Eleanor Roosevelt was a woman who fought not only for women’s rights but for all of the poor and oppressed. Her story is remarkable, as she transformed from her mother’s unwanted child to the first lady of the world.
32. “Since you get more joy out of giving joy to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness you are able to give.”
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, into one of the wealthiest families of all the New York elite. In that world, the only thing that mattered for a woman was to look beautiful, and a certain socially-defined standard of beauty at that. But from this furnace of growing up in a world in which she never really belonged, she became one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century.
31. “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
By the time young Eleanor was a paltry seven years old, she had understood what being a disappointment was. Her mother, Anna Hall Roosevelt, was a quintessential Victorian woman in New York City. She found her daughter’s sagging eyes and homely mannerisms to be less than what she had hoped for in a daughter. Her father, however, thought differently.
30. “The giving of love is an education in itself.”
Elliott Roosevelt, Eleanor’s father, was President Theodore Roosevelt’s younger brother. Like his brother, Elliot was quick-tempered and brash. He was also a heavy drinker and frequently made promises to young Eleanor – promises of travel to exotic places, like India – that, due to his heavy drinking, he was unable to keep. Still, her drunkard father was the only person that she felt safe around.
29. “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader. A great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.”
Unable to be pretty, young Eleanor did what so many other young women do to try to garner positive attention for themselves: she wanted to make herself useful. She frequently rubbed her mother’s temples for extended amounts of time, as she had chronic migraines. When her mother died of diphtheria, Eleanor was hardly disappointed. When her father died, though, she felt completely and entirely alone.
28. “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.”
Now orphaned, she and her siblings went to live with their maternal grandmother, who was both religious and a stern disciplinarian. Of her childhood, Eleanor wrote that she “always afraid of something: of the dark, of displeasing people, of failure. Anything I accomplished had to be done across a barrier of fear.” She learned to find solace in reading and, though she would never find acceptance through it, poured herself into volunteer work.
27. “Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.”
When Eleanor was 15, her grandmother decided that she should travel to Britain, like her mother, to receive a formal education. At Allenwood School, she blossomed under the tutelage of Mademoiselle Souvestre. Souvestre saw the potential in the young woman and, serving as a teacher, headmistress, mentor, and instructor was able to help Eleanor begin to see what she could accomplish.
26. “People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously.”
At Allenwood, Eleanor began to realize that looks did not create great women. She found that friendship, self-confidence, knowledge, and wisdom were the key to unlocking her potential. Her friends valued her opinions and wanted her input on both academic and personal issues. Never again would her value be determined by looks.
25. “Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”
Eleanor was a classic introvert. She never felt comfortable at big social gatherings, which were a staple of like among the New York elite. Her grandmother, however, was fond of having parties, and one Christmas held a soiree at their home. Eleanor felt characteristically uncomfortable at the party, but in attendance was a rising politician named Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
24. “No matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and honesty are written across her face, she will be beautiful.”
As so many introverts do, Eleanor stood away from the crowd. The handsome young Franklin Roosevelt asked if she wanted to dance. She loved dancing but didn’t know what to say. They were both Roosevelts, but they were fifth cousins so the relationship that was to come would be far from incestuous. Their first meeting would be brief, but more would follow.
23. “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
FDR’s childhood was entirely the opposite of Eleanor’s. He was the only child in his family and was given every comfort that life could offer. He had private governesses and tutors and possessed all of the charm that was befitting of the New York elite. But he was compassionate towards those less fortunate than himself, and through him, Eleanor would make her mark on national politics.
Having poured so much of her early life into charity work, Eleanor was familiar with the deplorable living conditions for many people in New York City. She showed FDR around and opened his eyes to what urban squalor was. Her unrelenting concern for those less fortunate made FDR fall for her. They were married in 1905 when Eleanor was 20 and FDR was 22.
21. “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.”
Eleanor did not profess to be a feminist in the early days of her marriage; she preferred to stay at home and raise their firstborn daughter, Anna. But when she realized that her husband supported the suffragette movement, she figured that, as a dutiful wife, she should, too. Her interest in women’s activism pushed her into politics.
20. “You have to accept whatever comes and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and with the best that you have to give.”
Eleanor went on to have six children, but her early days of marriage and motherhood were marred by a controlling mother-in-law who wanted to have more of an influence over the children than their mother. She believed that Eleanor was not good enough for a man who was being groomed for the presidency. Eleanor fell back into the self-doubt that had marked so much of her early years.
19. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
When World War I broke out, Eleanor’s brother joined the air force. In response to her grandmother’s criticism that a “gentleman” fight in a war, Eleanor stood up to her by saying that “a gentleman was no different from any other kind of citizen In the United States and that it would be a disgrace to pay anyone to risk his life for youâ¦”
18. “You can often change your circumstances by changing your attitude.”
Of her declaration to her grandmother in defense of her brother’s decision, Eleanor said, “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.”
17. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
With a husband who served as a United States senator, an overbearing mother-in-law, and six children, Eleanor hardly had any time to get everything done. She hired a secretary named Lucy Mercer to help out with things like responding to letters so that she could continue with her charity work. She often left the children in Lucy’s competent hands.
16. “Life must be lived, and curiosity kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.”
After a year or so of Lucy’s help, FDR went to Europe to visit American troops still embroiled in World War I. When he returned, Eleanor unpacked his suitcase for him. When she did, she discovered a packet of love letters that he had exchanged with Lucy. She was horrified to find that her husband had been having an affair.
15. “We are afraid to care too much, for fear that the other person does not care at all.”
Eleanor asked for a divorce, but her husband, who was a rising politician being groomed for the presidency, and her mother-in-law wouldn’t allow it. She insisted that if she and FDR were to remain married, he would have to end any contact with Mercer and sleep in another bedroom. He agreed, and their marriage became a business agreement rather than an intimate relationship.
14. “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”
When FDR became paralyzed from polio, Eleanor said, “In many ways, this was the most trying winter of my entire life. It was the small personal irritations, as I look back upon them now, that made life so difficult.” To make matters worse, her mother-in-law continued to be domineering, and her husband couldn’t square his personal life with his political ambitions. She had a mental breakdown.
13. “Friendship with one’s self is all important because without it one can not be friends with anyone else in the world.”
During this particularly dark season, Eleanor began to reflect on her own life and on the role that women were expected to fulfill. She had wanted to be a painter, but her grandmother had quashed that idea. Instead of just being a wife and mother, Eleanor wanted to find her voice, and with it, a sense of liberation. So she began acting.
12. “A stumbling-block to the pessimist is a stepping-stone to the optimist.”
Though FDR would regain the use of his upper body, he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Eleanor convinced him to return to his ambitious political career, but he often was unable to attend events. Eleanor began filling in for him, giving speeches and handing over relevant documents. She started growing out of her inherent shyness and becoming Eleanor Roosevelt.
11. “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.”
Because of her engagement in her husband’s political ambitions, Eleanor found herself active in organizations like the Women’s City Club and the League of Women Voters. Having long engaged in charity work, she was skilled at fundraising and organizing for events. She began to live out some of the confidence that she had gained at Allenwood.
10. “To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.”
Women weren’t prepared to give up the fight for equal rights when they got the vote, and Eleanor was going to advocate for feminist causes. They wanted to participate in the Democratic party, so in 1924, she went to Charles Murphy, head of the New York Democrats with the offer of choosing women delegates. Murphy refused.
Eleanor told Murphy that she would go to the press, but he didn’t believe her until an article appeared in The New York Times. Eleanor said, “Women must gain the respect of men. We will be enormously strengthened if we can show that we are willing to fight to the very last ditch for what we believe in.” The strategy worked, and Murphy caved in.
FDR went on to be elected governor of New York City in 1928 and then president in 1932. Of their partnership, Eleanor said, “Franklin and I had a desire to see improvement for people. I knew about social conditions perhaps more than he did, but he knew more about government and how you could use government to improve certain things, and I think we began to come to a certain understanding of teamwork.”
7. “With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.”
Though the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were ready to improve the lives of people. FDR pushed his New Deal to help end the depression, and Eleanor wrote a newspaper column called “My Day” while visiting schools, churches, factories, and other organizations all across the country.
6. “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”
Eleanor was mainly dedicated to helping young people. Of them, she said, “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 â in fact, of having all the disagreeable traits that we almost dislike in the young.”
5. “I believe anyone can conquer fear by doing the things he fears to do, provided he keeps doing them until he gets a record of successful experience behind him.”
She and her husband helped found the National Youth Administration to help young people take advantage of the opportunities that they were given. In addition to concern for youth, she was particularly concerned about the rights of minorities, especially African Americans. No longer the shy and timid girl who strove to earn acceptance, Eleanor was a powerhouse who was able to draw on her strength.
4. “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”
America stood on the brink of World War II; a war fought against possibly the most racist regimes in history – Nazi Germany and imperial Japan – when racial tensions at home in America were also reaching a fever pitch. Eleanor used her position as the first lady as a platform to denounce racism, notably by defending the African-American singer Marion Anderson.
3. “When you have decided what you believe, what you feel must be done, have the courage to stand alone and be counted.”
Because Marion Anderson was black, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing at Constitution Hall. Eleanor was a member of the DAR, but she renounced her membership and then arranged for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial to an audience of 75,000 people. At the time, not unlike today, people felt that her moves flew in the face of American values.
2. “In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”
FDR died in 1945, but Eleanor’s political career didn’t end until her death. The year after he died, she served on the nascent United Nations Commission on Human Rights as the very first chairperson; she went on to serve on the United Nations General Assembly until her death in 1962.
1. “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”
Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962. Before her death, President Harry Truman called her “First Lady to the World” for how she championed human rights, both at home and abroad. In 1968, she was posthumously given the Human Rights Prize to commemorate her dedication to those less fortunate than herself. Despite all of the challenges and setbacks she faced early on in life, she became an ultimate force for good.
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