When Eleanor Roosevelt died, the New York Times obituary called her “one of the most esteemed women in the world.” In 1999 when a Gallup Poll asked Americans to rate the people they most admire in the 20th Century, she came in ninth. (She and Mother Teresa were the only women to make it into the top ten.) Today let’s take a brief look at this remarkable woman.
Eleanor Roosevelt was born October 11, 1884 into one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in New York. But her childhood was anything but happy. Her father was an alcoholic and drug addict who eventually died in an asylum. By age seven, Eleanor had lost both of her parents and a younger brother Elliott. Raised by her maternal grandmother, she was sent to London for part of her schooling. As a young girl, she was called plain, serious, and shy.
In 1903 she met Franklin Roosevelt, her fifth cousin once removed. They fell deeply in
love and, despite the objections of Franklin’s mother Sarah, they were married in 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt (Eleanor’s uncle) attended the wedding, so all attention was on him and not the bride and groom. The couple settled into a house that was physically attached to Sarah’s house. By all accounts, Eleanor’s mother-in-law ran both households for the first ten years of their marriage.
The Roosevelt’s marriage has been described as “complicated” not only because of Sarah’s “meddling,” but also because of Franklin’s illness and his affairs. The couple had six children: Anna, James, Franklin (who died his first year), Elliot, Franklin, and John. Eleanor strongly encouraged her husband’s political life even after he contracted polio in 1921. She herself took an active part in politics. She campaigned for Al Smith in 1922 and chaired the women’s platform committee for the state Democratic convention in 1924. In 1928 she and Al Smith convinced Franklin to run for governor of New York. He did and he won. That office proved to be a stepping stone to a higher office. In 1932 he was elected to the first of four terms as President of the United States.
Eleanor immediately redefined the role of First Lady. She held press conferences and even wrote a syndicated column on political and social issues of her day. She addressed national conventions, gave interviews, and often spoke on her husband’s behalf. She advocated for just wages and workers’ rights. She even went down into a coal mine to experience firsthand what coal workers faced every day. She wrote and campaigned against racism and flew with the Tuskegee Airmen. When the Daughters of the American Revolution denied the use of Constitutional Hall to the black singer, Marian Anderson, Roosevelt resigned from the group. Then she arranged another concert for Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. She advocated women’s rights too and flew with her friend, Amelia Earhart. During the war, Eleanor visited troops and military bases in Europe, the Pacific, South America, and the Caribbean.
She had her critics, of course. J. Edgar Hoover called her “naive.” One columnist labeled her a “menace.” And another described her as a “warbling white haired lady.”
FDR died in 1945. But that wasn’t the end of Eleanor’s “political career.” In 1946 she was elected head of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, a position she held until 1952. She continued to speak out for civil rights so strongly, that the KKK offered $25,000 to kidnap her! In 1960 she campaigned for John Kennedy. A year later she was appointed to the U.N. as chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. She died on November 7, 1962 of tuberculosis at the age of 78.
I have just finished reading The Quotable Eleanor Roosevelt by Michele Wehrwein
Albion, a compilation of the words of this “articulate, honest, and thoughtful woman.” I’ll conclude this reflection by sharing a few of her quotes with you, including the year she said or wrote these words:
* If women do the same work, I have always believed that they should receive the same pay. (1946)
* One of the most important things, after one’s family relationship, is one’s friends. (1943)
* Many years ago I learned that nature had more to give, from the healing point of view, than any human being. (1945)
* Success must include two things: the development of an individual to his (or her) utmost potentiality and a contribution of some kind to one’s world. (1960)
* Her response to FDR’s proposal of marriage: “Why me? I am plain. I have little to bring you.” (1903)
* Her reaction to the race riots in Detroit that left 34 dead and hundreds wounded: “I was sick at heart when I came here, over race riots that put us on a par with Nazism which we fight, and make one tremble for what human beings may do when they no longer think, but let themselves be dominated by their worst emotions.” (1943)
* After an unsuccessful assassination attempt against FDR: “One cannot live in fear.” (1933)
* No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. (1940)
* The basis of all good human behavior is kindness. (1962)
* I can think of a thousand things in the past for which I am deeply thankful, but it is the future for which I am most grateful—for the chance to try again to build a decent world. (1942)
Eleanor Roosevelt was very active in the social issues of her day. This lively song by Matthew West called “Do Something” encourages us to get involved in the issues of our day. I especially like the refrain, “If not us, then who?”
What do you think of Eleanor Roosevelt? the song? I welcome you to share some of your thoughts below.
PS: Please pray for a weekend retreat I’m giving at the Franciscan Spiritual Center in Aston, PA from Friday evening at 7:00 pm, April 7 to Sunday morning April 9 (phone: 610-558-5377). My topic is “The Spirituality of Christian Hope” which includes the wonder of creation, the redeeming power of pain and sorrow, the incredible gift of love, and the beautiful person of Jesus. Maybe I’ll see a few of you there! Thank you!