As strange as it seems and as wrong as it is, there are only three outdoor sculptures of women in Washington, DC. One of them is Eleanor Roosevelt at the Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial.
Eleanor is Franklin’s wife and 5th cousin. I know, sounds creepie but it’s OK.
Eleanor Roosevelt is a fascinating person on so many levels but today I want to focus on how she transforms the role of first lady from hostess to statesperson.
Eleanor is Franklin’s eyes and ears. FDR knows Eleanor will bring him the truth that other might not or would rather sugar coat.
During the Depression she hits the road, she’s first First Lady to cross the country by air, seeing how New Deal programs are working.
After Pearl Harbor is bombed, the first official America hears from is Eleanor. She already had a radio address scheduled for that night. Franklin’s famous “day of infamy” speech won’t be until the next day. But just hours after the attack she acknowledges the fear families across the country face. She knows the fear firsthand as one of her sons is stationed on a ship somewhere in the Pacific.
During the war Eleanor takes to the skies again, visiting troops all over the world.
Eleanor had a regular newspaper column. Her My Day column ran six days a week from 1936 to 1962. In it she discussed issues including civil rights, women’s rights, Prohibition, New Deal Programs, the WWII home front, and other issues and stories that she came across in her travels.
She is also the first First Lady to hold weekly press conferences. Held in the White House Red Room, they were open only to women reporters. She said that “Unless women reporters could find something new to write about the chances were that some of them would lose their jobs in a very short time.” Eleanor held 348 of them in twelve years. She avoided politics, leaving that for Franklin. One of the big scoops she provided reports was that beer would be served in the White House once Prohibition ended. Since no newspaper or press service could afford to ignore these conferences, they greatly enhanced the status of the women reporters who covered them.
Eleanor’s last White House press conference occurred a few hours before FDR died. Just before it ended, she discussed an organizational meeting to be held in San Francisco to form the United Nations. By the year’s end, FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, appointed Eleanor as a United States representative to the first UN meeting.
There she chairs the committee that creates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a foundational document in the history of human and civil rights, one that is very much alive today. It’s the first time the world agrees that there are basic rights everyone has regardless “nationality, where they live, gender, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, or language. The Declaration is considered a milestone for what’s called universalist language which makes no reference to a particular culture, political system, or religion.
Think about what Eleanor had to do here – she had to get the Americans, the Soviets, the French, and all the other UN countries to agree to these 30 points. When it came time to vote – no country opposed it.
Eleanor was also a kingmaker in democratic politics. Anyone who wanted the democratic nomination for president, had to go through her.
She dies in 1962 at age 78. President John F. Kennedy ordered all United States flags lowered to half-staff throughout the world in tribute to this remarkable woman.