Have you ever felt that the world expected you to remain silent?
So did Eleanor Roosevelt. And she didn't like it. Not one bit. But she found a way to make her voice heard.
When Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady of the United States in 1933, most Americans believed that women had no place in politics. Even First Ladies were expected to “set a good example” by staying home, raising children, and serving as a "backdrop" for their Presidential husbands.
But Eleanor was no typical lady.
In 1921, she had been married to the dashing New York Senator, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for 13 years. She was unhappy, isolated in the home, tending to their six children. Franklin loved another and Eleanor knew it. Indeed, she knew the other woman. Then tragedy really struck: Franklin contracted debilitating polio. It crippled his legs, confining him to a wheelchair for life. He could stand when he needed to, but only with 10 pounds of heavy metal braced to his lower legs.
This might have marked the end of Franklin’s political career, but Eleanor stepped immediately into the role of Franklin’s political partner. She campaigned and gave speeches on his behalf, discovering her own voice in the process. Traveling the state, experiencing the problems of ordinary Americans first-hand, ignited in her a passion for social change. Her growing popularity with the public helped elect Franklin as Governor of New York in 1928. In 1932, her support was critical in getting him elevated to President of the United States.
As First Lady, Eleanor refused to give up her public identity. Instead, she rewrote the job description...
At the urging of the pioneering female journalist, Lorena Hickok, with whom Eleanor maintained a close, intimate relationship throughout her long life, she became the first presidential spouse to organize regular press conferences. She hosted a weekly radio show and wrote a daily newspaper column in which she encouraged women to cultivate interests outside of the home, also aided by Hickok. She even banned male reporters from her press conferences, forcing newspapers to hire women if they wanted to report on White House news. Many female journalists owed their career to Eleanor’s -- and Hickok's -- pre-feminist era advocacy.
She also bravely risked her popularity to push for racial equality. She invited the NAACP leader Walter White to the White House to discuss discrimination against black people. She angered Franklin and his staff by publicly supporting White’s anti-lynching crusade, which alienated white Southern senators.
Conservative whites were shocked by Eleanor’s activism on behalf of black Americans. Many, including FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, assumed that she was secretly descended from black ancestors. But that did not deter Eleanor...
She used her position to help black artists. In 1939, she endorsed black writer Richard Wright for the Guggenheim Award, allowing him to complete his famous novel Native Son. And when the beloved black contralto, Marian Anderson, was denied the opportunity to perform at Washington, D.C.’s segregated Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt saw to it that the concert venue be moved to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On April 9, 1939, as Hitler's troops began their relentless drive across Europe, Anderson made musical — and social — history, singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" to a mixed-race audience of 75,000.
Franklin Roosevelt died in office in 1945, the only US President ever to win four terms. He and Eleanor, the longest-serving First Lady, had led the country through the Great Depression and a second Great War. Now freed from the restraints of presidential politics, Eleanor joined the NAACP and devoted her newspaper columns to educating whites on the importance of the Civil Rights movement.
In December of 1945, Harry Truman appointed Eleanor as a delegate to the newly formed United Nations. There, she helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which forbids discrimination on the grounds of race or sex.
Eleanor continued to fight for human rights until she died in 1962, never allowing age to dim her passions. In 1957, she joined the fight for school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, publicly condemned then-President Eisenhower for his silence on the issue. In 1960, she refused to endorse John F. Kennedy due to his tacit endorsement of the anti-communist Red Scare and his tepid record on Civil Rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s tireless activism pushed many whites to confront social injustice. Her public life changed the role of the First Lady forever and served as a template for later women who sought to make their voices heard in the nation. Her private life, which became part of the public record in 1978 upon the publication of her correspondence with Hickok, has made her an icon of the LGBTQ community. That’s why she’s a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Thanks to Emma D. Dryden of Bristol, RI, and New York, NY, for nominating her.
"I chose Eleanor Roosevelt as a History Hero because I so admire her strength and independence of both thought and spirit. Now more than ever, I think heroism means to be outspoken about what one feels is right and just, even as it goes against what others believe. Eleanor Roosevelt encompasses such heroism."
Emma D. Dryden
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