Posted on October 11, 2021 · Posted in Roosevelt House, Roosevelt House General News

Photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt by Yousuf Karsh

Eleanor Roosevelt by Yousuf Karsh

Today would be Eleanor Roosevelt’s 137th birthday.  We can be proud that she was a native New Yorker, born in the city on October 11, 1884. She would always have a home in the city for the rest of her life. Her marriage to fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on March 17, 1905 took place on 76th Street. In 1908, the couple moved into their 65thStreet home, a double-townhouse built by Franklin’s mother Sara Delano Roosevelt who lived on the other side (and now Hunter’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute).  Eventually Eleanor and Franklin had five children who grew to adulthood, spending their childhood years in these rooms, and it is also where Franklin started his recovery from polio in 1921. In 1910 Franklin had begun his public career as a state legislator, then became Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913, was elected Governor of New York in 1928, and finally President of the United States in 1933. Eleanor’s public career evolved in the 1920s too.  While she had volunteered at a settlement house on the Lower East Side before her marriage, after World War I she became very active in the Women’s Committee of the New York State Democratic Party, as well as several New York civic groups, including the Women’s City Club, the League of Women Voters, and the Women’s Trade Union League.  She learned to be an effective speaker, writer, and campaigner for Democratic candidates, skills that would serve her well once Franklin was elected to higher office. She traveled around the US and internationally representing the president and became a new model for First Ladies, active and opinionated. During the 1940s, she also became a good friend of Hunter College and its students, visiting frequently.

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

After Franklin’s death in April 1945, Eleanor embarked on an extraordinary new career. In late 1945 she was appointed as a delegate to the United Nations by President Truman. Starting in the UN’s temporary headquarters at Hunter College in the Bronx, she used her leadership skills to reconcile the competing interests and values of many nations as she guided the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to a successful conclusion, adopted by the UN in Paris on December 10, 1948.  Long after her UN term expired at the end of 1952, she continued as a vocal supporter of its work. She was also an outspoken advocate of civil rights for African Americans, a position that she had taken decades earlier. Before Eleanor’s death on November 7, 1962, she appeared on television, spoke frequently on radio, wrote a dozen books, and traveled around the world.  Her legacy of defining human rights complemented Franklin’s articulation of the Four Freedoms, and their joint belief in the power of public policy to shape and improve the lives of all Americans, are incorporated today in all the programs of Roosevelt House.

In 1936, Eleanor started writing a daily newspaper column, My Day, touching on many issues of the day and continuing for over 25 years. Published six days a week, her columns not only reported on her official and personal activities, but events in the world and issues of the time, all of which can be tracked in columns published around the time of her birthday.  In 1937 she began to thank her readers for cards and notes she received, and reflected on what it meant to be older. In 1942 she wrote:

Last night I had a very pleasant, small birthday dinner. One can only hope as the years go on that they add wisdom. The great obligation of older people is to gain in the understanding of the world in which they live and to maintain a freedom from all types of fears to which youth is an easy prey. Really to serve well, age should free one from false values. It should make it easy to cling to the essentials and to make one more aware of the joys of life, because the time is shorter and there is more urgency to live abundantly.

She frequently poked fun at herself as in this 1944 entry:

This morning had a very large gathering at my press conference, which I think was largely because it happened to be on my birthday. Everyone wanted to see if, having lived 60 years, a very sudden change had taken place overnight in my appearance!

And the next year too:

All of life must slow up to some extent as the years go by. But, as far as I am concerned, the slowing up on the things which do not require physical prowess has not as yet been very noticeable. When I warn my family and friends that shortly I am going to sit by the fire with a nice little lace cap on my head and a shawl about my shoulders, and knit baby things for the newest generation, they look at me with some incredulity.

Her birthday acknowledgements were the lighter moments embedded in columns during the 1930s and 40s that dealt with the achievements of the New Deal, the increasing unrest in Europe and rise of fascism, German persecution of the Jews, and finally the United States engagement in World War II. On the domestic front, she dealt with poverty, racism, isolationism, women’s new roles in the military and industry, and Americans’ sacrifices during the war. In the later 1940s and 1950s, she reported extensively on her work at the United Nations on fashioning the documents to safeguard human rights, and social and economic rights, the need to help refugees in dire straits, the peaceful use of atomic power, the evolving Cold War, and the importance of keeping the UN strong as a peacekeeping organization. She condemned McCarthyism and segregation in the US, and supported the founding of Israel. So birthdays for Eleanor Roosevelt represented moments of reflection, as well as modest celebration, in challenging times.