If you didn’t pay much attention to high school history, there’s a good chance Eleanor Roosevelt does not register as much more than a familiar name to you. If so, that’s okay; I will serve up your SparkNotes cheat sheet.
Since today would mark the 130th birthday of one of the world’s most magnificent human rights activists, I’d like to pay tribute with a quick review of five things you may not have known about Eleanor Roosevelt.
She was the first, First Lady
… in a sense. See, when we think of the First Lady’s role in today’s society, we associate it with various social and charitable endeavors. However, it wasn’t always so.
In fact, until the days of Eleanor Roosevelt, the first ladies were pretty mum about all things politics. Roosevelt changed this when she began stepping in to appear publicly on behalf of her husband, then-president FDR, at times when his bouts of polio were too severe for public appearances.
Eleanor continued to raise the bar by hosting her own press conferences, writing a syndicated newspaper column and speaking at national conventions.
She was so outspoken and passionate — a set of qualities rarely allowed to women in the 30s and 40s — that the FBI kept an expansive file on her under the instruction of director J. Edgar Hoover.
She was partially responsible for the swing of minorities from the Republican Party to Democratic Party.
Considering they were responsible for Jim Crow laws, the Democratic Party didn’t always have such a shining record when it came to civil rights.
While Martin Luther King Jr.’s open support for JFK in the 60s was instrumental in boarding the African American community to the Democratic platform, Eleanor Roosevelt truly began paving the path years before.
During FDR’s terms, she was vocal in her protest of discriminating New Deal programs, and worked ardently to make lynching a federal crime, going so far as to oppose her own husband at times.
She championed the appointment of African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune to the National Youth Administration and publicly resigned from DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) in protest of the group’s poor treatment of black singer Marian Anderson.
She wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Okay, so maybe she didn’t write it all by herself, but she at least chaired the 1946 committee that wrote it collectively. In the vein of humanitarian efforts, Eleanor worked with 18 members from various political, cultural and religious backgrounds from around the world to draft basic rights for all humans.
At a time in history when World War II had just ended and human rights were finally surfacing as a point of value and necessity, the UDHR provided a sense of hope and camaraderie for the future of mankind everywhere. In 1968, she was awarded, posthumously, the UN Human Rights Prize.
She opposed the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment)
Opposing the ERA appears as a major curveball in Roosevelt’s history, but it’s not to say she wasn’t a progressive feminist of her time. ER advocated strongly for women to get involved in the working world and in the political world, as well.
She wrote a book supporting these beliefs titled, “It’s Up to the Women,” and addressed public backlash fearlessly in the press and on national radio.
She encouraged women to pick up trade skills and campaigned for government-sponsored daycare. Within legendary Redbook magazine, she was quoted as saying, “Women must learn to play the game as men do.”
While she eventually supported the ERA, her initial opposition was due to her belief that female equality was best achieved by recognition of gender differences and needs, and not by an equal rights amendment.
Her greatest regret was not helping more Jewish men and women escape the Nazis
Eleanor was unable to travel to Europe to work with the Red Cross during WWII due to valid concerns of her being captured as a POW. This did not stop her from taking a stand against the Nazis; Eleanor lobbied for FDR to allow greater numbers of European refugees into the country.
While she succeeded in saving the lives of 83 refugees from the SS Quanza in 1941, she was refused most other attempts. This would be remembered as one of her greatest regrets.
Photo Courtesy: Wiki Commons