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An Extraordinary First Lady

Historic Context

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was a remarkable leader who redefined the role of First Lady, and worked tirelessly to protect civil and human rights all over the world.

An independent woman with deeply-held progressive beliefs, she had spent years forging a career as a writer, teacher, and political activist. At age 48, she became First Lady when Franklin Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election. Her influence would continue throughout the twelve years the Roosevelt administration.

As a tireless traveler and astute observer, Eleanor provided vital assistance to FDR by making fact-finding trips – once logging 40,000 miles in three months - to get a first-hand perspective on economic conditions and the progress of New Deal programs. She asked Americans to write to her with their concerns and within months received 300,000 letters. The First Lady criticized racial and gender discrimination and lobbied for the appointment of women and minorities in administrative positions.

Eleanor Roosevelt reached out to Americans in ways no previous First Lady had ever done.  She traveled the country on lecture tours and hosted radio programs where she spoke out on public issues and began holding press conferences on political matters for female reporters. In 1936, she inaugurated a six-day-a-week syndicated newspaper column titled “My Day.” Written in a simple, unpretentious style, “My Day” initially chronicled the large and small details of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life as First Lady. But she increasingly used it to discuss social issues and promote political policies.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s actions served notice that she was a new kind of First Lady.              

Several days after FDR’s death in April 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt told reporters “The story is over.” She seemed to believe, at least for a moment, that her role on the national stage had ended.

But her story was far from over. Eleanor Roosevelt was 60 years old when she left the White House in April 1945. Returning to New York, she lived at Val-Kill Cottage in Hyde Park and an apartment in New York City.  She continued her work as a nationally-syndicated columnist, lecturer, author, and social activist. Soon opportunities for public service beckoned.

In December 1945, President Harry Truman appointed her to America’s first delegation to the United Nations. From then until her death in 1962 she pursued a host of national and—increasingly—international causes. She played a critical role in fostering human rights, tirelessly promoted the United Nations, and became one of liberalism’s most effective champions. A constant traveler, she crisscrossed the globe, meeting with citizens and world leaders, investigating conditions, and seeking solutions.

She became, in President Harry Truman’s words, “First Lady of the World.”  

Enduring Understanding

The position of First Lady is not an official government position, thus there is no formal “job description” assigned to the role. It has developed and changed over the course of our history shaped by cultural and historic events, and through the interests and actions of the various wives of the Presidents.

Eleanor Roosevelt defined the role of First Lady more than any other prior or since. More recent First Ladies have followed her example by devoting their time and efforts to advocacy for a number of issues such as: historic preservation (Jaqueline Kennedy), women’s rights and health issues (Betty Ford and Rosalyn Carter), drug abuse (Nancy Reagan), and literacy, (Barbara Bush).  These efforts have had varying levels of success.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a leader in showing that each of us (whether we are students, teachers, First Ladies or ordinary members of a community) can use our positions to make a difference in the lives of those around us.

Important Questions for Understanding Mrs. Roosevelt’s Life and Legacy

  1. What lessons in leadership can we learn from the example of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life?
  2. What issues was Mrs. Roosevelt most passionate about addressing?
  3. What reasons did Mrs. Roosevelt give for seeking change in the world?
  4. What obstacles did Mrs. Roosevelt identify as standing in the way of progress?
  5. What fundamental truths or values did Mrs. Roosevelt ask us to accept?
  6. How can we measure the success of Mrs. Roosevelt’s efforts today?
  7. What actions can we take today to follow in the footsteps of Mrs. Roosevelt’s leadership?
  8. What made Mrs. Roosevelt such a convincing advocate/leader for the causes she championed?
  9. What should the role of the First Lady be?

Using the Materials in this Guide

This hub contains 5 films depicting Eleanor Roosevelt. For each clip we have identified:

  • when and why the clip was produced;
  • the central issues Mrs. Roosevelt is addressing;
  • the social studies themes contained in the piece;
  • a list of enduring understandings;
  • a list of essential questions;
  • a set of classroom activities for analyzing and understanding the clip.

Each of these can be easily amended for use with a variety of age groups and can be used individually or in combination to address important themes in social studies, civics, government and human rights.

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Eleanor Roosevelt Films

A Conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt

Mrs. Roosevelt was on the world and national scene during the most historic and tumultuous years of the twentieth century. No other person was so uniquely positioned to view the changes in the country and the world than she was. She not only observed these changes, she helped shape them.

Eleanor Roosevelt - My Life in Pictures

Mrs. Roosevelt lived a very public life. Her work advancing civil and human rights in the United States and around the world is well documented. Her personal life was no less colorful. The saying that, “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true. And those words hold true historic value when they are spoken by the person who actually lived the events.

Eleanor Roosevelt on Human Rights

Mrs. Roosevelt was a tireless advocate for the United Nations and the role it was taking in the promotion and protection of Human Rights. She believed that all people needed to be made aware of the operations of the United Nations and the work it does to promote Human Rights as a way of safe guarding, expanding, and improving them.

Eleanor Roosevelt - Show the World What Democracy Means

In the post war period, Mrs. Roosevelt, both as FDR’s widow, and based upon her own distinguished accomplishments, was the undisputed matriarch of the Democratic Party. Eleanor Roosevelt was a formidable figure in the Party and used her position to influence other members to support the candidates, policies and ideals of the Democratic Party. 

A Majority of Minorities - Eleanor Roosevelt Supports John F. Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential Election

In the post war period, Mrs. Roosevelt, both as FDR’s widow, and based upon her own distinguished accomplishments, was the undisputed matriarch of the Democratic Party. Eleanor Roosevelt was a formidable figure who shrewdly used her position to influence candidates and policies inside the Democratic Party.  Powerful democrats such as Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy courted her support and endorsement.