Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady (1933-45)


Figure 1.--Here Mrs. Roosevelt visits with youngsters at the Langdon School for Crippled Children in Washington, D.C. President Roosevelt and Mrs Roosevelt were the first president and first lady to be regularly seen and photographed with crippled children. The children are clearly delighted to be so honored. We don't know the names of the children, but the photo was taken in June, 1938. Mrs. Roosevelt was famous for her concern for social issues in the 1930s, frequently visiting underprivileged or handicapped children at the height of the Great Depression. The boy, lying down under a blanket, wears a checked flannel shirt. We can't see his trousers. The girl, about 10 years old, wears a cotton dresss with a bolero-styled jacket with trimmed collar and puffed sleeves and patterned edging at the front opening. She also wears tan cotton long stockings with supporters, one clasp of which is visible at the hem of her skirt. The same kind of stockings were also worn by boys in the 1930s (see for instance the 1934 photo of a boy being treated at the Perkins School for the Blind). The children are wearing typical school clothes of the period, but perhaps the girl (with a freshly done ringlet hairdo) wanted to look especially nice for the President's wife.

Eleanor Roosevelt certainly must be classified as our greatest First Lady. When her husband became president in 1933, she feared the move to the White House would make her a prisoner in a gilded cage. But as First Lady she broke many precedents. She initiated weekly press conferences with women reporters, lectured throughout the country, and had her own radio program. Her widely read syndicated newspaper column, "My Day", was published daily for many years. Traveling widely, she served as her disabled husband's eyes and ears. Her travels were lengendary and with out president for a First Lady. The cartoonists loved to make fun, but in a more gentle way than is common in our modern era. One cartoon was completely black except for a miners helmet light with the caption of "It must be Mrs. Roosevelt." She was a major voice in his administration for measures to aid the underprivileged and racial minorities. When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow black singer Marion Anderson sing at Constitutiin Hall, Mrs. Roosevelt resigned her membership and made possible a stiring performance in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It is often said that Eleanor articulated what should be done and Franklin what could be done. Eleanor made her one venture during 1941 while her husband was president into holding public office herself. She served as codirector of the Office of Civilian Defense. She worked under New York Mayor Fiorlla Laguardia. They had many differences. He wanted hardware like fire engines. She wanted to used the OCD to develop people. Many of their differences wound up on her husband's desk--which he dreaded. Elenpr resigned after a few months following Congressional criticism of some of her appointments. During World War II she visited troops in England, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, and on U.S. military bases. There were few major spots that American soldiers went that Mrs. Roosevelt did not follow them. On more than one occasion she visited the families of severly wounded servicemen when she returned home.

Importance

Eleanor Roosevelt certainly must be classified as our greatest First Lady. In part this was because she was Franklin's Roosevelt's First Lady. The Depression and World War II called for greatness. But this really only provided the opportunity. Other First Ladies did not rise to the occassion like Elenor. Mrs Hoover was First Lady for nearly 4 years of Depression and who remembers her today. Elenaor's importance began before she was First Lady. She played a crucial role in helping her husband become president. With no real political experience, she emersed herself in Democratic Party politics, keeping her husband's name alive while he was learning to live with polio. Other First Ladies had played key roles in their husband's political careers, namely Mary Todd Lincoln. Elenor not only helped Franklin get to the White House, but played an important role in the New Deal as well as performing valuable services during the War. She continued to be her husbands eyes and ears, traveling to places that he could not easily go, both because of his schedule and polio. Even more important, Eleanor was the soul of the New Deal. Eleanor conceptualized what needed to be done whole her husband accomplished what could be achieved. She could raise trial baloons that if ran into trouble, her husband could drescreetly back away from. While not all of what she wanted was accomplished in the New Deal, she played an important role in transforming the Democratic Party into an instrument that would eventually achieve those goals.

Precedents

When her husband became president in 1933, she feared the move to the White House would make her a prisoner in a gilded cage. But as First Lady she broke many precedents. She initiated weekly press conferences with women reporters, lectured throughout the country, and had her own radio program. Her widely read syndicated newspaper column, "My Day", was published daily for many years and is an incredible source of information for historians.

Political Role

Eleanor political role was a departure for First Ladies at the time and one the subsequent first ladies did not emulate. There is no doubt that she played a major role in helping Frankline return to politics. Her principled support of unpopulr isues like civil rights and immigration reform made her a hero to liberal Americans. Her political impact at the time is more debateable. The President did not need support from liberals. They already fully supported him. It was conservatives that Roosevelt needed to impress, including the Southern conservatives in the Democratic Party. An here Eleanor no doubt was a liability. [Smith] But Roosevelt was a master politican. He used Ekleanor shamelessly as he did many other assocites. He often used her as a siunding board for New Deal reforms. Eleanor would broach new ideas. If a storm of criticism followed, the President would dissasociate himself from them. If the criticism wa manageable, the Presudent would consider actual policy mesures.

Travels

Traveling widely, she served as her disabled husband's eyes and ears. Her travels were lengendary and with out president for a First Lady. The cartoonists loved to make fun, but in a more gentle way than is common in our modern era. One cartoon was completely black except for a miners helmet light with the caption of "It must be Mrs. Roosevelt."

The Underprivlidged

She was a major voice in his administration for measures to aid the underprivileged and racial minorities. President Roosevelt and Mrs Roosevelt were the first president and first lady to be regularly seen and photographed with crippled children. Before the Roosevelt's, crippled children received little attention. It was common to hide crippled children away. Of course the reason was the President's polio. Elenor was especially concerned with children, not only crippled children, but other underprivlidged children as well, especially the poor and racial minorities. She was also the first First Ladt to be regulasly seen with poor children and racial minorities. Elenor began the process of raising the issue of Civil Rights to a major naional concern. When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow black singer Marion Anderson sing at Constitution Hall, Mrs. Roosevelt resigned her membership and made possible a stiring performance in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It is often said that Eleanor articulated what should be done and Franklin what could be done.

Public Office

Eleanor made her one venture during 1941 while her husband was president into holding public office herself. She served as codirector of the Office of Civilian Defense. She worked under New York Mayor Fiorlla Laguardia. They had many differences. He wanted hardware like fire engines. She wanted to used the OCD to develop people. Many of their differences wound up on her husband's desk--which he dreaded. Eleanor resigned after a few months following Congressional criticism of some of her appointments.

New Deal Assessment

Wecare a great admirr of Mrs Roosevelt. She threw herself heart nd soul into fighting the Depression. Her sympthy and efforts to help the undeprivlidged andcdispossed are legendary. Our basic criticism is the same that we make of the President. Neither fully apprecited the strength of free mrket capitalism and the bet way of helping peope was to revitalize the economomy so that it could create real jobs.

World War II

The same energy that the Firt Lady unleased in fighting the Depression she continued in supporting the War effort. While some of her New Deal efforts can be ctitizied, her efforts duringthe War were virtully flawless. Shecbegan assisting in Red Cross find drives even before America entered the War. During World War II she visited troops in England, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, and on U.S. military bases. Some commanders were at first not sure it was a good idea--until they met the First Lady. There were few major spots that American soldiers went that Mrs. Roosevelt did not follow them. Perhaps her best know trip was to the South Pacific while the fighting was still going on in the Sollomons and New Guinea (1943). She decided to play a useful role by traveling as an official representative of the Red Cross. She inspected the organization's installations on the islands. The plans for her trip were kept secret and she made the 10,000 mile journey to Australia without an entourage, not out of concern of the Japanese, but to make sure her domestic critics coukd not claim that she was disrupting military operations. She later said that the 5 weeks she spent in the Pacific left 'a mark from which I will never be free'. Always one of her primary interesrs was to visit with wounded service men. The men she comforted were astonished to suddently find the First Lady at their bed side. They would ask her to take messages home, not really expecting that she really would bother. She carefully kept track of these requests and did contact family members. On many occasions she actually visited the families of severly wounded servicemen after she returned home.

Sources

Smith, Jen Edward. FDR







HPC






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