Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 11, 1884. Orphaned by the time she was ten, the young niece of President Theodore Roosevelt was raised by her grandmother. After attending finishing school in England, she returned to America and became involved in various social service activities as well as teaching at the Rivington Street Settlement House in New York City, initiating lifelong work on behalf of the underprivileged.
In 1905, Roosevelt married her distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Over the next ten years she had six children, one of whom died in infancy. Although her duties as mother and wife took most of her time, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to volunteer for good causes. While her husband served in Washington as assistant secretary of the navy during World War I, she worked with the Red Cross and visited wounded troops in the Naval Hospital. Upon returning to New York City in 1920, Mrs. Roosevelt involved herself more actively with women’s organizations, particularly those that dealt with political and labor issues.
In 1921, Franklin Roosevelt contracted poliomyelitis (polio) and was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. In order to maintain her husband’s political career and to assert her own personality and interests, Eleanor Roosevelt significantly increased her political involvement. She participated in the League of Women Voters, joined the Women’s Trade Union League, and worked for the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee. In addition, she helped found Val-Kill Industries, a non-profit furniture factory in Hyde Park, New York. During this period she began to act as her husband’s “eyes and ears” traveling to places and talking to people her husband found difficult to reach.
When Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated as the thirty-second president in 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to serve as a liaison between the president and the people. Beginning in 1936, her daily syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” provided a constant means of communication with the American public.
At times, the First Lady surpassed the president in her commitment to the disadvantaged. She championed anti-lynching laws, for example, but President Roosevelt did not share her enthusiasm. He believed acceding to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) demands for federal anti-lynching laws would endanger congressional support for his New Deal programs. In March 1936, Eleanor wrote a “personal and confidential” letter to NAACP Executive Secretary Walter Francis White expressing dismay that the atrocity of lynching would not be addressed by the Congress or the president:
Before I received your letter today I had been in to the President, talking to him about your letter…I told him that it seemed rather terrible that one could get nothing done…and asked him if there were any possibility of getting even one step taken and he said the difficulty is that it is unconstitutional apparently for the Federal Government to step in in the lynching situation…I will talk to him again about the Van Nuys resolution and will try to talk also to Senator Byrnes and get his point of view. I am deeply troubled about the whole situation as it seems to be a terrible thing to stand by and let it continue. . .
After Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, President Harry Truman appointed the former First Lady as a delegate to the United Nations. She chaired the Human Rights Commission during drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948.
In 1953, Mrs. Roosevelt resigned her position, but maintained involvement with the United Nations and other humanitarian causes. The former First Lady spent most of her later years at Val-Kill Cottage, her home in Hyde Park, New York. Eleanor Roosevelt died on November 7, 1962, in New York City.
Learn more about the Roosevelt family and experiences of other first ladies:
- Visit the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site to learn more about her life and the modest house she preferred to her husband’s grand Hyde Park estate.
- Photos documenting Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt’s activities on the campaign trail and during the Roosevelt administrations can be found in the digital collections, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black and White Negatives and Denver Public Library Digital Collections: Photographs External.
- Eleanor Roosevelt strongly supported federal funding of the arts, publicly voicing praise of the arts projects created under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Several digital collections provide materials from these projects including The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939 and Posters: WPA Posters
- As an advocate for the arts, Eleanor was also sought out to bring various projects to the attention of the President. The Librarian of Congress during the Depression era, Archibald MacLeish, sought her assistance with regard to the Library’s incomparable collection of American folk materials. Correspondence found in the digital collection, Freedom’s Fortress: The Library of Congress, 1939-1953 shows the Librarian’s interest in finding ways to share these materials with the American public, resulting in an invitation to the White House.
- Search the image list, Chronological List of Presidents, First Ladies, and Vice Presidents of the United States: Selected Images from the Collections of the Library of Congress on the names of First Ladies to find additional images of these prominent Americans.
- Test your knowledge of turn-of-the-century First Ladies in Who’s that Lady?, an activity from the Teachers Page.
- Search Today in History on Roosevelt for more about Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. See features on First Ladies Abigail Adams, Helen Taft, Florence Harding, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.