Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of our thirty-second President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Through her commitment to social reform she helped people with no political voice fight discrimination and transformed the traditional role of a First

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Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of our thirty-second President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Through her commitment to social reform she helped people with no political voice fight discrimination and transformed the traditional role of a First Lady. This is the story of her crusade for human rights, which ultimately culminated, with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly.

Eleanor Roosevelt started making social changes at a young age. A year after making her debut and participating as a debutante in the 1902 New York fall-winter social season, she investigated sweatshops for the National Consumers’ League [Group Identity]. She observed poverty firsthand while visiting the working-class, immigrant neighborhoods that housed the sweatshops. The mother of one of her debutante friends introduced her to the League through the debutante network. The mother was active in the Consumers’ League, so Eleanor joined in the effort [Early Majority]. After visiting a sweatshop, she made the following observation [Hometown Story]: “In those days, these people often worked at home, and I felt I had no right to invade their private dwellings, to ask questions, to investigate conditions I was frightened to death. This is what had been required of me and I wanted to be useful. When I entered my first sweatshop and walked up the steps of my first tenement, I saw little children of four or five sitting at tables until they dropped with fatigue.” Through membership in the Consumers’ League [Group Identity], Eleanor came in contact with some very influential women including Florence Kelley [Dedicated Champion] who had been the chief factory inspector in Illinois in the late 1890's and had organized the power of middle-class women’s activism. Roosevelt’s chief activity at the Consumers’ League was promoting the White Label campaign. Manufacturers had to submit to an inspection and meet minimum defined standards in order to qualify for White Label standing. According to Beasley, Shulman, and Beasley (2001) through Roosevelt’s involvement in the Consumers’ League, “she witnessed the ability of women to launch political initiatives, to use publicity effectively, and to make political goals personally meaningful” (p.365).

In March of 1905, Eleanor married Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the next eleven years Eleanor had six children. In 1913, Eleanor moved with her husband to Washington, D.C. after his appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy. After six children, Eleanor was ready to search for a new identity. She remarked, “For ten years, I was always just getting over having a baby or about to have another one, so my occupations were considerably restricted.” In 1920, after Franklin was defeated as the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States, Eleanor joined the New York League of Women Voters where she remained active all of her life. “She stayed in touch [Stay in Touch, Connector] with the organization’s leaders and activities because the role the league had played in her life and her belief in its significant role in citizen’s political education” (Beasley et al., 2001). Through her work with the league, Eleanor met women who educated her by giving presentations on such topics as maternity and infancy to advocate for mothers and their babies. This was where Eleanor learned the intricacies of law and how to campaign for policies [Mentor]. She earned esteem in the League by successfully mediating a dispute between leaders about voting practices that threatened the league’s success. She was elected to the board of directors, but in 1924 she resigned from office to concentrate on her work in the Democratic Party. She continued to attend league conventions [Sustained Momentum] and was a speaker on foreign affairs, social legislation, and pacifism [Evangelist, The Right Time]. When FDR was elected governor she entertained league women and held fundraisers at the governor’s mansion [Guru on Your Side].

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected President of the United States. During the period before inauguration, Eleanor delivered twelve radio broadcasts about child-raising and family affairs. She continued to deliver radio addresses that educated women listeners about issues beyond the confines of their own home [Evangelist, Personal Touch]. “She tried consciously to envision the women who were listening...on lonely ranches, in mountain cabins, in tenements and to remember that they were weighing her words against their own experience” (Beasley et al., 2001).

She was able to use the presidency to further causes that she felt strongly about [Guru on Your Side]. She worked to increase the number of women appointments in the Roosevelt Administration. She argued that women should be able to hold their jobs even if their husbands were employed, and made sure there were relief programs for women as well as men. She stressed the need for the creation of youth programs, applauding the establishment of the National Youth Administration. In 1933, she began hosting press conferences for women reporters only [Test the Waters, Ask for Help, Connector]. These women were usually only allowed to cover topics deemed suitable for women readers, but thanks to Eleanor they were able to write about youth, the aged, and poverty-stricken. These conferences [Study Group] called attention to the socioeconomic problems and helped start relief in the public and political arena [Connector, Next Steps].

Eleanor continued advancing the causes that were most dear to her. She began making two paid lecture tours a year [Big Jolt, Plant the Seeds, Tailor Made, Location, Location, Location]. She addressed the Democratic National Convention in 1940 and helped unite the party [Fear Less]. She became a member of many social and political organizations and was finally appointed as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations by Harry Truman. In 1947, she chaired and led the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations in developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Beginning by volunteering for the National Consumers’ League to investigate sweatshops, Eleanor Roosevelt started making changes at a young age. Her many changes included transforming the role of First Lady, opening the door for female reporters, revolutionizing press conferences for women, using her husband’s presidency to further important causes, and ultimately developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt leaves behind a legacy of social reform and advocacy.
Author: Leann Swims

Beasley, M., Shulman H., & Beasley H. (Eds.) (2001). The Eleanor Roosevelt encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. (1998, April). Eleanor Roosevelt. [Electronic Version] Time Magazine. Retrieved February 15, 2007 from http://www.time.com/time/time100/leaders/profile/eleanor.html

Kerber, L. & De Hart J. (2004). Women’s America: refocusing the past. New York: Oxford University Press.

Manns, M.L. & Rising, L. (2005). Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideas.

Boston: Addison-Wesley.

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