4 million readers in 90 publications.
Her commentary, casual and chatty in tone, ranged widely. She advocated for government aid to retrain unemployed miners in West Virginia and to create more jobs for young people. She pushed for equal pay for women. She shared thoughts on the nuclear bomb and blasted xenophobic attacks on Germans, Jews and Japanese in the U.S.
She Spoke Up for Civil Rights
In a February 1948 column, Roosevelt blasted the “hue and cry” of American segregationists as an “expression of fear” that “injures our leadership in the world.”
“It is because we do not grant civil and economic rights on an equal basis that there is any real reason to fear,” she wrote.
Fifteen years before, she lobbied for a federal anti-lynching bill. But FDR refused to publicly support it because he feared losing southern votes needed for pre-war rearmament. Eleanor continued to push for the bill, drawing criticism to her husband. She recalls him saying, “Well, I can always say I can’t do anything with my wife.”
She spotlighted racial discrimination when she resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution in February 1939 for barring world-renowned Black singer Marian Anderson from performing at its Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.
“You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me…your organization has failed,” Roosevelt wrote to the DAR president.
Wiesen Cook, author of a three-volume biography on Roosevelt, said the hypocrisy of having a segregated U.S. military in a war against Nazis—and their brutal racial supremacy—was not lost on the first lady as she walked miles of hospital corridors on the front lines, holding up bottles of plasma for wounded soldiers.
“Eleanor Roosevelt was reviled by the Dixiecrats [conservative southern democrats], by the conservatives, by members of Congress and by the press because she stood for justice and she stood for civil rights at a time when, even during World War II, the military is segregated, blood plasma is segregated, it’s segregated black and white,” said Wiesen Cook in a 2013 interview. “Everywhere she goes, she is demanding racial justice.”
She Opposed Japanese Internment
Just nine days after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, plunging the U.S. officially into WWII, Eleanor challenged Americans not to succumb to fear. Japanese Americans didn’t suddenly cease to be Americans when those bombs fell, she wrote in a column.
Her husband’s Executive Order 9066, forcing some 117,000 Japanese Americans into incarceration camps, caught Eleanor by surprise. She couldn’t contradict his order. But she tried to mitigate the damage by meeting with and donating funds to civic groups and visiting wounded Japanese American soldiers.
In April 1943, she visited the Gila River camp in Arizona. She reported on the harsh conditions, took pictures with people incarcerated there and expressed sympathy for their plight. Using her media channels, she told the public that the vast majority of Japanese Americans should be released—and spared further discrimination.
If the United States won’t make the Bill of Rights a reality for all citizens, and keep its prejudices about race and religion in check, she wrote, “then we shall have removed from the world, the one real hope for the future on which all humanity must now rely.”
She Championed Human Rights
That thinking guided her crowning achievement: drafting and securing adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As more than 50 countries joined to form the United Nations after World War II, seeking a new international order to maintain collective security and peace, the declaration marked a bold first step.
President Harry S. Truman, FDR’s successor, had appointed Roosevelt to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, in part to get her out of his way in Washington. And other delegation officials, including the secretary of state, saw her as a “mushy, addled symbol (of FDR days), an uneducated widow” who would unfairly draw the media attention, said Allida Black, editor emeritus of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers.
After a good first impression responding to a forceful Soviet speech, she was unanimously appointed to chair the UN Commission on Human Rights. She had no expertise in the law or parliamentary procedures, but her work tackling political and cultural obstacles to gain social justice and women’s rights prepared her for the task.
Black quoted Roosevelt telling the plethora of lawyers at the United Nations that “we cannot debate for three years on where to put a comma.”
“What the world needs now is a vision to withstand the horrors of the Holocaust, the horrors of the bomb, their intractable fear of a return of a worldwide depression and the likelihood that if we fail, there will be another world war,” Roosevelt said.
Her persuasiveness and perseverance advanced the negotiations that articulated that vision. Some 85 working sessions in 60 days, debates until the wee hours, more than 100 one-on-one meetings helped to convince 48 countries (eight abstained) to vote for the declaration on December 10, 1948.
She had given speeches to the U.N. General Assembly, appeared on radio shows across Europe and the Americas to pitch the need for a declaration of human rights that included all men, women and children, regardless of race, creed and individual abilities. Some of her “My Day” columns lobbying for human rights proved so notable, they were published in the Soviet government newspaper Pravda.
“If we observe these rights for ourselves and for others, I think we will find that it is easier in the world to build peace. Because war destroys all human rights and freedoms, so in fighting for those we fight for peace,” she said in one of her speeches.
Her worries about the world and its postwar future are reflected in the last line of her nightly prayers during this time, wrote her son Elliott Roosevelt in his book Mother R.
“Save us from ourselves and show us a vision of a world made new.”