Biography for Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt was the first wife of a president to use her unique position to fight for the rights of minorities, women, and the destitute. After her husband died, she expanded her responsibilities, playing an important role in the fledgling United Nations. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884 in New York City, a niece of Theodore Roosevelt. Although her wealthy background assured her social position and her attendance at the best private schools provided her with ample training, she had a difficult childhood with an unsympathetic mother and an alcoholic father. Her parents died when she was very young, leaving her to be raised by a strict grandmother. The young Roosevelt considered herself unattractive and never acquired an arrogant upper-class demeanor. Shy instead of coy, clumsy instead of poised, she was just as surprised as everyone else when her dashing, handsome, distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed marriage. At the time, eschewing the life of privilege and ease, Eleanor was doing volunteer social work among New York City's poor. For 14 years after their marriage, until 1919, Roosevelt dutifully suffered domination by Franklin's mother, Sara, bore six children, and fulfilled the traditional social obligations of a wealthy politician's wife. The discovery at the end of World War I that her husband loved another woman prompted Roosevelt to establish an identity of her own. Instead of devoting an afternoon a week to aid the less fortunate, she made it a full-time career. She also became active in women's affairs and the Democratic Party. When Franklin was stricken later that year with polio, she helped him to continue his political career by taking over some of his tasks. Franklin returned to active political life in 1928 and won election as governor of New York, and Roosevelt resumed her own growing public life. After her husband's election as president in 1932, Roosevelt refused to live only in Franklin's shadow. She worked in the slums, visited workers in mines and factories, held press conferences, and wrote a newspaper column. Strongly committed to civil equality for African Americans, she was often the only person close to the White House who was willing to speak up on the issue. When her sometimes controversial statements and behavior on behalf of the less fortunate worried his aides, Franklin smiled and replied, "I can always say, I can't do a thing with my wife." Although despised by some for her outspokenness, Roosevelt was admired and loved by many more for her tireless efforts to encourage social reform for African Americans, women, youth, and the poor. In 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let Marian Anderson, an African-American singer, perform in Washington's Constitution Hall, Roosevelt resigned from the organization. Then she helped arrange for Anderson to give a triumphant outdoor concert on federal property at the Lincoln Memorial. Roosevelt's frequent trips across the country enabled her to learn the mood of the public. She became a major domestic policy adviser in her husband's administration. As one New Deal aide recalled, "No one who ever saw Eleanor Roosevelt sit down facing her husband, and holding his eye firmly, say to him, 'Franklin, I think you should . . .' ever forgot the experience." She served briefly as codirector of the Office of Civilian Defense in 1941 and played a major role in Franklin's selection of Frances Perkins as secretary of labor, the first woman to hold a Cabinet-level position. During World War II, Roosevelt visited troops in the United States, England, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific. After Franklin's death in 1945, she continued her public life, writing her newspaper column, serving as a delegate until 1952 to the United Nations (where she was instrumental in drafting the Declaration of Human Rights), and working with emotionally disturbed children. She supported reform Democrats in New York and worked for Adlai Stevenson in his campaigns for president in 1952 and 1956. President John F. Kennedy reappointed her to the United Nations in 1961, the year before she died on November 7, 1962.