Eleanor Roosevelt greatly expanded the role of First Lady and the role of women in politics. She traveled the country on behalf of her husband, helping the nation through the Great Depression and World War II, and using her public office to speak and work on behalf of women, workers, and minorities.
Her activism impacted millions of workers when she urged her husband to sign create the 1941 Fair Employment Practices Committee that banned discriminatory employment practices by federal agencies, unions, and companies engaged in war-related work.
Roosevelt also used her position to champion desegregation and equality, helping to pave the way for Civil Rights and the next-wave women’s rights movement. She exemplified this commitment when she resigned her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939 for the organization’s refusal to allow Black opera singer Marian Anderson to perform at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall. Instead, Roosevelt helped arrange a concert for Anderson attended by 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial.
Roosevelt’s work on behalf of the disadvantaged began when she was a teacher at the Rivington Street Settlement House, a community center where workers attended courses to improve their lives.
That activism was amplified after she married her fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and joined in his political ascent to the White House.
During World War I, she became active in the American Red Cross and volunteered in Navy hospitals. At the end of the war, she worked as a volunteer French translator for the 1919 International Congress of Working Women in Washington, D.C. She joined the League of Women Voters and the Women’s Trade Union League, and as First Lady she worked with the National Democratic Committee’s Women’s Division to integrate qualified women into the Roosevelt Administration and the federal government.
Roosevelt acted as “the president’s eyes, ears and legs,” traveling the country visiting relief projects, surveying working and living conditions and the progress of the New Deal, and reporting her observations to FDR. She was the first First Lady to hold her own press conference and gave an estimated 1,400 speeches while in office.
Her public persona was amplified by her savvy use of the media. Roosevelt wrote a daily syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” from 1935 until her death in 1962, and was a member of the American Newspaper Guild, making her the first First Lady to join a labor union.
She also took to the airwaves, first as a radio commentator and later on television with “Mrs. Roosevelt Meets the Public”, which featured Roosevlet talking with such guests as Albert Einstein and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Roosevelt’s public work continued after her husband’s death when President Harry Truman appointed her to the United Nations General Assembly. The “First Lady of the World,”as Truman called her, left an indelible mark internationally when she chartered and drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted by the U.N. in 1948. It was the first legal framework since the Magna Carta to give people rights to liberty and decency.
President John F. Kennedy would later appoint her chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women.
Roosevelt worked on behalf of social causes until her death in 1962. In April of that year, she testified before Congress in support of legislation guaranteeing gender pay equity.