(1884 – 1962)
American Humanitarian Reformer, Diplomat and Writer
One of the most influential figures of the twentieth century, Eleanor Roosevelt has left a lasting legacy through her humanitarian accomplishments as reformer, diplomat and writer. Her personal life also reflects a singular triumph of self-realization in the face of formidable emotional and societal obstacles.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City into a life of wealth and social privilege (her uncle was President Theodore Roosevelt). Shy, introverted and physically plain, she also suffered the loss of both parents at an early age. After her marriage to her distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1905, she spent the next several years as wife and mother to their six children.
In the post-World War I years Eleanor Roosevelt become independently active in a variety of political and social causes, such as the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Trade Union League and the women’s division of the Democratic Party. By the time of her husband’s election as President in 1933, she was poised to assume an increasingly public role as spokesperson for a number of other groups: African-Americans, youth, the poor and others in need of a humane political voice.
As First Lady for an unprecedented 12 years, Roosevelt’s behind-the-scenes influence was great. Additionally, her widely distributed syndicated newspaper column, radio show, formal press conferences and extensive travelling furthered her promotion of liberal humanitarian causes. Perhaps her most publicized activity in this regard was her resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution when that group refused to allow African-American singer Marian Anderson to perform in the Constitution Hall in Washington (which was owned by the organization). Anderson later appeared to widespread publicity and great acclaim at the Lincoln Memorial.
The Roosevelt marriage having evolved into an intellectual and political partnership, Eleanor Roosevelt subsequently developed her own circle of close women friends, several of whom were lesbians. Her most intense emotional attachment was with a prominent newspaper correspondent, Lorena Hickok; their surviving correspondence (about 3,500 letters) gives strong evidence of a lesbian relationship.
Following the death of Franklin in 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt maintained a highly visible and active life in national and international politics. Appointed in 1945 by President Harry S. Truman as a member of the United States delegation to the United Nations, she became chair of the committee that produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. She continued to write a variety of newspaper and magazine columns, as well as a number of books. Until the end of her life, Roosevelt was an influential member of the Democratic Party. She died in New York City.
Criticized during much of her public life for her outspoken liberal views, Roosevelt was virtually universally admired during her later years (Truman dubbed her ‘first lady of the world’). In subsequent decades, that reputation has endured and further intensified.