Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11 1884. A descendant of the Oyster Bay branch of the Roosevelt family, her father Elliott was the brother of Theodore Roosevelt, who became President of the United States in 1901. The Roosevelts had long been an integral part of the history and social structure of New York, and her mother, Anna Hall, was a descendent of the Ludlows and the Livingstons -- the Ludows were a wealthy mercantile family in New York City, while the Livingstons were landed gentry of the Hudson River Valley.
Anna Hall, a renowned society beauty died in 1892. Anna referred to Eleanor as "Granny" and reinforced Eleanor's belief that she was plain, shy and lacking in the necessary social graces. Eleanor, a child of eight, went to live with her stern Grandmother Hall in Tivoli, NY. Just two years later word came that her adored father Elliott, an uncontrolled alcoholic, had died. With the death of her father Eleanor's world had changed, for up untill then all her best memories had been associated with her father.
The family decided that Eleanor would be sent to attend Allenswood, a private boarding school for girls in South Fields, England, not far from London. During her stay at Allenswood, she blossomed intellectually and socially. She formed a strong friendship with the Headmistress, Madame Marie Souvestre, accompanying her on trips throughout Europe. Madame Souvestre trusted Eleanor with the travel arrangements and helped foster her sense of independence and adventure. It was with considerable reluctance that Eleanor returned to America.
Marriage to FDR
As a young woman living in New York City, Eleanor became interested in the Junior League, an organization then in its formative years. Her involvement in the Junior League led to her teaching calisthenics and dancing at the Rivington Street Settlement House. Later she would be the person to introduce Franklin Roosevelt to the world of settlement houses and tenements. FDR, sheltered in Hyde Park and at private schools and colleges, had no idea how hard life was for so many people. In the autumn of 1903, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Eleanor's fifth cousin once removed) asked to marry her. She accepted and the wedding was held on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1905. In November of 1904 Eleanor's uncle Theodore had written to Franklin: "I am as fond of Eleanor as if she were my daughter...You and Eleanor are true and brave, and I believe you love each other unselfishly...May all good fortune attend you both." Theodore became the guest of honor at the wedding and filled in the role of Eleanor's father. The following summer she and Franklin left for an extended honeymoon in Europe.
As the wife of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, she was active in the Red Cross canteen activities in Washington and was an organizer of the Navy Red Cross during the years of World War I. A post war trip to Europe made a profound impression and fostered feelings and beliefs that would be evident in her later years. In her autobiography she notes "the picture of desolation fostered in me an undying hate of war.... The conviction of the uselessness of war as a means of finding any final solution to international difficulties grew stronger and stronger...."
After the trauma of Franklin's polio attack in 1921, Eleanor and her husband's political advisor, Louis Howe, worked hard to bring Franklin back into the mainstream of American political life. Against the wishes of Franklin's mother Sara, they succeeded. The 1920s became a time in which Eleanor became a successful political organizer and Franklin's link to the world of politics. She made sure that Franklin met important officials, and less important people whose views Franklin should hear. At the urging of Louis Howe, she became involved in political organizations — as an editor of the Women's Democratic News and later as chairperson of the Women's Platform Committee of the National Democratic Party.
It was also during the early part of the twenties decade that she met Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook. Nancy Cook was the chairperson of the Women's Division of the State Democratic Party, while Marion Dickerman taught at Trenton State College and worked with the Foreign Policy Association. For the next few years the three were close friends, sharing an abiding interest in social issues and the role of women in political affairs.
In 1925 the three friends, with the assistance of Franklin, built the Cottage at Val-Kill, two miles from the big house at Springwood. The building of furniture for the cottage, under Nancy Cook's guidance, eventually led to the establishment of Val-Kill Industries with weaving and other handiwork in addition to the furniture. The factory lasted only nine years — closing due to the fact that Nancy Cook found that holding two jobs was too much for her. After the closing of the factory, that building became Eleanor's year-round home until her death.
In 1927 Eleanor began teaching at Todhunter School, where Marion Dickerman served as Principal. Ever mindful of the inequalities in our society, Eleanor took her students to see the tenements that existed in New York, as well as the markets, courts, police line-ups, and other places of interest.
A Public Life
With the election of Franklin to the Presidency in 1932, Eleanor assumed another role — that of first lady. The scope of the job was tremendous. Eleanor entertained thousands of guests at the White House, in the belief that the awareness of what people are doing and thinking and saying was essential to the president. Mrs. Roosevelt was more than FDR's "eyes and ears," she was also his conscience.
Her concern for social justice, equality and fairness were learned at first hand. Often in the face of considerable personal danger, she traveled through the segregated South, defended the rights of minorities, spoke out when she saw injustice. Later, during World War II, She also visited war-torn Britain, investigated housing and working conditions in depressed areas, made a trip to the Pacific and Southeast Asia in her Red Cross uniform, and a final trip through the Caribbean. Everywhere she championed the civil rights of minorities, encouraged women to enter the workforce, and combated forces that prevented good housing and widespread employment. After Eleanor Roosevelt, the role of the first lady would be forever redefined. At the same time Eleanor Roosevelt wrote prolifically, her nationally syndicated newspaper column "My Day" ran six days a week from 1935 to 1962, the only interruption being the four days she took off in 1945 when FDR died. My Day and her many books displayed her knowledge and concern for social issues, current affairs, and international peace.
An International Leader
Not long before he died in April, 1945, as President Roosevelt addressed Congress after his return from Yalta, he declared: "the structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man or one party, or one nation. It must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world." Eleanor Roosevelt was uniquely qualified to continue that hope of bringing peace to the world.
In December of 1945 President Truman asked Mrs. Roosevelt to serve as a member of the United Nations delegation from the United States to the first organizing meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in London, beginning in January 1946. Eventually she was chosen chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights. Under her direction and guidance the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted and adopted on December 10, 1948. In this manifesto the United Nations affirmed their faith in the dignity and worth of individual human beings and the equal rights of men and women. She was later to say, "...it was my work on the Human Rights Commission that I considered my most important work."
Over the course of her life, Eleanor authored many books and was in high demand as a public speaker. In her autobiography Mrs. Roosevelt noted "I had long since become aware of my overall objective in life.... I wanted, with all my heart, a peaceful world.... It is to these ends that I have, in the main, devoted the past years."
Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962 and was buried in Hyde Park next to her husband. Her contributions to the cause of peace and the welfare of people was expressed clearly by Adlai Stevenson, former Ambassador to the United Nations, at the time of her death:
"What other human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many?...She walked in the slums of the world, not on a tour of inspection...but as one who could not feel contentment when others were hungry. Her glow warmed the world...she embodied the vision and the will to achieve a world in which all men can walk in peace and dignity."