If someone’s looks is perceived by most people as being downright ugly, that surely would be hurtful and definitely an overwhelming obstacle to overcome. But what if your own mother thought you looked like an old woman while you were growing up as a young child and didn’t mind telling you so in front of others?
Eleanor Roosevelt writes in her autobiography that she felt shame and hurt when her mother would call her “Granny” in front of a room full of visitors.
She explains in her book why she desperately wanted others to notice her during her childhood . “Attention and admiration were the things through all of my childhood which I wanted, because I was made to feel so conscious of the fact that nothing about me would attract attention or bring me admiration.”
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born into a family of wealth and privilege on Oct. 11, 1884, in New York City. She was the daughter of Elliot Roosevelt and Anna Hall Roosevelt. Eleanor had two brothers and one half-brother. Her father was a brother of Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States.
When Eleanor was eight years old her mother died from diphtheria. Her father, an alcoholic, died two years later in a sanitarium. About half of Eleanor’s childhood was spent at her paternal grandmother’s home, where she was cared for by a governess.
At the age of 15, Eleanor was sent to a girl’s boarding school in London, England, where every student had to speak French all the time. During her time there she traveled throughout Europe with the headmistress.
Eleanor says that’s where she gained much needed self-confidence. “This was the first time in my life that my fears left me,” she wrote in her autobiography.
At the age of eighteen Eleanor came home to New York and it was time for her coming out party. She met her future husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who happened to be her fifth cousin. They were married on March 17, 1905. Eleanor was given away by her “Uncle Ted,” President Theodore Roosevelt.
The marriage produced six children, with one dying in infancy. Franklin Roosevelt’s rapid rise through the American political system was extraordinary. He went from being a state senator, to assistant secretary of the Navy, then governor of New York, before he was elected president in 1932.
During World War I, when Franklin Roosevelt was secretary of the Navy, Eleanor visited a mental hospital in Washington. She was dismayed by the care the shell-shocked soldiers were receiving and the inhumane conditions they were being treated in.
“I was horrified to see poor demented creatures with apparently little attention being paid to them, gazing from behind bars,” she said. Eleanor used her influence to seek larger appropriations for these hospitals.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s World Comes Apart
Eleanor was not immune to the troubles that fall upon others. She was devastated when she found out Franklin was having an affair with his pretty young secretary, Lucy Mercer. “The bottom dropped out of my own particular world and I faced myself, my surroundings…honestly for the first time,” she said.
In her diary, she wrote an entry that seems to suggest that her own feelings were sinful. “Went to church but could not go to communion,” she said.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’ remained married, but they never slept in the same bed again. When Franklin died in 1945, Lucy Mercer was with him in Warm Springs, Ga.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Becomes President
In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected president of the United States. Despite their personal problems, Eleanor and Franklin remained friends, confidants, and in many ways still devoted to each other. She started writing a newspaper column and even held regular press conferences.
As the country was trying to dig its way out of the depression, Eleanor said she believed her husband had the leadership qualities that were needed. “He believed in the courage and ability of men…I believe it was his faith in the people to respond.”
After the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, Eleanor writes of talking to a woman with three small children, who had just lost her husband from an accident. “I’m going to get social security benefits of sixty-five dollars a month. I shall raise vegetables and have chickens and with the money from the government, I will get along just fine,” she told Eleanor.
During World War II, Eleanor was made co-director of the Office of Civilian Defense. Her many visits to hospitals and talks with grieving families left a lasting impression on her.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s Legacy
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945, Eleanor decided to make human rights her lifelong work. In 1946, President Truman appointed her delegate to the newly formed United Nations. “If we wish we can destroy ourselves and our entire civilization. If we do not wish to do this, then we must learn to live together without war,” she said.
During her time at the UN, she became chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission. She regarded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as her greatest accomplishment.
In one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s final newspaper columns, she wrote a favorite prayer. “Our Father, who hast set a restlessness in our hearts and made us all seekers after that which we can never fully find; forbid us to be satisfied with what we make of life. Draw us from base content, and set our eyes on far-off goals. Keep us at tasks too hard for us, that we may be driven to Thee for strength.”Eleanor Roosevelt died on Nov. 7, 1962. Her life mattered.