Study Guide

Eleanor Roosevelt in Universal Declaration of Human Rights

By United Nations Drafting Committee

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Eleanor Roosevelt

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

—Eleanor Roosevelt, quoted at every high school graduation

Google "Eleanor Roosevelt," and one of the first things you'll see is "former first lady of the United States."

That's sort of like describing Beyoncé as Jay Z's wife.

At a time when the role of first lady was little more than an honorific and women were often consigned to the fringes of politics, Roosevelt became just as famous, beloved, and influential as her husband (and distant cousin), President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Meddler

Even prior to becoming first lady, Roosevelt was a political activist. When Franklin was paralyzed by polio in 1921, Eleanor stood in for him at conferences and meetings, advocating for child labor laws, women's rights, and fair working conditions. While living in the White House, she was both an active advisor to the president and her own political operator. She wrote a daily newspaper column, "My Day," expressing her thoughts on the issues of the day. She held her own press conferences, which were attended only by female journalists. In many ways she was ahead of her time, favoring intervention early on in World War II and advocating for civil rights for African Americans.

Also, she once hosted a toga party at the White House just to troll her husband's detractors. If this happened today, we're pretty sure it would break not only the internet but the entire news industry.

The political enemies of the Roosevelts criticized Eleanor's activism, saying she was too involved for a first lady. They gave her disparaging nicknames like "the Meddler." Despite the old boys' notion that the first lady shouldn't have a role in the White House, Roosevelt only grew in stature. The public adored her.

In 1945, after her husband's death, President Truman appointed her to be the first American delegate to the new United Nations General Assembly. Truman would later call her "First Lady of the World."

Human Rights

Roosevelt believed strongly in the role of the U.N., calling it "our greatest hope for future peace."

Soon after being sent to the General Assembly, she was elected to chair the drafting committee for a declaration of human rights. Helping to draft a document like the UDHR was right up Roosevelt's alley. Other members of the drafting committee brought their own perspectives to the table, but Roosevelt was considered the glue that held the whole effort together. By this point, she was probably the most influential and respected woman in the world

Fun fact: people named Roosevelt the world's "most admired woman" 19 times between 1948 and her death in 1962 (source). She probably would have held the title earlier, but the polling didn't start until 1948.

Back to our story: John P. Humphrey and René Cassin were the main writers of the declaration, while Charles Malik and Peng Chun Chang were the leading intellectuals on the committee. As Malik said, Roosevelt's presence and force of personality were what made the whole thing possible. She pushed the committee to its limits, demanding that the members work insane hours (source).

Most importantly, she went head-to-head with the Soviet Union.

The Soviets opposed many aspects of the declaration, arguing that the collective, rather than the individual, should be the lens through which to view human rights. They proposed some amendments that would increase the power of the state in defining human rights. They also pushed for the inclusion of economic rights in the text, something that Roosevelt had to persuade her colleagues in the United States to go along with (source).

Speaking before the General Assembly, she said that the document would become "the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere" (source). In the same speech, Roosevelt criticized the Soviet proposals. Ultimately, the Soviet Union abstained from voting on the document.

Roosevelt left her post at the U.N. after President Eisenhower assumed office in 1951. Among her many statements about the UDHR, this one probably sums it up best:

At a time when there are so many issues on which we find it difficult to reach a common basis of agreement, it is a significant fact that 58 states have found such a large measure of agreement in the complex field of human rights. (Source)

Seriously, when do that many people agree on anything? Eleanor Roosevelt made it happen.

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