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Best known as America’s most influential First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 7, 1962) also earned a reputation as a champion and leader of education. Born Anna Eleanor Roosevelt in New York City into the powerful Roosevelt family, she was the daughter of Elliott Roosevelt, a brother of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), and Anna Hall, a descendant of the Livingston family who played an early role in statehood for New York. She was called Eleanor from her youngest years—her actual first name of Anna rarely used by family or friends.

Eleanor’s mother Anna died of diphtheria in 1892 when Eleanor was only eight years old. Her father, a troubled alcoholic, earned the disdain of his fellow Roosevelt clan, and died two years later in 1894 when Eleanor was just 10. In the years that followed, she was raised in New York City primarily by her maternal grandmother, “Granny” Hall.

Educated by private tutors in her wealthy grandmother’s home, at age 15 Eleanor was enrolled at the Allenswood Academy, a finishing school outside London, England. Teachers and the headmaster there took special interest in the “orphaned” Eleanor and exposed her to the literary, artistic, musical, and political offerings of the world. Allenswood was the last of her formal educational pursuits, however.

At age 18, Eleanor returned to New York City and worked as a social worker on the city’s struggling east side, and also taught dance and literature classes for the poor at a settlement house. It was during this time she met again her “sixth cousin, once removed,” whom she had known as a child. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) was only two years older than Eleanor and was then a junior at Harvard University. Despite family protests to their emerging courtship and attempts to keep them apart, Eleanor and Franklin were married at “Granny” Hall’s New York home on March 17, 1905. Because Eleanor was given away at her wedding by her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt, the wedding ceremony earned national media coverage.

The marriage of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt would produce six children—one daughter and five sons: Anna (1906–1975); James (1907–1991); Franklin Delano, Jr. (died at three months of age in 1909 from complications related to pneumonia); Elliott (1910–1990); Franklin Delano, Jr. (1914–1988); and John (1916–1981).

As their family grew, so did Franklin’s interest in politics, just five years into their marriage winning a seat as a New York State Senator. Three years later, Franklin won appointment from President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and the Roosevelts relocated from New York to Washington, DC. It was during this period that Eleanor gained notice as an active and dedicated volunteer for the American Red Cross for her service to soldiers and their families impacted by the ongoing ravages of World War I. Though marital strife grew, fueled by Franklin’s alleged extra-marital affairs, Eleanor and Franklin remained married, and Franklin was named the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1920 (the same year women won the right to vote—a cause heavily supported by Eleanor). The Democrats lost the election, and the Roosevelts returned to New York.

Eleanor’s role as leader of her family presented a tremendous challenge in 1921 when Franklin contracted polio and eventually lost all use of his legs. Isolated until about 1924, Franklin and Eleanor appeared jointly at the Democratic National Convention (Eleanor and others having convinced Franklin that his paralysis did not mean the end of his political career). During that convention, held up by crutches and Eleanor, FDR delivered a rousing nomination speech for the Democratic Presidential nominee, Governor Alfred E. Smith (1873–1944) of New York.

In 1926, Eleanor’s growing responsibilities in the Roosevelt family were obvious to all, as she frequently served as Franklin’s political surrogate across the state of New York and helped found a furniture factory in Val-Kill, NY, to aid unemployed craftsmen. In 1927, Eleanor joined her friend Marion Dickerman (1890–1983) in purchasing the Todhunter School, a private school for girls. Eleanor was actively involved in the school, serving as both assistant principal and as a teacher in the subjects of history and government.

By 1928, FDR’s comeback was complete when he won election as Governor of New York. The Roosevelts split their time between Albany and New York City, with Eleanor again serving as the Governor’s representative. Her duties included inspecting and visiting state-run institutions, including educational institutions for the impoverished and people with disabilities. FDR won a second term as Governor in 1930 and set his sights on the Presidency (which he won in 1932, the first of an unprecedented and unmatched four terms).

Eleanor Roosevelt transformed the role of First Lady, meeting with reporters and other dignitaries on her own schedule, and publishing a nationwide newspaper column titled, “My Day.”

Her political interests remained closely tied to educational and economic opportunities for all of America’s youth. In the depths of the Great Depression, she persuaded FDR to back the formation of the National Youth Administration that provided millions of students with financial aid to attend high school, college or graduate school, and job training schools.

Because of her well-known interests in education, she became, as author Robert Cohen noted, a great “champion” for impoverished young Americans. “As First Lady, Mrs. Roosevelt used her newspaper columns and radio broadcasts to crusade for expanded federal aid to poor children and teens. She was the most visible spokesperson for the National Youth Administration, the New Deal’s central agency for aiding needy youths, and she was adamant in insisting that federal aid to young people be administered without discrimination so that it reach blacks as well as whites, girls as well as boys” (Cohen 2002).

Eleanor also championed and remained active with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Council of Negro Women, the Southern Tenant Farmers Association, the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, and the Daughters of the American Revolution (though she later parted with DAR because of her positions related to civil rights). In 1941, FDR appointed her to head the Office of Civilian Defense, a capacity which would take her not only across the country, but across the globe. In 1942, she became the first First Lady to travel abroad alone, meeting with troops stationed in the Atlantic and the South Pacific. She also successfully lobbied her husband and the Congress to provide the first ever known funds for child care services for working parents.

Her role as First Lady ended with the death of Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. He was 63 years of age. Eleanor was in Washington, DC, at the time of FDR’s death in Warm Springs, Georgia, but she went to Georgia and accompanied his body back to Washington. Before departing for Georgia, however, she attended the swearing-in ceremony of Vice President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) as the nation’s 33rd President. President Truman later appointed her as America’s first delegate to the United Nations when it was formed in December 1945. She later also chaired the UN’s Human Rights Commission, which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Eleanor remained active in the Democratic Party, actively campaigning for Senator Adlai Stevenson, II (1900–1965) in his two unsuccessful bids for the Presidency against Republican victor Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969). She also actively campaigned for a young Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, Jr. (1917–1963), as he successfully sought the Presidency in 1960 (but only after it was clear Stevenson’s third try at the nomination was not going to succeed).

It was President Kennedy who shared with the nation the news of Eleanor’s death on November 7, 1962, as she succumbed after a long battle with bone marrow tuberculosis. She was 78.

Eleanor was buried next to FDR at Hyde Park, New York. The Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is located at Hyde Park, as is a National Park Service site dedicated to Eleanor at her beloved Val-Kill, NY, retreat. Val-Kill is home to the Eleanor Roosevelt Center that hosts the annual Girls Leadership Workshop for teenage American girls from across the nation.

In 1964, the Roosevelt Campobello International Park on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, was established as a 2,800-acre public facility as a result of a gift of Eleanor’s estate. A statute memorial was also erected in Riverside Park in New York City to honor Eleanor’s life. In 1963, her face was placed on the 5-cent stamp by the U.S. Postal Service. During her lifetime, she received 48 honorary degrees, the last coming just months before she died.

Upon her death, Stevenson remarked, “The world has lost one of its great citizens. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt is dead, and a cherished friend of all mankind is gone. What other single human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many? She was a woman who would rather light a candle than curse the darkness” (Lash 1971). Contributed by Andrew E. Stoner, Managing Editor, The Educational Forum

Cohen, R. 2002. Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from children of the Great Depression. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Kearns Goodwin, D. 1994. No ordinary time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the homefront in World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Lash, J. P. 1971. Eleanor and Franklin: The story of their relationship based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s private papers. New York: Signet Press.
Roosevelt, E. 1961. This is my story: The autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt. New York: Doubleday.

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