Encyclopedia Womannica

Warriors: Eleanor Roosevelt

Episode Summary

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was a First Lady and human rights activist who fought tirelessly for the rights of women, minorities, children, immigrants and the poor.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s warrior was one of the most powerful and esteemed women of her age. She spent the majority of her life tirelessly fighting for the rights of women, minorities, children, immigrants and the poor. Let’s talk about Eleanor Roosevelt.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884 in New York City to Elliot and Anna Roosevelt. She came from a very wealthy and politically active family, her uncle was President Theodore Roosevelt. 

When Eleanor was 15, she moved overseas to attend Allenswood, a premier boarding school for girls located outside of London. Known for her keen intellect and curious mind, Eleanor would later remember her time at Allenswood as some of the happiest years of her life. 

In 1902, after three years at school, Eleanor was convinced by her family to return home to prepare for her debut into fashionable New York society. During this era, debutantes spent significant time preparing for their “coming out,” including performing service projects. Eleanor taught immigrants in a settlement house on New York’s Lower East Side. 

At the same time, Eleanor began a courtship with her distant cousin,  Franklin Roosevelt. Three years later, on March 17, 1905, the two were married.

 When it came to intellect and ambition, the Roosevelts were an excellent match. But Eleanor was much more serious than the fun-loving Franklin, who was a fan a good party. Eleanor would later note that he often had to find other partners-in-crime to have fun with. 

Some of that may have had to do with the fact that Eleanor gave birth to six children between 1906-1916, though one didn’t make it past infancy.

 In 1911, Franklin ran for and won a seat in the New York State Senate, and the Roosevelt family moved from New York City to Albany. 

Two years later, Franklin was appointed to the role of Assistant Secretary of the Navy. This time the family moved all the way to Washington, D.C. Between 1913 and 1917, Eleanor performed all the duties of a proper political wife. For a woman of her intellect and interests, it was a boring job.

So when the  U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, Eleanor threw herself wholeheartedly into the war effort. 

At the end of World War I, Eleanor learned that her husband had been carrying on a long term affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. According to her close friend and biographer, Joseph Lash, this was one of the most traumatic events of her life. Eleanor offered Franklin a divorce, but he refused due to political and monetary considerations. 

After this revelation, Eleanor and Franklin’s marriage lost its romance. The two fell into an amicable pattern of keeping their own, often separate, schedules while maintaining a united public front. In many ways, this situation allowed Eleanor significantly more time and freedom to pursue her own passions and interests. 

In 1920, Franklin ran unsuccessfully for Vice President of the United States. A year later, he contracted polio and lost the ability to walk. Eleanor dedicated herself to helping her husband with his career post-illness. 

Eleanor took a leadership role in the League of Women Voters and began educating herself on the ins and outs of American politics. Eleanor also joined the Women’s Trade Union League and became active in the New York Democratic Party. 

In 1929, Franklin became governor of New York. Back in her home state,  Eleanor continued to play the role of political wife, while also exploring her burgeoning independence.

Four years later Franklin ran for president and became the 32nd president of the United States. The Roosevelts moved back to DC and into the White House.

Eleanor’s 12 years in the White House revolutionized the role of First Lady, and changed the place of women in American politics. She fought for a broad portfolio of liberal causes, actively working to pass legislation. 

Because Franklin had serious mobility issues and because the vast majority of Americans knew nothing about his paralysis, Eleanor became his trusted eyes on the ground. She routinely travelled around the country in his stead, reporting back on public opinion and the issues that were top of mind for everyday Americans. 

Starting in 1936, Eleanor began writing a daily syndicated newspaper column called “My Day” through which she was able to speak directly to the American public. Eleanor also introduced regular White House Press Conferences that were exclusively open to female journalists. Wire services rushed to hire female correspondents, many for the first time, so that they wouldn’t miss breaking news. 

Eleanor did more than just talk, she lived what she preached. There are many anecdotes of Eleanor publicly refusing to abide by racial segregation. For example, in 1939, Eleanor resigned her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution when they refused to allow famed black opera singer Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall. Instead Eleanor arranged to have the concert at the nearby Lincoln Memorial, and it turned into a massive celebration attended by more than 75,000 people.

Eleanor was also the primary mover behind the creation of the pioneering “black cabinet” of the Roosevelt administration. 

In 1945 during his 4th term in office, Franklin died in Warm Springs, Georgia. After Harry Truman was sworn in as the new president, he appointed Eleanor as a delegate to the United Nations. From 1946-1951, she served as chairman of the UN Commission on Human Rights, and was a key player in the creation and passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. 

Eleanor continued her advocacy work throughout her life. She wrote books and articles and gave lectures around the world.In 1961, Eleanor was appointed to chair President Kennedy’s newly formed Commission on the Status of Women. 

The following year, Eleanor died  of Tuberculosis. She is buried at Hyde Park in New York. 

Eleanor Roosevelt is remembered as a champion for human and civil rights  and as one of the most important American political figures of the 20th century. 

As always, we’ll be taking a break for the weekend. Tune in on Monday for the story of another warrior. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!