Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born October 11, 1884, the first of three children of Anna Livingston Hall and Elliott Roosevelt. Her childhood was complicated, painful, and demanding. Her younger brother Elliott died in infancy. Her father, whose brother was President Theodore Roosevelt, battled addictions to alcohol and morphine and her mother, tormented by her husband's behavior, often emphasized what she saw as young Eleanor's shortcomings. Both parents would die before ER's eleventh birthday. Mary Livingston Hall, ER's maternal grandmother, took ER and her younger brother Hall into her Tivoli, New York home, where they also confronted alcoholism and intense sadness.
ER's education was sporadic. When her two aunts realized that seven-year-old ER could not read, they insisted her mother hire a tutor. When ER moved into her grandmother's home, she joined the classes tutors led for her cousins. At the urging of her aunts, who were troubled by ER's painful shyness and perhaps worried about the eventual return of rowdy relatives to the Hall home, Grandmother Hall sent fifteen-year-old ER to Allenswood Academy, a private school for young women outside London. ER adored headmistress Marie Souvestre whose "liberal mind and strong personality" spurred ER to believe in herself, study, and act upon her convictions. Reluctant to leave Allenswood (which ER described as the place where she spent "the happiest years of my life"), ER returned to New York in 1901 to fulfill family obligations and make her debut.
Early married life: Soon after her return, ER volunteered to work in the Rivington Street Settlement and joined the National Consumers League, where she met its president, Florence Kelley. She also became reacquainted with Franklin D. Roosevelt, her fifth cousin once removed, and soon the cousins began an intense courtship. They became secretly engaged, deferring to FDR's mother, who was concerned they were too young and worried that ER might not be the right match for her son. On March 17, 1905, ER, escorted down the aisle by her uncle the president, married FDR. Within ten years, she gave birth to six children, one of whom lived only a few days.
Woodrow Wilson appointed FDR assistant secretary of the navy in 1913 and the Roosevelts moved to Washington. ER, while happy for her husband, sadly but dutifully filled the social responsibilities his position now required of her. The trauma of World War I encouraged ER to spend more of her time helping coordinate community responses to veterans' concerns and addressing other pressing social problems of concern to Washingtonians. In the process, she found her own political voice.
On the campaign trail: In 1920, ER joined FDR, now the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, on the campaign trail, where she grew closer to FDR's political mentor, Louis Howe. The Roosevelts returned to New York after the Cox-Roosevelt ticket was defeated and ER quickly returned to her own political interests. She joined the National Women's Trade Union League and sixteen other women's organizations dedicated to social and political reform. Dreading "a winter of four days in New York with nothing but teas and luncheons and dinners to take up [her] time," ER "mapped out a schedule" in which she spent Monday through Thursday in New York City and the weekend in Hyde Park. She declined invitations to sit on the boards of organizations that wanted to exploit her name, opting instead to join the Women's City Club, the National Consumers League, the Women's Division of the Democratic State Committee, and the New York chapters of the League of Women Voters and the Women's Trade Union League. In 1921, when polio attacked FDR, ER, at his and Howe's instructions, moved from being a behind-the-scenes organizer to a public advocate. By 1924, she had developed a political reputation of her own as chair of the League of Women Voters Legislative Affairs Committee, co-chair of the Bok Peace Prize Committee, and editor of the Women's Democratic News. In 1928, when FDR successfully ran for governor of New York, she helped coordinate the national women's voter effort for Al Smith's presidential campaign. When FDR became governor in 1929, she taught government and literature at the Todhunter School for Girls, publicized Val-Kill Industries, and continued her political work, though doing so in a much more discreet manner.
As First Lady of New York: In her four years in Albany, ER divided her time between New York City, where she continued to teach at Todhunter and to work covertly for the Democratic state and national committees, and the state capital, where she urged the appointment of women to state agencies and mediated disputes between FDR's key aides. She worked with Nancy Cook and Caroline O'Day to organize women voters in upstate New York and continued to address audiences statewide on progressives issues, women in government and the responsibilities of citizenship. ER was perhaps more involved in the 1932 election than in any other election in which FDR was a candidate. She worked with campaign biographers to create an image of FDR that would interest voters across the country. She worked closely with campaign managers Jim Farley and Louis Howe and worked hard to keep their relationship smooth. ER worked very closely with Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee chair Molly Dewson behind the scenes to organize women voters across the country, register new voters, and prepare campaign materials tailored to women. Because FDR did not travel extensively while he was still governor, she traveled for him, often driving herself. She reported back to him on campaign operations and conditions across the state. When FDR won the Democratic presidential nomination, ER kept her eye on FDR's team while she campaigned for Herbert Lehman, the Democratic candidate for governor of New York.
The White House Years: Although she worried at first that her life as First Lady would end her freedom to speak out and act for the causes she cared so deeply about, ER soon found ways of exerting her influence in her new role. She began holding press conferences open only to women reporters. She worked successfully with Molly Dewson to increase the number of women appointments in the Roosevelt Administration. She argued that women should be able to hold their jobs even if their husbands' were employed and made sure there were relief programs for women ("She-She-She Camps") as well as for men. She pressed for the creation of youth programs, encouraging the establishment of the National Youth Administration. She befriended the black leaders Mary McLeod Bethune and Walter White, became a champion of civil rights, lobbied against the poll tax, supported the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, and pushed for the inclusion of blacks in government programs. Housing became one of her special concerns and she worked with the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration and the Washington Housing Authority to support planned communities ("greenbelt towns") and slum clearance projects. She enthusiastically supported federal aid to the arts, played a key role in establishing the Federal Arts Projects, and defended it against congressional attacks. She took a special interest in the communities built by the Roosevelt Administration for displaced workers, particularly the one at Arthurdale, West Virginia, which she visited frequently. A strong supporter of workers' rights, she lobbied for the National Labor Relations Act, championed the concept of a living wage, and urged the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. She visited coal mines, migrant camps, and the homes of sharecroppers and slum-dwellers. She inspected government programs and projects. Through her travels throughout the country and the heavy volume of mail she received from people desperately seeking help, she placed herself more personally and directly in touch with the conditions under which people lived during the Depression than any member of FDR's administration. She employed this knowledge in her articles, speeches, radio talks, and the "My Day" column she began writing six days a week in 1936, urging the adoption of measures to address the needs of the American people. She sent some of the letters she received from people seeking help to government officials with a note asking if something could be done. She reported to FDR on conditions during the Depression, on the success or failure of New Deal programs, passed on letters asking for help, lobbied for specific policy initiatives, and urged him to act. During World War II, she focused on assisting refugees, promoting civil defense (including a short tenure as co-chair of the Office of Civilian Defense), encouraging women to work in the defense industries, championing the Fair Employment Practices Commission and African American military personnel, addressing home front crises, and boosting soldiers' morale.
On Her Own: FDR's death did not take the political spotlight off ER. From December 1945 until January 1953, she served as a member of the American delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, where she played essential roles in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in addressing the concerns of refugees, and in the creation of Israel. She served on the boards of directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other organizations dedicated to racial justice. She helped found Americans for Democratic Action, volunteered for the American Association for the United Nations, worked closely with organized labor, and campaigned for Democratic candidates on the local, state and national level. She continued her column "My Day" and became a more prolific writer, publishing sixteen books, including discussions about the value of the United Nations for adults and juveniles, two autobiographical volumes, India and the Awakening East, and Tomorrow is Now. She crisscrossed the country giving approximately seventy lectures a year and visited heads of state in Europe, the Middle East, and the Soviet Union. In 1959, she testified before Congress on the plight of migrant farm workers. In 1960, she co-chaired the Draft Stevenson Committee. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed her to the advisory committee to the Peace Corps, asked her to co-chair Tractors for Freedom Committee with Walter Reuther, and named her chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, a position she held until her death November 7, 1962.
Sources: Allida Black, Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), passim; Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, vol. 2, 1933-1938 (New York: Viking, 1999), passim; and Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971), passim.
Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .
For more information, visit The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers home page at https://erpapers.columbian.gwu.edu/.
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