Top 10 VIPs: Eleanor Roosevelt, The first lady of the world

Top 10 VIPs: Eleanor Roosevelt, The first lady of the world

Unlike many politicians and public figures today, Eleanor Roosevelt was liked and respected by millions of ordinary people

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Eleanor Roosevelt giving a press conference at the Peninsula Hotel during her visit to Hong Kong in August, 1953.
Photo: SCMP

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Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and others at the opening of Midway Hall, one of two residence halls built by the Public Buildings Administration of FWA for Negro government girls
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Who was she?

  • the longest-serving first lady of the United States of America, holding the position from March 1933 to April 1945
  • a well respected politician, diplomat and activist in her own right
  • United States delegate to the United Nations General Assembly from 1945-1952
  • the first wife of a president of the USA to hold her own press conferences where she spoke controversially on topics such as civil rights and the role of women

Early life

Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 11, 1884. She was born into a rich and privileged family, but it was a difficult childhood. When Eleanor was eight years old, her mother died suddenly, and two years later her father died of alcoholism. By the age of ten, she was an orphan.

When she was 14, Eleanor’s relatives got rid of her by sending her to a boarding school in London. This turned out to be a major influence on her life because the headmistress there didn’t educate her girls to go off and get married. She taught them how to think for themselves and become leaders.


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In 1905, Eleanor married her father’s distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, an ambitious young man who intended to carve out a successful career in politics. When America entered the second world war, Mrs Roosevelt worked night and day for the American Red Cross, repatriating and caring for soldiers when they returned home from the battlefields of France. Eleanor was never one for sitting at home doing nothing.

The Roosevelts were struck by tragedy in 1921, when Franklin was stricken by polio, costing him the use of both his legs. It looked as if his political career was over, but Eleanor would have none of it and she encouraged him to continue, always appearing at his side and helping him with campaigns and speeches. Mr and Mrs Roosevelt built up a strong political pairing.


In public office

Franklin was elected governor of New York in 1928, and in March 1933 he became the 32nd president of the United States.

As soon as the Roosevelts moved into the White House, Eleanor made up her mind that she would redefine the role of first lady. She would not simply be a backdrop to her husband, hosting parties and having no opinions of her own.

Mrs Roosevelt spoke at public meetings, wrote a daily newspaper column called My Day and appeared regularly at factory meetings. She wanted everyone to know that she was on the side of the working man of America.

Eleanor visits American troops.


She was a hard-working fundraiser for scores of social charities all over America, and no first lady before or since has travelled as many miles around the country to attend meetings, give speeches and raise money.

Eleanor gave a great deal of support to the African-American population of the USA during her term as first lady, and was one of the few voices in the White House to fight for racial equality. Mrs Roosevelt always believed in looking to the future and she was totally committed to social reform in all areas where it was needed.

President Roosevelt died of a brain haemorrhage on April 12, 1945, and at the end of that year, President Truman appointed Eleanor as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly where she continued her work on human and civil rights and social justice. In 1968, six years after her death, the UN awarded Eleanor Roosevelt one of its first human rights prizes in recognition of her work.


World player

Every wife of the president of the United States since Eleanor Roosevelt has been measured against her, but none has reached her heights of popularity or fame. She set a new benchmark against which the first lady of the USA would be measured.

For her active role, first in American politics and then on the world stage, Eleanor was also heavily criticised by many. What right or qualifications did the wife of the president of the United States have to influence policy and opinion? The role of first lady is to support the president, keep your opinions to yourself and smile. But Eleanor Roosevelt was having none of that. She intended to use the position to benefit ordinary people.


Claim to fame

Eleanor Roosevelt was a mould-breaker. She found herself in one of the top public positions in America in 1933, and she decided to shake it up and use it to improve the living standards of the workers of America at a very tough time in the country’s history. She was like a battleship, sailing forward and knocking all obstacles out of the way.

Eleanor Roosevelt with Soong May-ling, widow of the Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek.
Photo: AP

Today she is regarded as a fearless leader in women’s, workers’ and civil rights as well as one of the first public figures to publicise important issues through the mass media. And unlike many politicians today, Eleanor Roosevelt was liked and respected by millions of ordinary people. She was their champion and she did change the world.


What others said about Eleanor

“She is the first lady of the world” – President Harry S Truman

“What other single human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many?” – Adlai Stevenson, American politician

“She wore frumpy clothes. Her teeth needed straightening. But in all, in her way, she was beautiful, radiant. There were never any makeovers, no Hollywood savvy” – David McCullough, historian

“People were absolutely drawn to Eleanor Roosevelt. Her presence was felt the minute she came into the room. She sparkled” – Nina Gibson, granddaughter

“One of the things people don’t understand about Eleanor Roosevelt, because she seemed so ladylike, and she had that aristocratic voice and that manner: she was as tough as nails. In fact she was one of the best politicians of the 20th century” – Geoffrey Ward, historian


Five quotations by Eleanor Roosevelt:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

“It is not fair to ask of others what you are unwilling to do yourself.”

“Friendship with oneself is all-important, because without it one cannot be friends with anyone else in the world.”

“Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.”

“A woman is like a tea bag: you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.”

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
The first lady of the world

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