Eleanor Roosevelt and the Modern First Lady

No list of famous or influential women would be complete without an homage to Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt was a remarkable woman who led a remarkable life. Born in 1884, Eleanor was educated in Europe and returned to America to be a debutante. She married her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1905; at the wedding, she was given away by then-President Theodore Roosevelt. She had six children before FDR came down with polio in 1920, and she tended to him while he recovered and encouraged him to pursue his political ambitions despite his illness. It was during this time that she began her own political involvement, joining the League of Women Voters, serving as Vice President of Legislative Affairs!

FDR was inaugurated in 1933, and while he conducted a landmark Presidency, Eleanor transformed the role of First Lady. She became a visible public figure, travelling the country and writing a daily syndicated newspaper column. For the first time, the First Lady held her own press conference. In true Eleanor Roosevelt style, she only allowed female reporters to attend. As First Lady, she was actively involved in New Deal efforts, travelling to work sites and living locations for the relief efforts. She became a fierce advocate for the poor and disadvantaged.

After her husband’s death and a brief recusal from public life, Eleanor was appointed by President Truman to the US delegation to the United Nations. There, she served on the Human Rights Commission and helped author the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR was adopted and is still used regularly in international law today. Eleanor developed a strong relationship with President Kennedy, who reappointed her to the UN. He also appointed her to the National Advisory Committee of the Peace Corps and as Chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women.

Eleanor Roosevelt remained active in public life and humanitarian causes until shortly before her death in 1962.

Many tout the Kennedy Administration for transforming the Presidency, turning the office into a public affair with images of the First Family living an “ordinary” life in the White House. I contend, however, that this change could not have happened if Eleanor Roosevelt had not first transformed the office of the First Lady. She was not only an ardent supporter of the work her husband did, but also conducted herself independently as First Lady, championing her own causes and performing her own citizen outreach. Since Eleanor Roosevelt took on the causes of the poor, disadvantaged, and human rights, First Ladies Nancy Reagan took on drug abuse, Hillary Clinton took on health care, and Michelle Obama is promoting healthy nutrition and exercise choices for children and families.

We have much to thank Eleanor Roosevelt for, and today we honor her. May we all attempt to live out her legacy; after all, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”!

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