President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is viewed as the third greatest President of all time (behind George Washington and Abraham Lincoln), but his wife is viewed as the greatest First Lady in American History. Though her husband was in the president and in charge of the United States, Eleanor did not sit silently behind the scenes as majority of First Ladies did; she led her own life to helping others.
Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 11, 1884. Though she was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor had a tough life. Her mother died when she was eight and then her alcoholic father died two years later, so she was raised by her grandmother and later sent to school in England. Her upbringing caused her to be a quiet, shy person . In 1905, she married Franklin D. Roosevelt; President Theodore Roosevelt walked her down the aisle. Eleanor spent the beginning of her marriage taking orders from her mother-in-law, Sarah.
In 1918, Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair. From that moment on, Eleanor became her own person; she stopped taking orders from her mother-in-law and became involved in her own interests. Eleanor was inspired by her uncle on social reform. During World War One, she worked for the American Red Cross and Navy Relief Society. She even had the Wilson Administration’s Interior Secretary conduct an investigation with the intention of improving the facility’s services at the hospital. She was part of the Women’s City Club of New York, speaking to female listeners about politics through the radio. As a member of the Women’s Trade Union League, she educated women about joining unions and even picketed with them. She even persuaded her husband to promote Frances Perkins to the head of the State Industrial Relations – she would become Secretary of Labor and create Social Security. She also worked as a teacher. Though the love between her and Franklin was ruined, they remained each other’s biggest supporters throughout their marriage. When Franklin lost his ability to walk due to polio in 1921, Sarah wanted him to retire from politics. It was Eleanor who convinced him to seek treatment and return to politics.
Eleanor was worried when she became First Lady that she would lose her life and have to spend the next four years hosting social parties for her husband’s supporters. But, Franklin realized that Eleanor was her own person. Eleanor gave press conferences for only female reporters, forcing newspapers to hire females. She also had a magazine column where people could write to her; she was paid $1,000 a month and donated it all to various charities. She also traveled overseas to visit U.S. troops during World War Two – she frequently traveled alone without the secret service, carrying a gun. Besides being an advocate for women, children, laborers, immigrants, and the poor, she also wanted equality. While Franklin could not support equality since he needed the Southern vote, Eleanor could show public support for the black community. She resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution when the organization refused to rent its Constitution Hall for black singer Marian Anderson. Eleanor had Anderson sing at the White House for the King and Queen of England. She also showed support for black pilots by flying in a plane flown by Charles Anderson. When Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, she criticized her husband and his cabinet. Though she was criticized for supporting all races, these minority groups switched from President Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party to the Democratic Party, where they still remain.
After Franklin died on April 12, 1945, Eleanor believed her days in the public were over. However, President Harry Truman appointed her to serve as a delegate for the United Nations General Assembly. She was the only female of the five delegates. She was on the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission, the main writer of the Universal Declaration of Humans Rights. The document is still the principal guide to assessing a country’s treatment of its people. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy made her a delegate to the United Nations, appointed her to the Commission on the Status of Women, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She died from cancer on November 7, 1962 in Manhattan.
Eleanor Roosevelt spent her early life as a shy, obedient lady. After Franklin’s affair, Eleanor became a different person by taking charge of her life. While previous First Ladies remained behind the scenes, Eleanor connected to the American public through radio and news articles. She supported numerous social causes; advocating equal pay for women, shorter work hours for children, medical benefits for veterans, equal rights for minorities, and world peace for all. She also became a huge part of the early success of the U.N. since she helped get the United States involved in the organization and drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her humanitarian work in the world is the reason why she is, as President Truman said, “The First Lady of the World.”