Study Guide

Eleanor Roosevelt in On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

By Eleanor Roosevelt

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Eleanor Roosevelt

Maybe you know of Eleanor Roosevelt as the longest-serving first lady of the United States? (Her hubby, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the longest-serving president of the United States.)

And that's a good start…but that's not all there is to know about Eleanor R.

Here's why: she completely changed the role of first lady, and she played an incredibly important role in FDR's presidency.

What's in a Name?

Well, actually a lot—especially when that name is Roosevelt.

Eleanor's maiden name was also Roosevelt. She was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt and her parents, Elliott Roosevelt and Anna Hall, were from wealthy families, so our future FLOTUS didn't want for much.

Both of her parents (and one of her brothers) died in the early 1890s, when Roosevelt was pretty young, so she and her brother Hall went to live with their grandmother.

It's pretty hard to believe, considering she went on to give speeches all over the world, but Roosevelt was serious and super shy when she was a child. Her grandmother sent her to school in England, where she met Marie Souvestre, the headmistress of Allenswood Academy, who taught her students the importance of social responsibility.

The experience brought Roosevelt out of her shell, and after she returned to New York City at the age of 18, she started working toward social reforms for impoverished immigrant children in Manhattan.

Real lighthearted stuff.

A couple years later, when she was 20, Eleanor got back in touch with her fifth cousin once removed, a guy by the name of Franklin Roosevelt. They were married on March 17th, 1905.

World War I

By the time President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war in 1917, FDR had served in the New York State Senate and was working as the assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy.

Eleanor Roosevelt had five young kids at home, but she was with her husband days after the Zimmermann Telegram gave the United States no choice but to join the fight. Since going overseas probably wasn't an option, Roosevelt spent a lot of time volunteering in Navy hospitals and with the American Red Cross, where she saw firsthand how horribly some of the injured soldiers were treated when they returned home.

And Roosevelt was having none of that.

She worked hard to get returning servicemen higher-quality care, and her passion only increased when she traveled with her hubby to France in 1918. Roosevelt spoke with soldiers and civilians, and even toured some of the battlefields, and it kind of disgusted her. She hated war, even if it was sometimes necessary to defend democracy, and after her time in France, Roosevelt was pretty determined to do whatever was necessary to prevent such nasty violence from happening again. (Source)

And really, most people couldn't imagine anything even close to the trenches of World War I happening again—let alone something worse.

World War II

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, FDR had already served a couple of terms as president—and Eleanor had made a name for herself as first lady.

She hadn't been crazy about the idea from the start, although she did encourage her hubby to stay in politics after he was diagnosed with polio in 1921. Ever since she'd been a student in England, Roosevelt had valued her independence and being one of the most famous women in the free world made being independent a little bit difficult. (Source)

But Roosevelt sure wasn't afraid of a challenge.

She totally transformed what it meant to be first lady by being actively involved in her husband's administration. Because of his disease, FDR spent lots of time in a wheelchair, so Roosevelt traveled around the country and reported back to him about his New Deal programs. She also used her position to better advocate for social reforms and human rights.

That became super important when World War II broke out in Europe, and thousands of refugees wanted to come to the United States. Roosevelt advocated for them, and she also worked hard to boost morale for American troops and address their issues and concerns.

Oh, and for all you ladies out there, our girl encouraged FDR to appoint women to federal government positions and held press conferences only for female reporters when they were banned from regular White House press conferences. And when lots of men enlisted to fight overseas, Roosevelt was a champion for women working in factories to create weapons for U.S. defense. (Source)

If Ellen had been a thing in 1940, we bet she totally would've taken Roosevelt to CVS.

The United Nations

When FDR died in Warm Springs, Georgia, in April 1945, Roosevelt returned to New York City. And while lots of people wanted her to run for public office, she wasn't too keen on the idea after serving four terms as first lady.

But she didn't get to enjoy a whole lot of downtime. In 1946, President Truman appointed Roosevelt as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations, which was designed to prevent conflicts (like, um, world wars) from happening.

Roosevelt was all for the U.N.—she'd been an advocate for American entry into the League of Nations throughout the 1920s, even though she had some reservations about the Treaty of Versailles.

But the United Nations was different in a number of ways, and for Roosevelt, the most important change was the U.N.'s focus on human rights. (Source)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Roosevelt dedicated much of her life to fighting for equal rights and social reforms, so after the world became aware of the kinds of atrocities that took place during the Holocaust, she wanted to do something to prevent such blatant violations of basic human rights.

The United Nations outright stated the freedoms all people should have, and it also created measures to enforce those freedoms. Roosevelt played a huge role in that process when she was unanimously elected to chair the U.N.'s Commission on Human Rights and oversaw the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For the first time in history, countries across the globe had agreed all people, no matter what they looked like or where they came from, were entitled to certain rights. Of course, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights isn't legally binding, but in the years since its adoption in 1948, the declaration has heavily influenced the creation of other international laws relating to human rights.

And we have Eleanor Roosevelt to thank for that.

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