Study Guide

Eleanor Roosevelt in FDR's First Inaugural Address

By Raymond Moley/Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt

From Orphan to First Lady

If FDR had the kind of early years that make his bio a little boring and predicable ("Oh, the overachiever from a rich family became famous? You don't say?"), Eleanor's sounds like something out of a Dickens book.

Like her husband and fifth cousin Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt was born into a life of privilege. But unlike the future president, her early life wasn't the happiest. Her mother, father, and younger brother all died before Eleanor turned 10 years old.

As if that wasn't coming-of-age novel enough, it was the headmistress of her British finishing school that inspired the young Eleanor to delve into her studies and return to the United States as a driven and independent woman. Once back, she immediately joined an organization working to help lower-class communities by teaching dance and exercises.

After a brief letter-based courtship (and against the wishes of the groom's mother), Eleanor married Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her distant cousin, in 1903. The couple moved into Roosevelt's family home with his mother in tow, who served as the head decision-maker. She had a hand in every aspect of the household, from decor to childcare and everything in between.

This period of the marriage was hard on Eleanor, who went as far to say, "I did not like to live in a house which was not in any way mine, one that I had done nothing about and which did not represent the way I wanted to live" (source).

Then, a bombshell. Eleanor found a series of love letters written between her husband and her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. This revelation almost ended their marriage, but the couple stayed together as more of a political partnership than a romantic relationship. (Think House of Cards without the murder.)

Not Your Average Housewife

Eleanor continued to establish herself as a new kind of woman, one more invested in the world around her than the "traditional" motherly duties many women were expected to perform. When FDR was stricken with polio, it was Eleanor who convinced him to continue in politics. As he recovered, she often filled in for her husband by making speeches and became prominent in the New York State Democratic Party scene.

After Roosevelt became president, Eleanor had no intention of serving merely as a gracious hostess in the White House as previous first ladies had done. She held press conferences, gave speeches, wrote a weekly newspaper column, and hosted a radio show. She was a civil rights leader in a time of open discrimination, pushing her husband to ensure that the New Deal programs were available to everyone.

Her presence on the world stage far exceeded her time in the White House. Following the end of World War II, she was appointed the first chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which today is an international law that protects citizens across the globe.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a tremendous force of good in the world, often ahead of her time and out of place in a society that had specific ideas about the role women should play. She paid her critics no mind and, despite disliking the attention, spent years in the national and global spotlight to work tirelessly to help those in need.

So, yeah, her life reads kind of like David Copperfield. Eleanor went from almost zero to definite hero…and became almost as famous as her hubby.

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