Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 – 1962) was an American politician and activist who served as the First Lady of the United States during the presidency of her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt from March 1933 to April 1945. She transformed the role of the First Lady using her position as a platform for her social activism. Among other things, Eleanor wrote a daily newspaper column, helped establish the National Youth Administration and performed her part adeptly during World War II. After the war she became the first U.S. delegate to the United Nations and chaired the committee which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt made an immense contribution in the advancement of women’s rights and advocated racial equality. Here are her 10 major accomplishments and achievements.

 

#1 She worked with the Red Cross during the First World War

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Eleanor Roosevelt worked with the American affiliate of the Red Cross, a humanitarian and disaster-relief organization. She staffed the Red Cross canteen, served food to soldiers departing from Washington’s Union Station and balanced its books. She volunteered at the Naval Hospital, visiting the wounded and coordinating families’ appeals for aid. Roosevelt was also active in the Navy League’s Comfort Committee, an organization in which volunteers knit sweaters, socks and other items for soldiers serving abroad.

Eleanor Roosevelt in 1908
Eleanor Roosevelt in 1908

 

#2 She was actively involved in the activities of WTUL and LWV

In the 1920s, Roosevelt worked with the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). She raised funds to support the goals of WTUL, which were: a 48-hour work week, minimum wage, and the abolition of child labor. She was also a member of the Legislative Affairs Committee of the League of Women Voters (LWV), a civic organization founded to support the new women suffrage rights and help women take a larger role in public affairs. During this time, Eleanor became an influential leader in New York State Democratic Party and won the support of Democratic women for her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Emblem of Women's Trade Union League
Emblem of Women’s Trade Union League

 

#3 Eleanor established the Val-Kill Industries in 1927

In 1927, along with her friends Nancy Cook, Marion Dickerman and Caroline O’Day, Eleanor Roosevelt established the Val-Kill Industries. She and her business partners financed the construction of a small factory to provide supplemental income for local farming families who would make furniture, pewter and homespun cloth using traditional craft methods. To capitalize on the design movement of the time known as Colonial Revival, most Val-Kill products were modeled on 18th-century forms. Though Val-Kill Industries didn’t attain the heights Roosevelt expected it to, it did pave the way for larger New Deal initiatives during her husband’s presidency.

Val-Kill Shop product
Butterfly Drop-Leaf Table made in the Val-Kill Shop (around 1930)

 

#4 Eleanor Roosevelt transformed the role of the First Lady

In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt became President of U.S. He was re-elected in 1936 and in 1940, he ran for a third term against the convention of a maximum two terms. He won again and also won the 1944 election. The two term convention was made into a law after his presidency. Eleanor Roosevelt was thus the longest-serving First Lady of the United States from March 1933 till the death of FDR in April 1945. Before her, the role of the First Lady was traditionally restricted to domesticity and acting as a hostess. Eleanor transformed the role and was more active than any First Lady before her. She used her position as a platform for her social activism and continued with her business and speaking agenda.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941

 

#5 She was the first First Lady to write a daily newspaper column

As First Lady, Eleanor often traveled throughout U.S. to gauge the conditions in which the Americans lived during the Great Depression and aided her husband in coming up with solutions to the issues. From 1935 to 1962, she wrote, a six days a week newspaper column, titled My Day. In her column, she discussed issues such as race, women, and key events like Pearl Harbor, Prohibition etc. Eleanor was the first First Lady to write a daily newspaper column. She was also the first presidential spouse to write a monthly magazine column, to host a weekly radio show and to hold regular press conferences. In 1940, she also became the first First Lady to speak at a national party convention.

My Day article by Eleanor
Segment of an article from Eleanor Roosevelt’s regular column My Day

 

#6 Eleanor played a key role in the formation of National Youth Administration

During the Great Depression, American youth faced many problems including those of unemployment and not being able to afford education. Roosevelt recognized the need for government interference and acted as the primary catalyst for change. She worked with the American Youth Congress (AYC) and was instrumental in the formation of National Youth Administration (NYA), an agency which focused on providing work and education for Americans between the ages of 16 and 25. NYA, which operated from 1935 to 1943, helped over 4.5 million American youths find jobs, receive vocational training and afford higher standards of education. It played a key role in enabling American youth to contribute to the war effort and stimulate the American war economy.

 

#7 She was a leading activist for the rights of women and African Americans

Eleanor Roosevelt was vocal in her support of the African-American civil rights movement. She broke with precedent by inviting hundreds of African-American guests to the White House. She was one of the only voices in the White House that insisted that benefits be equally extended to Americans of all races. Eleanor also worked tirelessly for the rights of women. Among other things, she encouraged her husband to appoint more women to federal positions, helped working women receive better wages and held numerous press conferences for female reporters only, at a time when women were barred from White House press conferences.

Eleanor Roosevelt with children in 1935
Eleanor Roosevelt with an African-American child in Detroit in 1935

 

#8 She played an active role during World War II including chairing the OCD

After the advent of the Second World War in 1941, Eleanor co-chaired the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) till February 1942. OCD was responsible for coordinating measures for protection of civilians like special fire protection and carrying out war service functions such as child care and health. She visited troops on a morale-building tour, encouraged volunteerism on the home front and advocated increased roles for women and African-Americans in the war effort. Roosevelt also supported the immigration of European refugees. Although her efforts in this regard were mostly in vain, she did successfully secure political refugee status for 83 Jewish refugees from the S.S. Quanza in August 1940.

Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II
Eleanor Roosevelt, on a tour of the South Pacific during World War II, visiting a wounded U.S. Marine in 1943

 

#9 Eleanor oversaw the drafting and passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

After Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945, President Harry S. Truman appointed Eleanor a delegate to the United Nations (UN). In April 1946, she became the first chairperson of the preliminary UN Commission on Human Rights. The commission established a special Universal Declaration of Human Rights Drafting Committee which was chaired by Roosevelt. The Universal Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. Even though it is not legally binding, the Declaration has been adopted in or has influenced most national constitutions since 1948. It has also served as the foundation for international laws and treaties. It is considered one of the most prominent achievements of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor Roosevelt with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Eleanor Roosevelt with the Mexican version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

 

#10 She is ranked among the most influential people of the twentieth century

Roosevelt served as the first U.S. Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from 1946 to 1953. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed her to chair the Commission on the Status of Women and she continued in that capacity till shortly before her death in November 1962. The UN posthumously awarded Roosevelt with one of its first Human Rights Prizes in 1968 in recognition of her work. In 1999, she was ranked ninth in the top ten of Gallup’s List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century. The same year, Eleanor Roosevelt was also included in TIME magazine’s compilation of the 100 most influential people of the twentieth century.

Eleanor Roosevelt on TIME Magazine
Eleanor Roosevelt on TIME Magazine Cover (1952)

 

Arthurdale

One of Eleanor Roosevelt’s primary projects as First Lady was establishment of a planned community in Arthurdale, West Virginia. Named after the former owner of the land Richard Arthur, its work began in 1933. The plan was to take impoverished people and help them become economically self-sufficient through subsistence farming, handicrafts and a manufacturing plant. Roosevelt was a vigorous fundraiser for the community and spent most of her own income on the project. However Arthurdale became increasingly dependent on outside assistance. The project was abandoned in 1941 with U.S. selling off the last of its holdings in the community at a loss. Though the Arthurdale experiment is generally described as a failure, the residents considered the town a “utopia” compared to their previous circumstances and many were returned to economic self-sufficiency.

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