According to Gallup Polls, Eleanor Roosevelt was the most admired woman in the world for fifteen consecutive years, from 1946 to 1961. That admiration was hard earned.
A homely, introverted child born to a family of wealth and influence her childhood was a miserable one. Her mother disliked and ridiculed her as being “ugly” and “clumsy” and upon her death when Eleanor was eight years old, her grandmother continued the same. Being sent to England for schooling as a young teenager proved to be a real opportunity for her and she blossomed both emotionally and academically.
At seventeen, she returned home and soon resumed her acquaintance with, and married, a fourth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt who later became our 32nd President. Eleanor had six children in ten years, one of whom died in infancy.
During this time, Eleanor also became active in politics and social causes. She campaigned for Alfred E. Smith for president, and worked for the Women’s Trade Union League, which promoted a 48 hour work week, minimum wage, and the abolition of child labor. She also worked with the League of Women Voters and taught literature and American history at the Todhunter School for Girls in New York City.
In 1920 her husband, Franklin, became ill with Infantile Paralysis and was crippled for life. She became his legs…and nurse..and secretary..and number one supporter in his run for the presidency. She suffered through his extramarital affairs and never put her good above his and the children. She began to travel, on his instructions, to see people and places around the world that he could not, carrying messages, encouragement and sometimes threats from the presidential portfolio without portfolio. She constantly juggled the “little woman speaks” thing with the power of the presidency that spoke through her in ways that no official portfolio had.
She became the conscience of the New Deal recovery program. While the federal government was developing big and complex programs to turn around the depression, she became, quite literally, the liaison between the government and individuals who were suffering. She would personally visit the slums of cities, talk to miners and destitute farmers, sit with widows and orphans and hear their stories. She was the conscience of the government by showing the human face of sympathy and concern, rather than simply an impersonal government program. She was the human face of the New Deal.
Of two political cartoons from the midst of the Great Depression, one showed dirty coal miners discovering a woman entering the mine wearing a miner’s hat. With astonishment, one says to the other, “My gosh! There’s Mrs. Roosevelt!” The other showed a shipload of immigrants in New York’s harbor. A mother and her young son were looking at the Statue of Liberty, and when the mother asks if he knows who that is, the boy responds saying, “Of course I know who that is. That’s Mrs. Roosevelt!”
After Franklin died, President Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt as our first delegate to the new United Nations. In that capacity, her main focus was protecting human rights. She became co-chair of the UN’s Human Rights Commission and the person most responsible for getting nations to approve the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a milestone on the road of civilization.
She was a staunch defender of the separation of church and state. It was perhaps her active role in racial civil rights and citizen civil liberties that caused J. Edgar Hoover to suspect her of being a communist. At the time of her death, Eleanor Roosevelt, the voice of our national conscience, had the thickest F.B.I. file of anyone in the country. In hindsight, this was an achievement worthy of respect.
Ref: Rev. Bruce Clear, Indianapolis, Indiana for some of this content and www.whitehouse.gov/about/first-ladies