Eleanor Roosevelt broke the mold of what a First Lady could be

A fierce advocate for the downtrodden during her husband’s presidency, Roosevelt spent her later years pushing for human rights—pioneering work that still resounds today.

Eleanor Roosevelt's groundbreaking role as First Lady—advocating for refugees during World War II and pushing for policies to help the poor—set the stage for her later humanitarian work as a delegate to the United Nations. Here, she addresses the UN General Assembly in 1947.
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On the evening of April 20, 1933, a plane took off from a Washington, D.C. runway. Its precious cargo included two women in evening dresses, fur coats, and elbow-length gloves they had worn to a formal White House dinner just hours before. Now, pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt were flying into the night sky.

The impulsive flight had come about when the two friends discussed Earhart’s fascination with flying at night. So they gathered a group of reporters, Earhart’s husband George Putnam, and Roosevelt’s brother, Hall Roosevelt, to take an impromptu flight to Baltimore. During the flight, Roosevelt spent time in the cockpit with Earhart and the plane’s captain, reveling in the novel view of the night sky. She even considered becoming a pilot herself, but her husband objected.

Eleanor Roosevelt had become First Lady just one month prior as her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed the presidency of the United States. But she had already been pushing boundaries for years. The daring First Lady would break the mold many more times throughout a lifetime of public service—one who redefined what a president’s wife could do for her country and who became a beloved figure for a nation fighting the Great Depression and the Second World War.

An early life of privilege and public service

Anna Elizabeth Roosevelt was born in 1884 to a prestigious family: Her father’s brother was President Theodore Roosevelt, and she grew up in a world of wealth and privilege in New York. But Eleanor’s childhood was marked by tragedy: Her mother died of diphtheria when she was seven and her father, an alcoholic, died when she was nine, shortly after a suicide attempt brought on by delirium tremens. Eleanor was raised by her maternal grandmother, who kept her relatively isolated and fed her shyness and insecurity with strict discipline and exacting standards.

But education brought a teenaged Eleanor out of her shell and pointed toward a promising future. At a finishing school in England at the turn of the century, she learned social ease and independence. The school’s beloved headmistress, Marie Souvestre, instilled Eleanor with a sense of her duties to others. After making her social debut, she began to volunteer at the Rivington Street Settlement House in New York, where she worked as a teacher.

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In 1902, a chance encounter with her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, led to a secret romance. The young couple married in 1905; Eleanor’s uncle, Teddy Roosevelt, gave her away at the altar. As a young wife and future mother of six children, Eleanor became half of an unconventional marriage that would last four decades.

An unorthodox marriage

The marriage was happy, but Eleanor was devastated when she discovered her husband’s affair with another woman in 1918. The couple almost divorced, but Franklin’s promising political career and his mother’s disapproval of the marriage’s dissolution prevented it. The couple’s friendly, supportive relationship continued, but the marriage was never the same. The partnership became, in the words of their son James, “an armed truce that endured until the day [Franklin] died.”

Another strain on the Roosevelts’ partnership was polio, which struck Franklin in 1921. The disease paralyzed his legs, and it took years to rehabilitate; though he eventually learned to walk short distances, he would need a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Disability was stigmatized at the time and he avoided being photographed in his wheelchair.

Eleanor encouraged her husband to pursue politics despite public stigma and remained supportive of his political career as his political star—and her profile—rose. But as a young wife whose husband had political aspirations, Eleanor was not entirely resigned to her role as her husband’s helpmate; she was ambiguous about sex and motherhood and determined to contribute to the world.

As he climbed from state senator to governor of New York and U.S. vice president, Eleanor found a sense of worth and purpose in the social causes that would propel her through the remainder of her life. She advocated for soldiers during World War I and later purchased a private girls’ school with two friends, where she served as associate principal. She also worked for the Democratic Party and the League of Women’s Voters and founded Val-Kill Industries, where local farmers supplemented their incomes by creating furniture and home goods.

A new kind of First Lady

But everything changed when Franklin won the presidency in 1932—the first of what would become a record-setting four terms. The presidency was a triumph for Franklin—and a tragedy for Eleanor, who reluctantly resigned from positions the administration felt to be a conflict of interest.

This was deeply frustrating to Eleanor, who was maddened by the traditional function of First Ladies as ornamental hostesses. “I knew what traditionally would lie before me,” she said later, “and I cannot say I was very pleased with the prospect. The turmoil in my heart and mind was rather great [the night of FDR’s election].”

And so, she decided to forge a new role all her own.

As First Lady during the Great Depression in the 1930s, Eleanor pushed for policies that would help women, children, and the poor cope with the unprecedented economic downturn, including expanded New Deal programs. She also pushed for more jobs for women in the White House and forged connections with the press corps, instituting press conferences for women reporters and offering in-depth access to Lorena Hickok.

The reporter, whom she called “Hick,” became a friend and mentor, and the pair developed a 30-year-long relationship that flew under the radar as part of the truce in her marriage to Franklin. The AP reporter became Eleanor’s constant companion in the 1930s, and when the almost inseparable couple were apart, they wrote passionate letters to one another, sometimes multiple times a day. The nature of the relationship would only be confirmed in the late 1970s, when historians discovered thousands of often romantic letters.

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Eleanor Roosevelt also felt it was her duty to befriend, represent, and communicate with ordinary Americans. She wrote a nationally syndicated column, “My Day,” commenting on the social issues of the day and revealing more about her personality and private life. It ran almost daily between 1935 and 1962. Eleanor also traveled the nation almost ceaselessly, meeting Depression-era Americans at union meetings, protests, and in their homes and workplaces. Known as her husband’s “eyes and ears,” she served as a reminder of the president’s interest in social programs and the New Deal.

Eleanor also continued to support causes close to her heart such as civil rights. She symbolically resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939 when the group refused to let Black soprano Marion Anderson sing at their entertainment venue in Washington, D.C. Instead, the First Lady helped set up what would become Anderson’s historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

An advocate for human rights

As the Great Depression segued into World War II, the First Lady shifted her focus to boosting morale—both of Allied troops and on the home front—and helping the Europeans displaced by the conflict.

One of her most important wartime causes was that of the children displaced by the war in Europe. Eleanor advocated for a bill that would have allowed 20,000 German children into the country. When the bill failed, she formed a committee to help refugee children enter the U.S. with the help of temporary visitor visas. The U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children ultimately helped resettle 300 children, most of them Jewish, and raised funds for other efforts to help refugees.

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In April 1945, on the verge of victory in Europe, President Roosevelt died. But though Eleanor’s time in the White House was over, her humanitarian work was not.

In 1945, Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry S. Truman, appointed Eleanor a delegate to the United Nations, where she served as the first chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. There, Eleanor helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and mobilized the world around humanitarian relief and international cooperation. The groundbreaking declaration enshrined fundamental human rights for the first time and now serves as the foundation for international law.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy

The former First Lady would continue to espouse her favorite causes—and wade into political controversy—for the rest of her life. A noted opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, she preferred the idea of legislation that protected women instead. She also engaged in a thorny public debate about federal funding for religious schools, sparring with Cardinal Spellman, who accused her of anti-Catholicism for her opposition to parochial schools obtaining federal funds.

She had long been an icon and a divisive figure—an inspiration for advocates of marginalized groups and a scapegoat for those who opposed her causes. But when Eleanor died in 1962 at age 78, tributes poured in from both sides of the aisle.

Today, she is remembered not just for breaking the restrictive First Lady mold, but for using her outsized influence to raise awareness and support for social justice causes that continue to this day. Born before women had the vote, Eleanor Roosevelt refused to be bound by convention, or her own fears. “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face,” she wrote in 1960. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

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