Finding her voice: Why Eleanor Roosevelt is our favorite wallflower
Heroes are people too, despite their seemingly flawless legacies. Often, we hear stories of men or women who were met with unlikely odds or unfortunate circumstances, but persisted through conflict and triumphed over fear and selfishness. No, we’re not talking about Superman (he’s annoyingly selfless, immortal, and completely unrelatable, but that’s beside the point), we’re talking about human beings who rose to an impossible occasion. Those who found power not from the grooming of others, but in stepping outside of themselves. We’re talking about Eleanor Roosevelt.
1. “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader. A great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves”
Let’s get one thing straight. No one is born a leader — leaders are made and are usually forged by fire or unfortunate circumstances. Eleanor Roosevelt was made a leader not just by the forging of fire, but through fear, failure, and tragedy. Born on October 11, 1884, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born to one of the richest families in New York.
Directly related to Theodore Roosevelt, she was born into a life of privilege and politics. In a world of wealth and beauty, Eleanor had the displeasure of owning only one of these features. Though she was born a socialite, and she was a disappointment from an early age.
2. “No matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and honesty are written across her face, she will be beautiful.”
Her mother, Anna Hall Roosevelt, found her daughter to be a disappointment in terms of beauty. For women in the Victorian Era, life was shallow and shadowed by looks, manners, gossip, and good breeding. To be pretty in Victorian Era New York equated to an easy life.
When Eleanor’s mother saw that her daughter was homely with droopy eyes, large front teeth, and a quiet demeanor, she didn’t bother to hide her disappointment. Eleanor learned what it meant to be a failure before the age of seven. The only person in the world who thought differently of her was her father.
3. “The giving of love is an education in itself.”
Her father, Elliott Roosevelt, was the younger brother of the Chuck Norris of American presidents, Theodore Roosevelt. Unfortunately, compared to his older brother, Elliott too was a disappointment to the Roosevelt family. A notorious drinker, he was often found squandering his inheritance and drinking himself stupid. However, that didn’t phase Eleanor’s love for him.
When he was in his right mind and sober, Elliot Roosevelt treated his daughter with love and affection and made her feel special. He would tell her stories of his excursions in India and of the Taj Mahal and promised his daughter that one day he would take her to see the wonders of the world. He would endearingly call her “Little Nell” after Charles Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop. Eleanor felt, wanted, loved, and safe with her father. But her father often made promises he couldn’t keep.
4. “Since you get more joy out of giving joy to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness you are able to give.”
Eleanor discovered that if she couldn’t be pretty, she would have to be useful. Her mother was susceptible to migraines, and Eleanor would try to help her by rubbing her temples for extended periods of time. She felt needed and wanted when she was of service to others who couldn’t help themselves.
However, tragedy struck when her mother died from Diphtheria, a very nasty sore throat and nasal infection. Eleanor, however, was not fazed by her mother’s passing. She always felt that she could never meet her mother’s expectations and the relationship between them had been strained. It wasn’t until her father passed away that Eleanor truly felt alone. She was disappointed: not just herself, but with those around her.
5. “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.”
After her parents died, she and her brothers were left to their religious maternal grandmother, who felt the need to ensure her grandchildren were raised properly and with discipline. Eleanor felt at a loss. She later recalled in her autobiography that she was “always afraid of something: of the dark, of displeasing people, of failure. Anything I accomplished had to be done across a barrier of fear.”
An introvert at her best, she found comfort in the books she read and the knowledge that was found inside. In a world that felt out of her control, she felt most at peace reading a book or busying herself as a volunteer in charitable work.
6. “Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.”
Many of you are probably thinking Eleanor’s life was very depressing. How a girl so small could endure so much? Forged by fire, ladies and gentlemen. This was only a match strike. Eleanor’s world — thankfully — changed for the better.
At age fifteen, her grandmother believed Eleanor should be well educated like her mother and sent her to study at a private institution in England called Allenwood. It was run by Mademoiselle Souvestre (pictured above). She was headmaster, teacher, mentor, and instructor, one which Eleanor was greatly fond of. The feeling was mutual. Mlle. Souvestre saw great potential in the young Roosevelt girl. It was in Allenwood that Eleanor’s true potential began to blossom.
7. “People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously.”
The foundation of Eleanor’s childhood was constructed with anxiety, self-doubt, and fear. However, in Allenwood, Eleanor found comradery, knowledge, and confidence. Her looks no longer dictated her sociability, it was instead characterized by her personality, her intelligence, and bottomless loyalty.
Her classmates surrounded her with friendship and acceptance, often asking her for her opinions, thoughts, and counsel on matters; both academic and personal. She thrived in an environment that stimulated her mind and independence. For the first time, Eleanor felt at peace with who she was and what she wanted to accomplish. But like the seasons, life progresses, and change is inevitable.
8. “Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”
For all you homebodies out there, nothing is more uncomfortable than a social gathering, especially one made up of family. Eleanor’s grandmother often opened her house during the Christmas holidays and welcomed family and friends to Hall Estate. There, Eleanor, her siblings, and relatives would drink, sing, dance and laugh — but there was no cheer for Eleanor.
Though she loved to dance, she wasn’t fond of big parties or soirees, and she didn’t like dressing the part either. Her hair made up and overly dressed, she never felt so uncomfortable. But, something good came out of that evening. A young boy was in attendance whose name would be forever known through history. Guess who?
9. “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
While standing away from the dancing crowd, a young man her age with a soft smile and good intentions approached her. Guarded, Eleanor didn’t know what to say as he stepped before her. He introduced himself as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and he only wanted to dance. He wanted to dance with her.
Touched by his admission, she agreed and danced with the young Roosevelt. Wait — she’s a Roosevelt, he’s a Roosevelt…are they related? Uh, yes, yes, they are. But don’t think they were kissing cousins. Eleanor and Franklin were fifth cousins once removed, meaning they have a common ancestor way beyond their generation (we got to keep it in the family, ya’ know?). Though their meeting was brief, their first encounter would not be the last.
10. “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
FDR was a man of charm, wit, intelligence, good conversation, and was best known for his sympathy in the state of welfare and his countrymen. The only child in his family, he received the best education complete with tutors and governesses until the tender age of fourteen.
He had big shoes to fill, especially with a family member as president of the United States. He was an influential figure in the life of his friends and family, and later Eleanor — or rather, his soon-to-be wife — was a major influence in his life. Without knowing it, Eleanor Roosevelt was already making her mark as an integral part of politics.
11. “Understanding is a two-way street.”
During courtship, Eleanor showed a world to FDR that opened his eyes for the better. In the early 20th century, housing conditions were deplorable and often inhabitable. Families and strangers would live in small apartments with little access to food and clean water. With a visceral need to help others, Eleanor showed FDR the horrid living conditions of New York City’s residents and the lack of basic human rights. Fueled by what he saw, he was in complete awe of Eleanor’s ambitions and compassion.
She was unlike the ditzy, gossiping socialites that people expected. He was completely entranced by her good-nature and compassion for others, which inspired him to take interest in the realities of life around him. Young, but in love, the two married on March 17, 1905, Eleanor was twenty, FDR was twenty-two. Lesson learned ladies, women make the better man (wink).
12. “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.”
Happily married, Eleanor and FDR lived a busy life in the political world. Franklin aimed to one day be president like his uncle, and pushed to become New York senator. Eleanor also kept busy, but not in politics. Though she felt strongly about New York’s social welfare, after giving birth to her first child, Anna Roosevelt, she felt compelled to fulfill her duties as a wife and mother.
Ironically, being a dutiful wife pushed her in the direction of politics. Wanting to please her husband, she wanted to become involved in his work. When it was clear that he supported the suffragette movement, she felt compelled to do the same. “I took an interest in politics. It was a wife’s duty to be interested in whatever interested her husband, whether it was politics, books, or a particular dish for dinner…I realized that if my husband was a suffragist I probably must be, too, I cannot claim to have been a feminist in those early days.”
13. “You have to accept whatever comes and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and with the best that you have to give.”
As time passed, Eleanor fit into the expected role of wife and mother. She gave birth to six children. Only five survived to adulthood. It was a tumultuous time of self-doubt, self-blame, and stress for a young married woman whose old fears of failure got the best of her.
She especially felt vulnerable when having to deal with her overbearing, controlling mother-in-law who wanted nothing more than to tighten her grasp over her son and daughter-in-law’s life. Her mother-in-law even insisted that her grandchildren favor her over their own mother and wanted her only son to live a life of a gentleman. Eleanor’s life was like a frayed tapestry: The ends were being pulled to unravel and fall apart. Just when she thought things couldn’t get any worse, a storm struck.
15. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
As America was thrown into World War I, FDR was consumed with important matters concerning the country, leaving Eleanor to rear and raise their children at home. When war was declared, Eleanor’s brother enlisted in the air force. Before her death in 1919, Eleanor Roosevelt’s grandmother was appalled that her grandchild would enlist in the war.
When she commented why a gentleman like her brother wouldn’t hire a substitute — a man who would fight his place in the war, Eleanor stood to the plate. “I hotly responded that a gentleman was no different from any other kind of citizen In the United States and that would be a disgrace to pay anyone to risk his life for you…” Standing up to her grandmother was a milestone for Eleanor.
16. “You can often change your circumstances by changing your attitude.”
By defending her brother, Eleanor felt something of great importance ring through her. “This was my first really outspoken declaration against the accepted standards of the surroundings which I had spent my childhood, and marked the fact that either my husband or an increased ability to think for myself was changing my point of view.”
This was only the beginning. With her husband actively involved with politics, Eleanor couldn’t help but immerse herself into a political world. She felt a sense of independence. It reminded her of her time in Allenwood, of the time when her opinions were voiced, and her thoughts mattered. At that moment, Eleanor knew she wanted to accomplish something more for herself. But between being a mother and wife, she didn’t know what that purpose was. She nearly lost sight of that feeling after she dealt with one of the greatest blows in her life.
14. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Between her politically-driven husband, her children, and her mother-in-law, Eleanor was up to her neck with responsibilities as a senator’s wife. To ease the burden of minutia tasks such as answering letters and attending volunteer work, Eleanor decided to hire a secretary named Lucy Mercer (later Rutherford).
Mercer was confident and well-organized with the task of helping Eleanor. However, one summer in 1917, everything changed. Taking her children to a family summer home in Campobello, FDR stayed behind in Washington DC to attend matters as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Believing Mercer would be of help to her husband, Eleanor also left her secretary behind. Then in 1918, Eleanor discovered something that shook her to the core.
17. “Life must be lived and curiosity kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.”
A year later, FDR was sent to Europe to visit American troops fighting in WWI. When he returned from his travels, Eleanor did what she always did when her husband returned from a business trip and put away his suitcase. As she was emptying its contents, she discovers a packet of letters under his clothes.
Curious as to why her husband had a packet of mail in his suitcase, she couldn’t help but look inside. What she saw shattered her heart. They were intimate letters exchanged between FDR and Lucy Mercer. Eleanor was stunned and wasn’t sure how to process the grief.
18. “We are afraid to care too much, for fear that the other person does not care at all.”
There were only two men Eleanor loved most in the world: her father and her husband. Both left her in the dark. What’s worse? Though she asked for a divorce, both her husband and mother-in-law flat-out rejected the idea. After all, divorced men couldn’t be president.
Eleanor stayed with FDR on the condition that he left Mercer and move out of their bedroom. FDR consented to both terms. Though they were still married, their relationship was no longer filled with intimacy and tender love, but one that was a strict political partnership. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of hardships to come.
19. “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”
Just when things couldn’t get worse, FDR became paralyzed from polio. And even though over time he was able to regain the use of his upper body, he remained paralyzed from the waist down for the remainder of his life. With her husband’s affair, and now illness, Eleanor found herself at a crossroads.
Of course, she helped her husband with his rehabilitation. But something inside her rattled. “In many ways, this was the most trying winter of my entire life. It was the small personal irritations, as I look back upon them now, that made life so difficult.” What was more difficult was her mother-in-law continued to breathe down her neck, and as tensions rose between FDR’s best interest and the interests of her own life, Eleanor had enough. She had a mental breakdown.
20. “Friendship with one’s self is all important, because without it one can not be friends with anyone else in the world.”
It was during this tumultuous time Eleanor began to reflect on her life. She thought about her grandmother’s life, how she wanted to be a painter, to be a woman of her own, but was faced with having to be a mother and devoted wife. Eleanor looked at herself and she didn’t like what she saw.
She wanted to change. No longer did she want to be the pitiful housewife who pushed aside her thoughts and had her feeling ignored. She wanted a sense of liberation, and she found it in the form of politics. In a realm charged with power and influence, Eleanor began to find her voice. She began to act.
21. “A stumbling-block to the pessimist is a stepping-stone to the optimist.”
Through rehabilitation and constant exercise, FDR was able to regain mobility in his upper body. However, was unable to use his legs. Thanks to Eleanor’s encouragement, she convinced her husband to return to politics. While re-establishing himself in the political world, Eleanor acted as her husband’s right hand.
When his disabilities prevented him from attending certain events, Eleanor took his place. At first, it was delivering documents and gradually evolved into attending dinners and conferences. She began delivering speeches. Eleanor was a natural born wallflower and hated public speaking, but knew that her husband was counting on her to deliver. Acting as her husband’s eyes propelled her into a world of power and taught her to become vigilant.
22. “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.”
Soon, Eleanor found herself a prominent member in various feminist organizations such as the League of Women Voters and the Women’s City Club. Her ideas and philosophies on women’s rights had the power to really inspire people, and she had the platform to ensure the message would reach many.
She was a skilled fundraiser and organizer and other women began to appreciate and admire her efforts. Other members were encouraging of her contributions and her confidence began to blossom. She began to believe in herself and her abilities. But politics is rarely harmonious, and Eleanor was about to attract some unfriendly attention.
23. “To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.”
The 1920s was an unsteady time for women. Though they had the right to vote, there were still issues in social reforms that needed to be addressed. Women wanted their demands to be heard in Democratic party politics. Eleanor was on the front lines for the protection of labor laws for women and children. To reach democratic politicians, Eleanor and a group of women gathered together in order to demand a role in the Democratic party.
By 1924 as elections neared, Eleanor was determined to have a presence among the party members. She went to Charles Murphy who was the boss of the Democratic party in New York and offered to choose women delegates for the upcoming conference. Murphy refused her involvement and said he would select the women. Eleanor was having none of that and decided to do something risky, yet strategic.
24. “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
With polite charm befitting her character, Eleanor threatened to go to the press should he refuse to allow her selection of women delegates. Murphy was amused by her threat, but paid no attention to her ultimatum. He called her bluff. But what Murphy didn’t know was that Eleanor never bluffed.
She went to the New York Times with the story and the conflict made the front page. “Women must gain the respect of men. We will be enormously strengthened if we can show that we are willing to fight to the very last ditch for what we believe in.” Murphy caved.
25. “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”
After manhandling the Democratic leader, Eleanor was proud of her victory. She went to FDR and relayed her triumph. Though Eleanor claimed her actions were done for the sake of her husband, she’d be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy herself. Since then, the doors to her political life were thrown open.
Then, in 1928 FDR was elected governor of New York and served in that role until his election as president of the United States in 1932. Along the way, Eleanor made her civic duty to meet the people of America, and fight for the welfare of others. “Franklin and I had a desire to see improvement for people. I knew about social conditions perhaps more than he did, but he knew more about government and how you could use government to improve certain things and I think we began to come to a certain understanding of teamwork.”
26. “With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.”
The Great Depression was in full swing when FDR became president, but this did not discourage the power couple from doing what they believed was right for the American people. Soon, FDR would introduce the New Deal and help America rise back to their feet.
As they did so, Eleanor was busy circling the country, visiting the modern Americans and taking note of their livelihoods and living conditions. According to PBS, in one three-month period, Eleanor logged 40,000 miles, giving lectures, visiting schools, factories, and opening fairs. She did all this while writing a newspaper column entitled “My Day” and talked to people from all walks of life.
27. “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”
Eleanor felt especially concerned about the youth of America. She worried that they had several problems including unemployment and the inability to afford an education. “For the young, the situation is extremely difficult. Special privileges are offered them on every side.
If they do not accept, they are considered ungracious and unappreciative. If they do accept, they are accused of being selfish, arrogant and greedy and of thinking themselves important and above other people — in fact, of having all the disagreeable traits that we almost dislike in the young.” By involving herself with youth administrations and aided in providing work for young Americans, the Roosevelts were able to establish the NYA, or the National Youth Administration, which put 4.5 million youths to work between 1935 to 1943.
28. “I believe anyone can conquer fear by doing the things he fears to do, provided he keeps doing them until he gets a record of successful experience behind him.”
No longer the shy young woman, Eleanor felt she didn’t need to depend on the emotional support of others, but found strength within herself, and from those who supported her mission. She re-established what it meant to be the first lady and set a new standard for future first ladies.
Not only was she a force to reckon with, she was also progressive in her time. She believed that all persons deserved an equal opportunity and shouldn’t be hindered by the color of their skin. It was clear that Eleanor Roosevelt was a woman of the people. However, not many completely agreed with her opinions.
29. “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”
As America was thrown into the second world war, there was palpable racial tension inside American borders. The irony of a country segregated by race fighting another country who dressed in the very epitome of racism was hard to ignore. Eleanor held no tolerance for racist behavior and was ready to use her clout to challenge social norms.
As the First Lady, she felt like it was her duty to set the standard for the nation and lead by example. She was deeply committed to extending equal rights and respect to all the nation’s citizens. One such way that she demonstrated this was when she defended singer, Marion Anderson.
30. “When you have decided what you believe, what you feel must be done, have the courage to stand alone and be counted.”
An African-American, Marion Anderson was refused by the Daughters of the American Revolution to sing in Constitution Hall at Washington DC. Being a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Eleanor resigned her membership and organized Anderson to sing in front of a crowd of 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial.
Many felt that Eleanor’s support in social welfare and equal rights was a threat to American society. Eleanor persisted, and in her persistence, she continued to be the face and voice of change in the rights of all Americans — black and white, male or female, rich or poor.
31. “In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”
After her husband’s death in 1945, Eleanor never stopped her pursuit of politics. She mourned her husband, but felt that her place was amongst the American people. Until her death in 1962, she became a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. In 1946, she became the first chairperson of the preliminary United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
She met with future presidents and celebrities and was posthumously awarded one of the first Human Rights Prizes in 1968. Eleanor Roosevelt’s list of accomplishments is an example that one’s background does not impede one’s success. Her story confirms that not all heroes are born with charisma and charm. It takes error, fear, and courage to step up to the plate and prove that we’re much more than what society assigns to us. We forge our own destiny.