The Most Dangerous Woman in America: Eleanor Roosevelt
America's Greatest First Lady
The Most Dangerous Woman in America: Eleanor Roosevelt
Born on October 11, 1884, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt did not have a good start to life. A timid child, Eleanor was frightened of nearly everything from water and mice to disappointing people. The latter phobia was undoubtedly brought on by her beautiful but narcissistic mother Anna, who was disappointed that Eleanor was a plain girl and even nicknamed her, “Granny.” Eleanor’s father Elliot was a severe alcoholic, and the family suffered under his illness.
By the time Eleanor was ten she lost both of her parents and her younger brother. Orphaned, the traumatized Eleanor and her older brother were sent to live with their maternal grandmother, Grandma Hall, an overly strict and unfeeling woman who had little interest in caring for her grandchildren. In short order the old woman sent Eleanor away to Allenswood, a finishing school for girls in England.
Alone and frightened, Eleanor was nearly ready to withdraw into herself but she was rescued by the school’s headmistress, Marie Souvestre, who saw great potential in the little girl and showed Eleanor the first real human kindness she ever experienced in her life. With encouragement and patience from Headmistress Souvestre, Eleanor began to venture out in the world. She discovered that she was gifted at athletics and very intelligent, and soon became one of the most popular girls at the school.
Returning home to New York when she was seventeen, Eleanor was expected to take her place as a lady of high society, but startled everyone when she announced that she wanted to spend her life helping others who were less fortunate. She began to teach dancing and literature and regularly visited children in the slums.
It was around this time that Eleanor became acquainted with her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Franklin was an icon of the 1900s, handsome, dapper and engaging, the ideal man for the times … so everyone was shocked when he took an interest in Eleanor. Franklin could have any woman he wanted, but no one understood why he would like someone like plain Eleanor. The questions irritated Franklin; he liked Eleanor because she was sweet. She was intelligent and well-spoken, and dedicated to helping others …
Plus, she was rich, and that didn’t hurt anything.
Still, Franklin genuinely liked Eleanor, and asked her to show him the places where she worked. Eleanor was surprised but agreed, taking Franklin to one of the slums she regularly visited. The normally chatty Franklin was struck silent by what he saw that day, and as they walked away he had even greater respect for her and her cause. They married in 1905, and she said of him, “I have never known a man who gave one a greater sense of security.”
That security didn’t last too long. In 1921 Franklin was stricken with what was thought at the time to be polio and lost the use of his legs. Being wheelchair bound didn’t stop his roving eye, however, and he soon began an affair with Eleanor’s own secretary. One day while unpacking Franklin’s suitcase, Eleanor discovered a stack of love letters that had been written to him by her secretary. Hurt and angry, Eleanor confronted Franklin about the letters and he admitted to having an affair with her secretary. Franklin felt bad for hurting Eleanor and considered divorcing her—until his tyrannical mother found out. She never approved of Franklin’s marriage to Eleanor in the first place and had often gone out of her way to make Eleanor miserable (she often told Eleanor and Franklin’s six children, “I was your real mother; Eleanor merely bore you,”), but she was not going to allow Franklin to divorce his wife and disgrace his family. If he did so, his mother threatened, then she was going to completely disown him. Horrified at the thought of losing his wealth, Franklin stayed with Eleanor, but they continued to live together as friends, no longer as husband and wife.
Eleanor and Franklin with Their Children
Eleanor wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of Franklin becoming president, and the night he was elected she was discovered crying. “Now I’ll have no identity,” she wept, but it was soon apparent that she wasn’t going to accept this. Soon after becoming First Lady, she forged her own career, becoming one of FDR’s most trusted advisors while traveling the country on humanitarian campaigns. The woman who was once afraid of the dark rappelled down into mine shafts to interview the workers as to their working conditions, inspected the living conditions of migrant workers, unsuccessfully lobbied to have European Jews fleeing from Hitler’s despotism allowed into the U.S., and traveled almost 23,000 miles to encourage the servicemen being deployed for war. She even urged for better treatment of Japanese-Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the nationwide internment of the Japanese, an act that received strong denunciation in the press. She removed the “Color Only” signs from segregated areas, and when people complained, FDR responded with, “Well, it’s my missus and I can’t control her.”
Eleanor never stopped pushing for reforms. At dinner parties she would purposely seat FDR next to authors that supported her cause. At family dinners, she presented so many documents to FDR that one night her exasperated daughter exclaimed, “Mother, can’t you see that you’re giving Father indigestion?”
Eleanor wasn’t about to be stopped by anything. The first First Lady to drive her own car and travel by plane, Eleanor continued to campaign. When she wasn’t traveling and lecturing, she wrote books, newspaper articles and taught. A White House usher recorded what FDR and Eleanor did every day, and her list was six times longer than the president’s. By 1938 she was earning $60 million a year, donating most of it to women’s charities. On New Year’s Eve, she’d work until ten minutes before midnight, stop long enough to join family for toasts, then went back to work for a few more hours. She could never relax.
In her younger years she had initially been against suffrage (the movement to allow women to vote), but became such a passionate supporter that she wrote a book titled It’s Up to the Women, encouraging women to become more active in politics. She reminded FDR that “women exist” when he made his all-male lists for political appointments. Eleanor began holding news conferences for only female journalists weekly, and newspapers were forced to hire the women in order to get the story. (Eleanor exchanged several thousand letters with one reporter in particular, Lorena Hickok, leading to a debate that still exists today as to whether or not they were romantically involved.)
Every morning Eleanor would exercise in her room or go riding on her horse Dot with her bodyguard. She worked all day, walked the dogs around the White House, changed clothes for dinner, would chat with FDR and then went to bed. She dressed plainly and sensibly and thought hairdressers were a waste of time. She also wasn’t big on cooking, and when the king and queen of England visited Washington D.C., Eleanor served them hot dogs.
By FDR’s second term Eleanor was listed as one of “The Ten Most Powerful Women in Washington.” Those who were against the Roosevelts dubbed Eleanor, “the most dangerous woman in America.” Eleanor wasn’t all that bothered by the second title. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” she said.
When FDR died on April 12, 1945, Eleanor sadly told the gathered reporters, “The story is over.” Actually, the story was far from over for Eleanor; after Vice President Harry S. Truman took office, he appointed Eleanor one of five delegates to the United Nations, which she believed was the world’s best hope for peace. In 1946, she was named the chair of the U.N.’s Commission on Human Rights, and in 1948 led a committee that persuaded forty-eight countries to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When John F. Kennedy became president, Eleanor noticed that only nine of the president’s 240 appointments were women, and she sent him a three page list of qualified female candidates. JFK was impressed, and he created the Commission for the Status of Women in response and immediately named Eleanor chairwoman.
Eleanor continued to work sixteen hour days, and never took another vacation. Known as “the First Lady of the World,” Eleanor Roosevelt developed tuberculosis and died on November 7, 1962 at the age of 78.
Eleanor Roosevelt works cited:
The Usborne Book of Famous Women, by Robert Dungworth and Philippa Wingate
Lives of Extraordinary Women, by Kathleen Krull
America’s Women, by Gail Collins
The Book of Women’s Firsts, by Phyllis J. Read and Bernard L. Witlieb