Born today in 1884, Eleanor Roosevelt suffered tragic losses as a child. When she was eight, diphtheria killed her mother and a little brother. The next year, her alcoholic father — confined to a sanitarium and delirious from withdrawal — leapt from a window and died.
Though orphaned, she belonged to a wealthy and prestigious family. Eleanor’s grandmother raised her until she turned 15, then sent her to a finishing school in England, where she acquired an excellent feminist education. When she returned, Eleanor met and fell in love with a distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt gave away his niece at her wedding.
It was not a happy marriage. They lived with Franklin’s overbearing mother. Eleanor bore six children, but generally delegated their care to the hired help. She resented her husband’s serial infidelity, but when polio crippled him, Eleanor supported his rehabilitation and helped persuade him to persevere in his political ambitions, first as governor of New York (1929–33) and then as president of the United States (1933–45).
Franklin’s limited mobility gave her the opportunity to play an unprecedented public role, to travel and speak on his behalf.
At the same time, she cultivated an independent identity as an activist and gadfly, steadily nudging her husband and the country toward more progressive positions on labor and human rights issues. She forced newspapers to hire female journalists by banning male reporters from her press conferences. Her book royalties and lecture fees consistently exceeded Franklin’s presidential salary. Six days a week from 1935 until her death in 1962, she wrote “My Day,” a widely syndicated newspaper column.
Of course, Eleanor lost some battles. As Nazi tyranny increased, she urged her husband to accept more Jewish refugees. He declined. After Pearl Harbor, she outraged many by defending the loyalty of Japanese Americans. Franklin confined them to internment camps, anyway.
After her husband died, she resisted requests to run for political office, but President Truman appointed Eleanor as a delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations. She helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a soaring document which the UN adopted unanimously, thanks to courteous abstentions from the benighted (Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the Soviet bloc).
Recognizing her international leadership, Truman called her “First Lady of the World.”
“Sometimes I wonder if we shall ever grow up in our politics and say definite things which mean something, or whether we shall always go on using generalities to which everyone can subscribe, and which mean very little.” (1940)
“[McCarthyism] worries me primarily because little people have become frightened and we find ourselves living in the atmosphere of a police state, where people close doors before they state what they think or look over their shoulders apprehensively before they express an opinion. I have been one of those who have carried the fight for complete freedom of information in the United Nations…. I feel that the fundamental right of freedom of thought and expression is essential…. In our country we must trust the people to hear and see both the good and the bad and to choose the good.” (1947)
“The mobilization of world opinion and methods of negotiation should be developed and used by every nation in order to strengthen the United Nations. Then if we are forced into war, it will be because there has been no way to prevent it through negotiation and the mobilization of world opinion. In which case we should have the voluntary support of many nations, which is far better than the decision of one nation alone, or even of a few nations.” (1954)
“If the use of leisure time is confined to looking at TV for a few extra hours every day, we will deteriorate as a people.” (1958)
“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. In stopping to think through the meaning of what I have learned, there is much that I believe intensely, much I am unsure of. In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And, the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” (1960)
“A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all-knowing and therefore all of us need both love and charity.” (1960)
“We must know what we think and speak out, even at the risk of unpopularity. In the final analysis, a democratic government represents the sum total of the courage and the integrity of its individuals. It cannot be better than they are. … In the long run there is no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely and then act boldly.” (1962)