12. The Most Controversial First Lady: Eleanore Roosevelt
The niece of Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor was born into an aristocratic New York family in 1884. After an unhappy childhood she married Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When she found out about Roosevelt’s affair, Eleanore led her own life. In 1921, when polio struck her husband and made it impossible for him to walk unassisted, she convinced him to continue with his political ambitions. In public she would be his devoted wife, in private she lived elsewhere.
Eleanor worked toward labor rights. She held fundraisers for the Women’s Trade Union League which had goals to eliminate child labor, a 48-hour work week, and a minimum wage. With her husband in poor health, Eleanor became influential in the Democratic Party and shaped its platform. Along with three other activist friends, Eleanor established a type of cooperative for local farm families where they could make furniture to help supplement their farm income.
Upon assuming the role of First Lady she held regular press conferences, contributed to a monthly magazine, and hosted a weekly radio show. Eleanore Roosevelt was not going to be the nation’s hostess and remain in the background. In opposition of her husband’s administration, Eleanore became an advocate for civil rights and the end of segregation. She believed that FDR’s New Deal programs ignored the needs of segregated African Americans in the South. She demanded that all Americans have access to the New Deal programs.
Eleanore Roosevelt was committed to social reform and this made her “the most controversial First Lady in United States history.” Refusing to conform to the cultural norms for women of her class and political standing, she reshaped how wives could stand on their own no matter who they were married to. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, she spoke out against the “great hysteria” aimed minority groups. Her outspoken support of Japanese-Americans caused the Los Angeles Times to demand her resignation as First Lady. Instead, Eleanore worked toward liberating Jewish families from the Nazis.
Decades after the death of her husband, Eleanore Roosevelt continued with her activism and speaking out for the poor, working classes, and minorities. In 1960, she was hit by a car which led to further underlying health issues. She died in her home in New York City in November 1962. President John Kennedy ordered the flags to half staff to honor the first activist First Lady.