Op-ed: Inspiring First Ladies: Eleanor Roosevelt

History has a habit of overlooking the achievements of women. Unless a woman was at the forefront of a great political or social reform, or had a more “refined” role in ensuring peace or settling a domestic conflict, any credit for women’s accomplishments are often placed in the shadows of a man’s spotlight. However, it is often the women hidden in the shadows of the spotlight that have managed to create the most impactful changes. Some such women are the ones who hold one of the highest traditional positions for women in the American government; that of First Lady. Many of these women have had a hand in influencing some of the greatest social movements and changes in American society, and their efforts deserve to be recognized by the greater public. 

Women are capable of so much and have the power to make an impact. This message is especially important in the current climate of political turmoil and infrastructure. It’s especially important for young women today who are looking to not only enter a career in politics, but for all women looking to make their place in our society. 

The first piece in this series will focus on a popular and well-known female figure in American history for her work and courage during World War II and for her inclusion in the fight for racial equality. This First Lady’s name is Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Eleanor Roosevelt revolutionized the role of First Lady for generations to come, and whose legacy of the fight for equality for all members of American society is an inspiring story for all young women today. 

As the niece of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, Eleanor was born into a political prominent family. However, she had a very difficult childhood and endured many traumas in her youth. Her mother died when she was a toddler and her father, who was an abusive alcoholic, died when she was only 10. Now an orphan, Eleanor was sent to live in her grandmother’s house but was mostly raised by the servants of the household. Eleanor started locking her door with 4 deadbolts around the age of 14 so as to protect herself from her uncles’ abuse. 

Things took a turn for the better when at the age of 15, Eleanor was sent by her grandmother to attend an all girls boarding school in England. The school was a very progressive one for the late 19th century because the school encouraged female independence and taught its students that as women they had more opportunities before them than marriage and motherhood, promoting the idea that they could become whatever they wished. It was here that Eleanor began to formulate her ideas of progression and equality that would shape her actions and career for the rest of her life. 

Eleanor met her future husband Franklin D. Roosevelt, who also happened to be her fifth cousin, on a train in 1902, becoming engaged the following year. Franklin admired Eleanor for her intelligence and boldness, and would later come to rely on her heavily during his future presidency. The couple would go on to have five children, but sadly the marital bliss ended when Eleanor discovered her husband was having an affair with her secretary. Though heartbroken, Eleanor realized she had a duty to America and would not abandon her role as a leading activist for change, a position that would not have held as much sway if they had divorced. 

FDR would go on to win the American presidency in 1933 and it marked the beginning of a great period of change in history. 

Eleanor instantly became a hit with the press, soon becoming a popular and beloved figure in the American media. She encouraged the American public to write to her and dedicated herself to serving her country. She became famous for hosting her own press conferences in which she only allowed female journalists to attend and report on what she discussed. Before her marriage, Eleanor herself had her own career as an activist and journalist so she understood how difficult it was to create a name for oneself in society as a career woman. 

She used her status as First Lady to fight for the rights of the “little people”, and was a major advocate for civil rights. Unlike many of her peers, she was willing to take a stand against this injustice, even had a price placed on her head by the KKK because of her activism and was called a communist by some for her outspokenness on the topic of racial equality. 

As Eleanor was such a beloved figure in American society, it was decided by FDR’s cabinet that she would be the one to announce America’s entrance into World War II. Despite the fact that all of her sons fought in the war, Eleanor herself did not agree with war but did her duty to her husband and her country by supporting both. She visited wounded American soldiers in war zones and her popularity only increased as the American people saw her at the frontlines and supporting her nation. 

In April 1945, FDR passed away from complications due to pneumonia meaning that Eleanor Roosevelt’s time in the White House had come to an end. The American people not only mourned the death of their president, but they also mourned the fact that Eleanor would be leaving the White House. Her popularity continued to endure even after her time as First Lady was over and she remained such a beloved American icon that her husband’s successor Harry Truman asked her to join the United Nations and in 1946 she became the first chair of the subcommittee for human rights, a dream of the Roosevelt’s for many years. 

One of her greatest achievements ever was the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, a culmination of everything Eleanor had ever fought for. 

Everything Eleanor Roosevelt did throughout her life exemplified greatness. The fight for social and racial equality that Eleanor participated in still resonates in society today. Her legacy endures to this day and continues to inspire young women everywhere, proving that if you have the courage and conviction of your thoughts and actions, anything you set your mind to is possible.

Katie Hayes is Managing Editor for The Hub. She can be contacted at hayesc@emmanuel.edu.