Eleanor and Franklin D Roosevelt
A First Lady who can pass two presidential terms without a breath of controversy is usually one that has not participated at all. Eleanor Roosevelt was not that type of First Lady. When in 1905, she and her distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt married, Eleanor had already turned her back on the expectations of a New York debutante and begun to explore the frontiers of practical feminism. She did not overtly espouse feminism as a doctrine, but, as the saying goes, she certainly walked the walk.
Her marriage to Franklin D. Roosevelt was not a passionate romance, but a meeting of great minds and a merger of compatible agendas. Early in his marriage Roosevelt had an affair with his wife’s social secretary, which was a caddish act for which she never really forgave him. Divorce was discussed, but both parties realized that their respective careers would be better served by remaining together. Never again was their relationship intimate, although a fraternal fondness proved adequate for their most mutually challenging years.
Eleanor Roosevelt began her political awakening in a community-minded, wealthy New York family, and it evolve through phases of uncontroversial welfare work into something much deeper and more engaged when her husband won the keys to the White House in 1933.
Roosevelt can be considered great for leading his nation through the Depression, and later through WWII. These were his major achievements, but behind the scenes, and sometimes on center stage, Eleanor was hard at work too.
Mainly, Eleanor’s thrust was in the direction of emancipation of human rights, and the older she got, the less apologetic she was inclined to be. She began regular White House press conferences solely for female news correspondents, and news wire services were allowed access to the White House only if they displayed a fair gender distribution among senior staff. She also fetched up the baton of practical political work as FDR became increasingly chair-bound by his late attack of polio. Needless to say, the male-dominated political establishment had much to say about this, but Eleanor’s common touch endeared her to the grassroots support base that FDR had acquired thanks to his New Deal policies.
Racial equality was naturally a key issue for her, and one particular incident stands out. When, in 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) would not permit black opera singer Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall, Eleanor resigned her membership of the organization, arranging instead a performance at the nearby Lincoln Memorial. On the day, the event morphed into a massive outdoor celebration attended by 75,000 people.
After FDR’s death, Eleanor was appointed to a UN commission on human rights, and she was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration. She remained politically active, and vocal, until her death in 1962.