Ever since my mom put Russell Freedman’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt in my hands, I’ve been fascinated by her life and work. In fact, if anyone were to ask me which woman’s image should be placed onto U.S. currency first, Eleanor Roosevelt would be my pick.
It’s easy to tell, even decades after her death, that she didn’t let anything stand in the way of what she wanted to do—not a horrific childhood, a straying husband, political opponents who believed she was the wrong gender to do anything important. Not a national depression. Not a world war.
Her accomplishments are astounding. She completely redefined the role of the First Lady, traveling extensively throughout the country and the world to inspect hospitals, visit troops, campaign for her husband, give speeches, and oversee the work of federal commissions. She was a United States delegate to the United Nations and, due to her intense work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, remains the only individual delegate to ever receive a standing ovation from the General Assembly. She pushed for greater political power for women, equal rights for people of all backgrounds and nationalities—and in her spare time, wrote a syndicated column six days a week, titled “My Day,” from 1936 all the way through 1962.
The joke, portrayed in a political cartoon, is that Eleanor’s husband, FDR, prayed every night “Dear God, please make Eleanor a little tired.” It does seem as though nothing could wear her out.
I would still recommend Russell Freedman’s biography, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery, as a good introduction to this fascinating person. If you’re more interested in knowing what she had to say for herself, try Eleanor Roosevelt’s My Day, a collection from her syndicated column, edited by Rochelle Chadakoff.
Or if you’re interested in all the famous Roosevelts, including Eleanor’s Uncle Theodore and Eleanor’s husband (fifth cousin to her uncle) Franklin Delano, I recommend The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. This item is available either as a seven-disc documentary, or you can check out the companion book.
For more primary source information on Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR, check out the webpage of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. They have scanned and digitized a huge number of documents, including some of Eleanor Roosevelt’s correspondence, letters between FDR and Winston Churchill, and declassified papers about Pearl Harbor and the atomic bomb. The archives can be found here.
I’d like to think that Eleanor and I could have become friends had we met. I share a similar mindset to hers regarding how we ought to spend our lives—this quote from her April 3, 1936 “My Day” column seems like proof:
“I could not help but wish that more people could realize the unselfish services that the librarians, throughout the country, have performed during the past few years. In the face of salary cuts and decreased appropriations for books, they have carried on and made their libraries a refuge and center for many people who sorely needed friendly contacts. I am more and more impressed as I grow older by the unsung heroes of the world, and wish that some one would write an epic about those who carry the brunt of the world’s work on their shoulders, receiving little attention in return.”
Thank you, Eleanor.