When I started Hey Eleanor! in October of 2013, I didn’t know much about Eleanor Roosevelt. I just knew she was the lady who said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” If I’m being extra honest, I didn’t even know who said that until I Googled it.
Shortly after I made that quote my blog’s mantra, I decided that I should learn a little bit about this woman before I build an entire brand on her words. Because hey, even a-holes say smart things sometimes. What if I liked this quote, but didn’t like anything else about this woman?
In the past two years, I’ve read a lot about Eleanor. I’ve seen nearly every movie about her life (did you watch Ken Burn’s docuseries, The Roosevelts? Do it.). I’ve poured over her My Day columns (more on that later!). Last month, I even went to her house.
As it turns out, I don’t think there is another woman–or person–in history that I respect more than Eleanor Roosevelt. Here’s why.
* * *
1. Her childhood sucked.
Born to Elliot & Anna Roosevelt in 1884, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt grew up in a fancy-dancy, high society family. However, this didn’t mean her life was particularly happy. Her mother, a beautiful and popular debutante, died of diphtheria (though I also read it was TB. Who knows.) when Eleanor was just 8. Her father was a drunk, and abandoned his family often for hunting trips and benders. Eventually, he ended up in an asylum, where he died in 1894– two months before his daughter’s tenth birthday.
2. She grew up wealthy, but isolated.
More bad news: After her mother’s death, ER moved in with her maternal grandmother– a strict, somber woman who also “cared for” her own grown, eccentric children. Eleanor didn’t have friends or playmates aside from her younger brothers, Ellie and Gracie. Unfortunately, Ellie passed away (also diphtheria) in 1893. Sucky, all around.
3. She was painfully shy and embarrassed of her looks.
We all had that awkward phase (me = ages 12 – 15), and Eleanor was no different. However, instead of her parents saying things like, “You’re beautiful, inside and out!” her mom did the opposite. Anna called her young daughter Granny– what she felt was an apt description of both her daughter’s looks and attitude. Nice. Throughout her childhood, she was starved for affection, insecure and considered herself an “ugly duckling.”
And yet, at age 14, Eleanor wrote the following– a true testament to her emotional intelligence: “No matter how plain a woman may be if truth and loyalty are stamped upon her face all will be attracted to her.”
4. She married her cousin, and made it not weird!
Or at least not that weird. Though she and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had the same last name, they were technically fifth cousins, which is probably not that big of a deal. And definitely more acceptable at the time.
5. Teddy Roosevelt was her uncle.
Founder of the National Parks, an spirited outdoorsman with a will like no other (read about that here), I’d love to drink scotch with Teddy! But since that will probably never happen, let’s focus on the fact that he was one of the coolest uncles, ever. After his brother, Elliot, passed away, he stepped in as more of a father figure for Eleanor. He even gave her away at her wedding. And PS he was president at the time. Cool.
6. She convinced FDR to run for office.
FDR was just cruising along, pursuing his political dreams until 1921. At the age of 39, FDR contracted infantile paralysis (aka polio), possibly from drinking contaminated water while visiting a Boy Scout Camp. Eleanor felt that her husband’s disability shouldn’t stop his political career. She, along with Louis Howe, convinced him to run for office. FDR was elected Governor of New York in 1928, then President of the United States in 1932– the first physically disabled president in American history.
FDR led the country through the Great Depression, World War II, founded the WPA, Social Security and the FDIC. Needless to say, he got some stuff done and changed the course of American history. That wouldn’t have been the case had it not been for Eleanor.
7. She stuck out her marriage, even though it got real rocky.
It’s no secret FDR was a philanderer. Eleanor busted him cheating with her long-time secretary, Lucy Mercer (and later, with a few other women). Most women wouldn’t put up with that crap today, but the 1920s was a different time.
But Eleanor didn’t just sit back and take it. Initially, she offered FDR a divorce. Political and familial pressure persuaded him to stick out the relationship. ER was cool with that, so long as their sexual relationship was over and he promised not to see his mistress anymore (spoiler alert: when FDR died in 1945, Lucy Mercer was by his side. So…). ER realized she really had the upper-hand in the relationship, and used it to her advantage. She considered herself FDR’s true equal, and with that, saw an opportunity to get into politics herself– “the forbidden man’s world where all power resided.” (read more about that here).
ER was progressive, and her rough childhood gave her the ability to connect and truly understand other’s hardships in a way her privileged and coddled husband (a total mama’s boy!) could not. She did not take her role as First Lady lightly, understanding the advantage and responsibility of having direct access to the president’s ear. Politically, they were better together than they were apart, and through the course of their relationship, accomplished much.
8. She fought for racial equality.
In 1939, ER resigned the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) after the organization denied African-American opera singer Marian Anderson to sing at their Washington DC auditorium.
On February 26, 1939, Mrs. Roosevelt submitted her letter of resignation, declaring that the DAR had “an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way” but had “failed to do so.” In her daily newspaper column, My Day, ER addressed the situation, “to remain as a member implies approval of that action, therefore I am resigning.”
Later that year, she asked Anderson to sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial in front of an audience of 75,000. Boom.
9. She probably found her true love, but that’s none of your business.
It’s speculated that Eleanor carried on a decades long relationship with close friend Lorena Hickok, who she wrote to almost daily. Some of their letters were published, and I’ve read a few (what’s left of them– many were burned after Eleanor’s death). It’s pretty clear these two were extremely close. And none of that is any of our business, but I sincerely hope that Eleanor found love and happiness, because she deserved it. It makes me sad that if she and Hick were carrying on a relationship, it had to be secret, but it was a different time.
10. She was a fearless badass, part 1.
In fact, in many ways, she was a reluctant First Lady. She made herself more accessible than any of her predecessors, but also maintained a private life. She refused to allow Secret Service to accompany her anywhere, instead opting to carry a loaded gun that she knew how to use in the glove compartment of her car.
11. She was at least 50 percent of the presidency.
Okay, so up until this point, most first ladies had just planned parties and looked pretty. Which was fine, but not up Eleanor’s alley. Because her husband was confined to a wheelchair, it made travel challenging. So Eleanor traveled the world on his behalf– meeting with dignitaries, royalty and the American people. She spent so few nights at the White House, when she did, I was big news.
12. She disliked her voice, and didn’t like public speaking.
Eleanor was shy, disliked her voice and didn’t enjoy being the center of attention. However, she had big ideas– on issues like human rights, racial equality and creating jobs for those affected by the Depression. She was afraid to stand up and speak, but she as the wife of one of the most powerful men in the world, she understood her privileged place. So she faced her fears and did it anyway.
13. She was the first blogger.
Well, not actually. But form 1935 – 1962, Eleanor wrote a newspaper column six days a week that was syndicated all over the country. From racial issues to big events (like Prohibition and Pearl Harbor) and day-to-day happenings at the White House, Eleanor wrote her My Day columns herself. Can you imagine Michelle Obama writing a blog (or newspaper column) herself? It just couldn’t happen today– because political messaging is so hyper-crafted, and the American people are so hyper-critical that it would probably create too much of a racket.
But I wish we could share real stories about what’s actually going on in Washington. In some ways, I believe we’ve stripped all the realness out of politics, and it makes me wonder if our leadership will ever be as effective as it was during FDR’s presidency. Anyhoo.
14. She was a terrible cook.
Please enjoy this article.
15. She was a fearless bad-ass, part 2.
Did you know a 74-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt drove through prime KKK territory in 1958 with a $25k bounty on her head? No secret service. No security. Just her, another 70-something-year-old woman and a pistol. Badass. (Read more about that here).
16. She Was Appointed to the First American Delegation to the United Nations.
In 1945, Eleanor was the only woman appointed to the first-ever American delegation for the UN— which was created by her husband. During her 7 year stint, she chaired the Human Rights committee and penned the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Still in use today!
* * *
When I got to 16, I realized I could easily do another 16. And maybe more. So let’s go ahead and call this a two-part series. All I know for sure is that when I see a young girl looking up to Beyonce, all I want to tell her is that Eleanor Roosevelt is so much cooler. She was running the world in a way that’s still relevant today, waaay before Bey. Literally.
Learn more about Eleanor’s legacy at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill.
More on Eleanor Roosevelt: