Literary Birthdays: Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884 in New York City, NY. Her mother, Anna Rebecca Hall, died when Eleanor was eight. Eleanor’s father, Elliot Roosevelt, was brother to President Theodore Roosevelt. He was also an alcoholic who died of the disease in 1894. Her parents’ deaths left Eleanor an orphan at age nine.
From 1898 to 1902 Eleanor attended the Allenswood Girl’s Academy in London, England. Teacher Marie Souvestre became a mentor for young Eleanor. She privately taught her history, geography, and philosophy, which were not generally taught to girls. Eleanor later said “whatever I have become had its seeds in those three years of contact with a liberal mind and strong personality.”
At age twenty, walking down the aisle on the arm of her uncle President Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor married her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She entered into a marriage that was, early on, largely controlled by Franklin’s mother Sara. By the time her sixth child was born Eleanor felt that “Franklin’s children were more my mother-in-law’s children than they were mine.”
Eleanor spent her twenties supporting her husband’s education and political aspirations, grappling with her oppressive relationship with his mother, and coping with his initial diagnosis of polio. When he moved to Georgia for treatment, and took along the “friendly” support of one of his secretaries, Eleanor took the opportunity to step into her own work promoting democratic and civil rights causes. Some of the organizations she directed were the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee and the World Peace Movement and Bok Peace Prize Committee.
Eleanor’s writing career began in 1921 with her first article, “Common Sense Versus Party Regularity,” published in the League of Women Voters News Bulletin. Her first work in a commercial publication appeared in October 1923 in Ladies Home Journal.
Eleanor became First Lady of the United States on March 4, 1933. Her choice to continue her work as a writer, public speaker, and media figure was a bold move at the time and one that helped further the women’s rights movement. On March 6, 1933 she held her first press conference and set a precedent of discussing more than “women’s issues.” In her 348 press conferences as First Lady, Eleanor talked of economics, defense, and foreign affairs, and she held a strict no-male policy. Only women reporters were allowed in, thus forcing any news outlet who wanted the news from the First Lady to hire women reporters to cover her speeches.
In August of 1933, Eleanor began to write a column for Women’s Home Companion magazine called “I Want You to Write to Me.” The chance for the public to talk directly to her on any topic, from political to personal, struck a chord with many people. The poverty, hunger, and homelessness of the Depression had created the need for people to be heard, and within five months Eleanor had 300,000 responses.
Interested in connecting with the American people, Eleanor wrote a string of columns for newspapers and magazines. She wrote “My Day,” a syndicated newspaper column that portrayed her as just another American housewife and mother, yet also contained her reflections and thoughts about living a life so close to the Presidency. She wrote “If You Ask Me,” for Ladies Home Journal from 1941 to 1949, in which she answered reader letters, again on topics both personal and political. This was followed by a five-year contract for a similar column in McCall’s.
It was said that Eleanor used journalism “to overcome social isolation” for women. If this was her goal, she certainly succeeded. Her work addressed everything from the realities of modern life to the moral obligation to further civil rights. Her byline appeared in a stunning array of publications ranging from The Saturday Evening Post, to The New York Times, to The Journal of Negro Education, to Cosmopolitan.
In her first year as First Lady she published her first book, “It’s Up to the Women.” In this and her subsequent two books she asked women to be strong and confident in the face of the Depression. In 1937 she published a three-volume autobiography, which was serialized by Ladies Home Journal.
Throughout her life, Eleanor published and edited dozens of books, wrote hundreds of columns and articles, and touched the lives of thousands of people with her writing and her political activism. Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962 at the age of 78. Who Eleanor was and how she affected the world can perhaps be succinctly summed up in her own words.
“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes… and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.”
More information about Eleanor Roosevelt can be found at www.firstladies.org