Eleanor Roosevelt

“A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it's in hot water."

Eleanor Roosevelt, American First Lady, Diplomat and Activist, 1884-1962.

One of the world’s most powerful women of her time, Eleanor Roosevelt is remembered for her integral role in drafting the 1946 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She was the first Chair of the UN Human Rights Commission and served as a U.S. delegate to the UN General Assembly. Married to President Roosevelt, she served as first lady through his 4 terms in office (1933-1945) making her the longest serving first lady in history. Along with Michelle Obama, she was also the tallest, standing 5 foot 11.

Foremost, Roosevelt was a humanitarian and champion of the individual rights of women and minorities, and was known for her confidence, wisdom and gumption. “Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says it can’t be done,” she once said. In fact, many of her words of wisdom have lived on as modern day mantras, such as "Do one thing every day that scares you," and "You can often change your circumstances by changing your attitude."

Born in New York City to a wealthy family, she was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. Orphaned before age 10, she was largely raised by relatives and attended boarding school in London, England where she was extremely happy. Back in New York for her debut, her 5th cousin Franklin Roosevelt began to court her, and they married in New York City in 1905. Over the next 10 years she devoted herself to motherhood, bearing six children, one of whom died in infancy. 

Compared to her fun-loving husband, Roosevelt was prim and proper, wearing pussy-cat bow blouses and fur coats. When he became a senator, she found the endless parties and social calls tedious. When the First World War broke out she jumped at the chance to volunteer with wounded soldiers and at a Red Cross canteen. But in 1918 she discovered her husband was having an affair with her social secretary and asked for a divorce. He refused, but cut off the relationship. In 1921 Franklin Roosevelt was struck with polio, and she entered political life with the Democratic Party as a means of support. She also taught at a girls’ school she had purchased with two friends. 

As first lady, Roosevelt was somewhat controversial for her activist tendencies, holding press conferences for female correspondents only, forcing media outlets to hire women for the first time. Because of her husband’s ill health, she did much of the political touring and speaking, and wrote a syndicated newspaper column called “My Day” which she continued until she died. Roosevelt championed liberal causes such as child welfare and the rights of women and minorities. In 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let black opera singer Marian Anderson perform, she tore up her membership and held the concert herself at the Lincoln Memorial to an enthusiastic crowd of 75,000. If meetings were racially segregated, she pulled out her folding chair and placed it in the center aisle. If she were alive today, she most certainly would have been a climate change activist: “The world of the future is in our making. Tomorrow is now,” she said.

After her husband’s death, Roosevelt retreated to her country estate telling the press “It’s over.” But she soon began her work with the United Nations, and played an active role in the democratic party, always working for change. In her memorial address at the UN General Assembly she was quoted as having said "It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness." 


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