Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was the niece of former US president Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, and First Lady to her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, during his presidency (1933-1945). However, far from being defined by her relations, Eleanor’s work as a humanitarian and United Nations diplomat led to her becoming one of the most powerful and well-respected women in the world during her lifetime, and in her New York Times obituary was posthumously described as “the object of almost universal respect”.
Despite being born into an immensely wealthy and well-connected family, her life was not always a happy one. A difficult childhood followed by an unfaithful marriage were a marked contrast to her ambitious and outspoken work as First Lady of the White House.
Though both praised and criticised for her active role in public policy, Eleanor is chiefly remembered as a figure who fought for social and political change and was one of the first public officials to recognise the power of publicising important issues by using mass media.
Here’s the story of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life and legacy.
She had a difficult childhood
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in Manhattan, New York, in 1884. One of three children, her parents were socialites who were part of New York high society called the ‘swells’. Owing to her serious manner, her mother nicknamed her ‘Granny’, and generally took a dislike to her daughter, in part because of Eleanor’s supposed ‘plainness’.
Her mother died from diphtheria in 1892, followed by her brother Elliot Jr. who died of the same disease half a year later. Her father, to whom Eleanor was close, was an alcoholic, and he died when he had a seizure after he jumped from a window in a sanatorium.
After their parents died, the Roosevelt children were sent to live with relatives. These childhood losses left Eleanor prone to depression for her whole life, and her brother, Hall, also later suffered from alcoholism.
Aged 15, Eleanor attended a girls’ boarding school near London, England. The school awakened her intellectual curiosity and her attendance there was later described by Eleanor as having been three happiest years of her life. She reluctantly returned to New York in 1902 to prepare for her ‘coming out’ into society.
She was unhappily married to Franklin D. Roosevelt
Shortly after Eleanor returned to New York, her distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt began to court her. After a number of family objections, they were married in New York in 1905, but they had their differences: Eleanor was serious and Franklin had a taste for fun.
Between 1906 and 1916, Eleanor and Franklin had six children, one of whom died in infancy. Eleanor later described having sex with her husband as an “ordeal to be borne”. She also considered herself to be ill-suited to motherhood and didn’t much enjoy children.
In 1918, Eleanor discovered a number of love letters from her social secretary Lucy Mercer to Franklin amongst his belongings, which detailed the fact he was considering divorcing Eleanor. However, following political and family pressure, Franklin ended his affair and the couple remained married.
From then on, their union ceased to be intimate, becoming a political partnership rather than a marriage and leading to Eleanor becoming more involved in politics and public life. Throughout their lives, Franklin’s charm and political position drew many women to him, and when Franklin died in 1945, it was Lucy Mercer who was by his side.
Eleanor began to enjoy more political roles
The family moved to Albany after Franklin won a seat in the New York Senate in 1911. There, Eleanor took up the role of political wife, spending the next few years attending formal parties and making social calls, which she found tedious. However, when the US entered World War One in 1917, Eleanor took up and enjoyed volunteering, visiting wounded soldiers, working for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and helping in a Red Cross canteen.
In 1920, Franklin unsuccessfully ran for Democrat vice president. Eleanor decided to support her husband’s political aims, partly because he was stricken with polio in 1921 and also because she wanted to support important political causes herself. She became an active member of the Democratic Party and joined the Women’s Trade Union League. At this time she also started campaigning for women’s rights and became well-read in matters such as voting records and debates.
Franklin became governor of New York in 1929, which allowed Eleanor to enjoy her increased responsibilities as a political figure and more personal independence. When her husband became president in 1932, her responsibilities increased again.