A Reference Resource
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt “never wanted to be a President’s wife.” After discovering in 1918 her husband’s infidelity, Eleanor Roosevelt (known to her friends as ER) purposefully constructed a life of her own over the next fifteen years, one in which she found just as much fulfillment in her personal endeavors as she did in her husband’s career. During these years, FDR and ER became political and social partners rather than intimates in a loving and warm marriage. Still, ER feared that as first lady she would have to forsake her hard-won autonomy. Once in the White House, however, she succeeded not only in maintaining her independence, but in remaking the role of the first lady.
Eleanor Roosevelt used the position of first lady to further causes she considered important. Indeed, she relished the opportunity, believing that she was now “in a position where I can do the most good to help the most people.” Her activism became legendary. She brought much-needed attention to New Deal programs, to the cause of civil rights, to the need for low-income housing, to the hardships of jobless young people, and to demands for women’s political involvement and equality. In embracing these causes, ER did not win every political fight -- and surely earned a good number of implacable enemies -- but she became a leading advocate for America’s poor, forgotten, and disfranchised.
Eleanor Roosevelt seemed to be everywhere as first lady. She gave speeches on the radio, wrote a daily column for newspapers and articles for magazines, appeared in film shorts and newsreels, held weekly press conferences expressly for female reporters, and spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 1940 on behalf of FDR’s controversial vice-presidential choice, Henry Wallace. Between 1933 and 1940, she visited every state in the union except for South Dakota. As the Great Depression ravaged the United States during the 1930s, ER set out to learn about the plight of the nation’s poor. She traveled to Appalachia and saw first-hand the devastation wrought by the Depression on poor, rural Americans. Armed with this experience, she impressed upon FDR the need for New Deal programs to assist these oft-neglected people. When the National Industrial Recovery Act’s Subsistence Homestead Administration established model communities for poor Americans, ER became the staunchest defender of one project, the Arthurdale community in West Virginia, though it was not a success.
As first lady, ER vigorously promoted African-American civil rights. She held membership in, and was on the board of, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), campaigned to end the poll tax, assisted in Howard University’s fundraising efforts, and sought to make more New Deal programs address the needs of black Americans. She also convened the White House Conference on Negro Women and backed the appointment of her friend Mary McLeod Bethune to a leadership position in the National Youth Administration. One of her most well-known stands for civil rights came in 1939 when she rebuked the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) for refusing to allow the distinguished African-American contralto Marian Anderson to sing in its concert hall and resigned from the organization in protest.
Her activism continued during World War II. She flew to Europe and to the South Pacific, where she comforted wounded American troops. Like so many other American women, she joined the workforce during World War II, becoming the first first lady to be “employed” by the government -- although she did not receive a salary. She served as deputy director of the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), an agency created by FDR in May 1941 to coordinate civilian air defenses, but she did not prove to be an able administrator.
ER fulfilled the traditional first lady’s role as White House hostess as well. At first, she performed the function grudgingly, calling it a “useless burden.” Gradually, however, she recognized that her social role “had real meaning and significance.” She came to believe that in welcoming visitors and guests to the White House, she was, in effect, introducing them to the American political system. In addition, she realized that as White House hostess, she could further her own political interests and causes by inviting members of various organizations to high-profile White House teas and receptions.
All of these activities garnered Eleanor many admirers, but also substantial numbers of detractors. Conservatives, already appalled by Franklin Roosevelt’s liberalism, attacked her for lending her name to liberal causes. Southerners, in particular, opposed ER’s support of civil rights and sometimes slandered the first lady viciously. These attacks were politically motivated -- a shot at ER being almost as good as one at FDR -- but they also arose because Eleanor Roosevelt shunned traditional gender roles and criticized contemporary race relations.
In some cases, ER could not even count on the support of her husband. Though FDR appreciated and was proud of his wife’s activities, he also knew that support for controversial portions of her agenda -- like civil rights -- might erode his political and public support. On matters like an anti-lynching bill and proposals to admit Jewish refugees, FDR refused to commit the full power and prestige of his office, even though he privately (and sometimes publicly) supported such measures. ER understood that his reluctance was the price she had to pay for congressional support for numerous other initiatives, but she continued to press her case even without her husband’s full backing.
As the end of World War II approached, Eleanor prepared to adjust to a new role -- that of first lady in an America that was not beset by economic depression or war. But she never got the chance. Franklin Delano Roosevelt died some three weeks before the Allies achieved victory in Europe. Arriving in New York after leaving Washington and the first ladyship, she told reporters, “The story is over.” It was far from over, however, as ER spent the next seventeen years working on many of the same issues she had championed as first lady. As U.S. delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, she chaired the commission on human rights of the Economic and Social Council. When in 1948 she won adoption of a declaration on human rights for which she was primarily responsible, the delegates from around the world rose from their seats to give her a standing ovation.
After her death in 1962, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to capture the imagination of Americans, as well as admirers from all over the globe. Her tenure as first lady has become the standard by which other presidential spouses are measured -- often an impossible mark, given the difficult times in which ER lived, her energy and activism, and her wide range of interests. Because of Eleanor Roosevelt, the role of first lady took on a greater significance and a greater visibility in the minds of the American people than ever before.