Eleanor Roosevelt: The Introvert Who Became a Vocal Heroine
When we think of heroes and heroines, we often think of fictional superheroes with superhuman strength or those who gain their power from a great mentor. Webster’s Dictionary defines a hero as "a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities."
A true hero or heroine is someone who beats the odds to rise above negative circumstances, someone who leads others with courage and honor. Much like her presidential husband, Eleanor Roosevelt possessed all those qualities.
Born to Serve the Public
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, into one of the richest families in New York. Her strength and character were formed throughout her life through many failures, losses and tests of courage. She was directly related to Theodore Roosevelt and was primed to live a life in politics.
Not the Child Her Mother Wanted
Eleanor's mother, Anna Hall Roosevelt, believed in the Victorian Era philosophy that beauty and good breeding were critically important for a young woman. Beauty helped a woman secure a "perfect" life in the New York social scene, and her mother was disappointed that Eleanor lacked the physical beauty typically equated with success.
The Pressure of Political Bloodlines
As the younger brother of President Theodore Roosevelt, Elliott Roosevelt was also considered a disappointment to his family. He was often found lacking when compared to his famous older brother. In retaliation, he squandered his inheritance and hid his pain with alcohol.
Determined to Be of Service
Eleanor learned early in life the importance of service to others, partially because making herself useful to her mother earned her some acceptance. Her mother was often ill with migraines, and young Eleanor learned to care for her by rubbing her temples to alleviate the pain.
Always Afraid of Something
Eleanor and her siblings were sent to live with their religious, strict maternal grandmother. She retreated into her world of books and felt safe and at peace when reading or quietly volunteering.
The Wallflower Blossomed
After many years of turmoil, her grandmother sent 15-year-old Eleanor to study in England at Allenswood Boarding Academy. Her grandmother believed she would only succeed in the world if she were educated like her mother.
Valued for Her Strengths
Life at Allenswood redefined Eleanor's sense of herself. During her childhood, she was met with criticism for her looks, which crippled her self-esteem and led to issues with anxiety and fear. At Allenswood, Eleanor was valued for her kindness, intelligence and personality. She was also recognized by her classmates for her loyalty and volunteer work.
Awkward and Uneasy at Big Events
Eleanor often shunned large social gatherings. During the holidays, her grandmother often hosted large gatherings where friends and family would gather. The women were expected to dress the part in beautiful gowns with their hair in updos to represent the Victorian Era beauties they aspired to be.
A Dance with Destiny
Although dancing made Eleanor feel awkward and amplified her shyness, it was a dance with one particular young man that changed the course of her life. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a gentleman with a kind smile and honorable intentions. When he approached her to introduce himself, he asked her to dance.
Smitten with a Born Politician
With a family member who was President of the United States, FDR (as he was known even before his presidency) had high expectations placed upon him. As an only child, he enjoyed the best education, tutoring and personal staff until he was 14. As a grown man, FDR had a reputation as a charmer with great wit and a knack for intelligent conversation.
Not Your Average Victorian Era American Gal
It was Eleanor's compassion and ambitions that impressed FDR most. She was the opposite of the Victorian Era beauties that solely relied on their good looks to find companionship. Eleanor introduced him to the horrid housing crisis in the early 20th century and shared the details of the uninhabitable living conditions for families in need of food and clean water.
An Early Political Influencer
While FDR moved forward with his political goals of one day becoming president, Eleanor stayed home to fulfill her duties as a wife and mother. After the birth of their daughter Anna, Eleanor advocated for her husband's political priorities, and they both became involved with the suffragette movement.
A Complicated Relationship with Her Mother-in-Law
As a devoted wife and mother, Eleanor gave birth to six children, but, tragically, only five survived past infancy. She was confronted constantly by her authoritative mother-in-law who tried to control their lives. This new negative figure in Eleanor's life raised all her old fears, self-doubts and anxiety.
Loneliness During War
During World War I, FDR was occupied with matters of state and left Eleanor at home to care for their five children alone. Adding to the loneliness, her beloved brother enlisted in the Air Force. This decision devastated and appalled her grandmother, who argued that a man of his stature should hire a substitute to replace him in the war.
Right to a Life Beyond Wife and Mother
Eleanor established newfound confidence after standing up to her grandmother. "This was my first really outspoken declaration against the accepted standards of the surroundings which I had spent my childhood, and marked the fact that either my husband or an increased ability to think for myself was changing my point of view."
A Fateful Hire
Eleanor was faced with a tremendous list of responsibilities, including tasks related to FDR's political career, raising her children and fending off her overbearing mother-in-law. She decided it was time to find help to ease the many burdens, so she hired Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd as the family secretary.
Infidelity Reared Its Ugly Head
In 1918, Eleanor discovered the affair between Rutherfurd and FDR. After FDR returned from his trip to Europe to visit the American troops at war, Eleanor unpacked her husband's suitcase (as she often did) and found letters written by the two lovers.
Eleanor had been betrayed by the two men she trusted and loved the most, her father and her husband. Neither could control their demons. Her father succumbed to alcohol and her husband to adultery.
A Serious Illness Led to Trying Times
In 1921, FDR became seriously ill with an illness that left him paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Eleanor put aside her anger to care for her husband. Additionally, she had to contend with a mother-in-law who was there constantly, trying to control and prey on Eleanor.
Choosing a Life of Impact and Influence
Eleanor was forced to take a look at her life and decide if she wanted to continue on the same path. She reflected on her grandmother's life and the bitterness that developed because she gave up her passions. Her grandmother had wanted to be a painter and an independent woman, but she stayed home and cared for her family instead.
Right Hand to the President
After a time, FDR regained some strength and mobility. With Eleanor's encouragement, he went through rehabilitation and became stronger through exercise. She also encouraged him to re-enter politics. Eleanor was his right hand, even stepping in for him sometimes during events. Her entry into the political world was slow and steady.
Discovering Her Strengths
Eleanor threw herself into causes that were close to her heart. She became an outstanding member of iconic organizations like the League of Women Voters and the Women's City Club. She was passionate about inspiring women to pursue their rights and took advantage of her political platform to reach the masses.
Fighting for the Voice of Women
In the 1920s, women were still fighting for many of their rights. Although they had won the right to vote, they were still battling issues regarding social reforms. Eleanor led the way for women to enjoy the protection of labor laws for women and children, and women wanted a role in the Democratic Party.
Demanding and Earning Respect
Eleanor wasn’t deterred. She believed she had the power of the press and her passion for the cause to guide her. She gave Murphy an ultimatum and asked him to reconsider her selection of women delegates before she went to the press. He refused.
Making a Name and Wielding Influence
Eleanor had made a name for herself and was experiencing newfound confidence. She had triumphed, both for herself and for her husband's political career. FDR was elected Governor of New York and served until his election as President of the United States in 1932.
A True Power Couple
Eleanor and FDR were the ultimate power couple as the First Lady and President of the United States. They continued to fight for the rights of the American people, even in the midst of the Great Depression. To help Americans get back on their feet, FDR created the New Deal. Eleanor toured the country trying to better understand Americans' living conditions.
From a Place of Privilege, Advocacy for Youth
One of Eleanor's main concerns was youth unemployment and the expense of college, which most people could not afford. "For the young, the situation is extremely difficult. Special privileges are offered them on every side. If they do not accept, they are considered ungracious and unappreciative. If they do accept, they are accused of being selfish, arrogant and greedy and of thinking themselves important and above other people — in fact, of having all the disagreeable traits that we most dislike in the young."
A Powerful and Progressive Politician
Eleanor had achieved the power and respect she longed for and rightfully deserved. She had come a long way from the tragedies and self-doubt of her youth. She gained support for her causes and established a path for future First Ladies to pursue their own political causes.
Reacting to Racism
During World War II, racism in America was at an all-time high. The country was fighting within its own population, often segregated by race. Eleanor decided it was time to use her power to fight against racism.
A Pioneer of Human Rights Protections
Eleanor became a delegate of the United Nations General Assembly and the first female chairperson of the preliminary United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She was awarded the Human Rights prize posthumously.