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Eleanor Roosevelt: Reimagining the Role of First Lady

By Tara Mae

Born in Manhattan on October 11, 1884, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt maintained strong ties to New York all of her life. Her legacy of activism started in New York and was tested during her husband’s presidency. Opposition came not from the “other" but from detractors cloaked in camaraderie. Eleanor’s understanding of the impact and cost of conflict encompassed more than economic hardships, battle casualties, and military funding. It included women and minorities fighting to be seen and safe in their own country, refugees fleeing Nazism, and citizens contending with ostracization and discrimination. At times limited by her gender and status, she recognized that prejudice was an enemy that needed to be faced at home.

Her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, began his political career in New York and Eleanor always had a residence in the state, first in Hyde Park and then, after the presidency, in Greenwich Village. In 1918, after 13 years of marriage, Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair. She was devastated, but a divorce was deemed out of the question since it would ruin his political career, a cause to which both had devoted much time, energy, and labor. Their relationship evolved. She began spending more time at Val-Kill, the home in Hyde Park, and sought to cultivate a fulfilling public life of her merit. His betrayal became her leverage in establishing more equality in their marriage.

Franklin was paralyzed due to illness in 1921, and she became his “eyes, ears, and legs.” Already very socially and civically active, Eleanor began making appearances in her husband’s stead. She was no longer just an active supporter of his work, she was now a practical participant in all of his outreach efforts. She did not sacrifice interest in her pursuits and continued to form and champion her opinions and causes, such as women’s education.

He was elected president in 1933, and Eleanor was not thrilled at the prospect of being first lady. She feared the title would require her to give up her agency in favor of her husband’s presidency. This was not an unfounded fear: the position was most closely associated with matters of domesticity and hospitality. Her immediate predecessor, Lou Henry Hoover, gave up her feminist activism when she and her husband, Herbert Hoover, moved into the White House. Eleanor fought to maintain her identity with the support of Franklin and a couple of close friends, including Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok.

Eleanor was the first president’s wife to actively cultivate her own audience. She interwove her advocacy into her role as first lady. Eleanor wrote a daily syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” as well as a monthly magazine column. She had a weekly radio show and gave regular media briefings. During her 12 years in the White House, she had 348 press conferences. Initially suggested by Hickok, Eleanor made them exclusive to women. Female journalists were invited; men were banned.

This compelled newspapers to retain women on their staff in order to cover the briefings, saving the jobs of female reporters. Eleanor continued in her own career, giving speeches and pursuing her agenda. During the first year of Franklin’s administration, she was determined to earn as much as his salary paid him. She made $70,000 from public speaking and business endeavors, and donated most of the money to charity. Her community engagement provided her a more personal insight into the struggles of Americans, particularly women and minorities.

She balanced her independence with her work on her husband’s behalf. During the first year of his presidency, a large group of protestors, consisting of WWI veterans and their families, encamped in Washington. Known as the Bonus Army, they were there to demand early access to their bonus certificates. A previous march during Hoover’s administration had been met with tanks and tear gas. Franklin dispatched Eleanor to meet with them, but no one told her the purpose of the errand until she was already on her way to camp. Upon arrival, she listened to their grievances, sang army songs with them, and effectively de-escalated a tense situation. As one protestor noted, “Hoover sent the Army. Roosevelt sent his wife.” As a presidential emissary, she was one of Franklin’s greatest assets.

A dogged campaigner and ardent proponent for the radical New Deal, Eleanor traveled around the country in support of it, acting as both Franklin’s surrogate and an independent observer. She fought for inclusion and parity in the program’s policies, and was frequently one of the sole members of Franklin’s cabinet advocating that people of different races have equal access to all elements of outreach and support. When Eleanor visited the South and witnessed the racial discrimination of the New Deal against African Americans, she entreated Franklin to address the issue. Throughout her life, she fought against racial prejudice and inequality.

Afraid to offend Southern Democrats, whose favor he needed to pass New Deal initiatives, Franklin frequently refused her admonitions. In 1934, the Costigan-Wagner Bill was proposed to make lynching a federal crime. Eleanor, who had joined the NAACP, urged her husband to support the measure. She arranged a meeting between him and the president of the NAACP, Walter Francis White, but Franklin refused to publicly endorse the legislation. The bill died in Congress. Eleanor continued to push, publicly and personally, for civil rights, earning the ire of racists throughout the country. The Ku Klux Klan even put a $25,000 bounty on her head.

The onslaught of World War II inspired Eleanor to expand the scope of her service.

Originally wanting to join the Red Cross in Europe, she was discouraged from doing so by the administration; it feared that Eleanor would be taken as a prisoner-of-war. So, she used her position and standing to support not only the Allies, but different oppressed persons as well.

Eleanor became an advocate for Jewish refugees escaping persecution. She encouraged Franklin to accept European refugee children as well as Jewish refugees into the United States, an endeavor that was frequently thwarted. Franklin resisted accepting immigrants due to political pressure, lack of Congressional support, and fear of fifth columnists: spies and saboteurs who would infiltrate the United States. Instead of expanding the immigration policy to be more inclusive, he restricted its scope.

Still Eleanor persisted, and won a relatively small but meaningful victory when she convinced Franklin to grant visas to approximately 80 refugees who, fleeing the Nazis, came to the United States aboard the SS Quanza. She obtained safety and protection for them, but all of her similar overtures were overruled by Franklin and his administration. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinrdige Long was incensed by the interference and made it a personal mission to ensure that it would not happen again.

Eleanor also drew ire for her demonstrative support of Japanese-Americans, who were targeted, otherized, and forced into internment camps during World War II. She visited their communities, lauded their patriotism, and warned against the “great hysteria against minority groups.” Eleanor privately objected to Franklin’s Executive Order 9066, which mandated that many Japanese-Americans enter internment camps in different parts of the country. When he remained unswayed to her objections, Eleanor chose to work quietly, utilizing her presence as a popular figure to impact public opinion.

In April 1943, she visited the Gila River Detention Center in Arizona, and made sure to be photographed with internees. In a bid to elicit sympathy among other Americans, she extolled their attempts to rapidly adjust to their new lives in her “My Day” column. Eleanor gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times, in which she posited that closing the camps immediately was imperative for the health of the nation as well as the detainees. Eleanor set up a meeting between Franklin and the head of the War Relocation Authority, Dillon Myer, who wanted to release everyone held in the camps. That conference was ultimately unsuccessful, but Eleanor continued her efforts, writing an article in Collier magazine, hosting the Japanese Americans Citizens League at the White House, and strategizing with the NAACP about forcing Franklin to close the camps by staging mass protests by African Americans on behalf of Japanese Americans. The camps remained in effect until 1945.

Franklin died in April of that year, and Eleanor vacated the White House. She was appointed to the United Nations by President Harry S. Truman and was then selected as president of the United Nations commission tasked with creating a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was ratified in 1948, and she remained a delegate until 1952. Eleanor kept writing “My Day,” contributed other articles and books, and continued her public speaking tours for many years. She died in 1962, having radicalized the role of first lady and made lasting impressions on the social and civil rights movements.

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