Eleanor Roosevelt’s challenges began at a very young age with a mother who belittled her and a drug-addicted, alcoholic father who worshipped her. Orphaned by the age of ten and taken in by a well-meaning but dour grandmother, she found her footing at Allenswood, a girls’ boarding school just outside of London. The French headmistress, Marie Souvestre, took 15-year-old Eleanor under her wing and gave her a glimpse of what an independent woman’s life could be.
It was at Allenswood that Eleanor learned she had a brain, that she could be popular, and even became captain of the field hockey team. Under Souvestre’s tutelage, Eleanor began to discover the woman she would become and the social causes she would embrace, adopting Souvestre’s commitment to social justice and an affinity for the underdog. “I became more of a feminist than I ever thought possible,” Eleanor later wrote. She wanted to stay on after graduating and teach alongside her mentor but bowed to convention and returned home to make her societal debut.
Nearly six feet tall, slender and with piercing blue eyes, the young Eleanor was not the aged woman that we have come to associate with her. Her teeth were not the best--there was no orthodontic work available then--but when 22-year-old Franklin Roosevelt proposed to a then 19-year-old Eleanor, he was as smitten with her as she was with the dashing young man. A man who also happened to be her fifth cousin once removed.
Franklin’s mother, Sara, was against the marriage--Eleanor wasn’t good enough for her only son. But once the marriage happened, babies soon followed (six in ten years to be exact). Eleanor spent the first decade of her married life either having a child or getting over the birth of a child. Five lived, but the first, FDR Jr., died in infancy. This wasn’t the happiest time in Eleanor’s life. The family shared housing with the ever present and domineering Sara, who rarely had a kind word for her daughter-in-law. “She [had] no space, and she [was] desperate for space,” says Allida Black, founding editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University.
Ken Burns’ PBS series on the Roosevelts documents how the Great War in 1918 became Eleanor’s stepping stone to freedom. Her children were still young, ranging in age from 2 to 12, and volunteering for the war effort was her ticket out of the house. She spent 12-hour days at the Red Cross canteen, doing whatever was needed. She sat with soldiers at a mental health hospital shattered by their war experience. Her husband, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy and not yet stricken by the polio that would take away his ability to walk, undertook an inspection tour of Naval installations in Europe. Upon his return, she unpacked his bag and discovered love letters between him and her social secretary, Lucy Mercer.
She wasn’t snooping; she was “performing her wifely duties,” says Black. Eleanor was devastated; it was the 14th year of her marriage. “This was a double stab in the heart. A woman she trusted and her husband were together.” She offered FDR a divorce, but his mother threatened to withdraw her financial support if the marriage was dissolved. His confidante, Louis Howe, reminded FDR there had never been a divorced president.
The popular perception is that Eleanor never got over the betrayal, which Black contests. Rather, Black says she learned to live with it. “It [was] Mama and Louie” who kept the marriage together “but [was] Franklin and Eleanor who made it work. They [learned] to love each other enough to still trust each other, to give each other their independence, and to believe in each other’s dreams,” she told the Daily Beast. “I think that’s phenomenal.”
It didn’t happen right away, though, and it took huge work on Eleanor’s part, and on FDR’s part too. Between 1921 when he was stricken with polio and 1933 when they went to the White House, they were apart from each other six months of the year. He took time to recover and rebuild his strength down South, and also underwent rigorous rehabilitation up in Boston.
Eleanor, meanwhile, embraced the newfound freedom foisted upon her by the changed circumstances of her marriage and FDR’s illness. She used the time and space to craft her own identity as a political operative and major social reformer. She got involved with the early labor movement and with tenement reform. She joined political and civic groups like the League of Women Voters and the Women’s City Club of New York, where she made new activist friends. She even scandalized her family by backing Democrat Al Smith for governor of New York against her own cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. With two of her women friends, Eleanor trailed Roosevelt around the state in a car with a big papier mache teapot on the roof meant to link him (wrongly, it seems) to the Teapot Dome scandal.
Roosevelt lost the election, and four years later, Franklin was elected governor of New York. While initially fearing her hard-won independence would come to an end as First Lady of New York, Eleanor continued to teach at a girls’ school in Manhattan. She also eventually grew comfortable standing in for her husband at social and political events. When he won the presidency in 1932, she had the same hesitation: what would she have to give up -- the teaching that she loved and all the clubs and board memberships she had taken on? How would she re-invent herself?
She not only adapted, she redefined what it meant to be First Lady. She served as her husband’s “eyes and ears,” pushed him on civil rights, labor rights, women’s rights, and traveled the country becoming as much a political figure in her own right as her husband. She was not only the first First Lady to hold press conferences (which she limited to female journalists), but she also had a newspaper column, which by the time she left the White House in 1945, was the nation’s third most syndicated column.
Not everyone loved Eleanor of course. Her critics said she was “gallivanting” around the country at taxpayer’s expense, but like her husband, she wore the attacks like a badge of honor. When he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs on April 12, 1945, Eleanor was in Washington, and only learned once she arrived in Georgia that night that it had been FDR’s old flame, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, that was with him when he passed away. Knowing how she must have felt betrayed a second time, it’s natural to feel pity for this woman who gave so much of herself to her husband’s political ambitions and to the country, and yet was denied the fullness of her marriage.
“Forget the pity,” Black says. “Sure, she battled sadness, what she called her ‘Griselda moods.’ But she was a woman who knew what she needed. I’m tired of people focusing on the despair instead of the courage that it took to become Eleanor Roosevelt.” How she triumphed over the adversity in her life is what makes her such a powerful role model for generations of women. After her husband’s death, Eleanor continued her involvement with social causes and Democratic politics, and played a leading role in the newly established United Nations. She chaired the first UN Human Rights Commission and oversaw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document as relevant today as it was then.
The core of what made Eleanor a feminist icon is best expressed in a letter she wrote in the late 1950’s to a young African-American boy who had been beaten up in school. She shared with him what she herself had learned at an early age, “Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”