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Famous Contributors: Eleanor Roosevelt

Published: September 23, 2011

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president of the United States in 1932, Eleanor Roosevelt became a highly visible First Lady. Through congressional hearings, radio broadcasts, and written commentary, she showcased the plight of the unfortunate and exploited, highlighting the need for the “New Deal” policies her husband was enacting. Although her efforts drew both admiration and scorn, one thing was certain—a woman so outspoken was unprecedented on the US national stage.

To read a brief biography of Mrs. Roosevelt, click here or scroll to the bottom.

In a series of 1958 articles for The Saturday Evening Post called “On My Own,” Mrs. Roosevelt continued to be outspoken about some of the most important world leaders of the time—including Winston Churchill, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and a young Queen Elizabeth II.

Roosevelt spoke at length about the British royal family, whom she came to know closely during World War II:

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to the White House before the war and later visited us at Hyde Park. I shall never forget the day they left. It was in June, 1939, when the threat of tragic events in Europe already weighed heavily in all our minds. Franklin and I went with them to the Hyde Park railroad station, where their train was waiting. Nobody had arranged anything special, but, of course, the public knew the time of their departure and crowds had gathered. The steep little knolls rising on each side of the railroad tracks were simply covered with people, who waited, rather silently, until our good-bys were said. But then, as the train pulled out, somebody began singing Auld Lang Syne and then everybody was singing, and it seemed to me that there was something of our friendship and our sadness and something of the uncertainty of our futures in that song that could not have been said as well in any other words. I think the king and queen, standing on the rear platform of the train, were deeply moved. I know I was.

Roosevelt recalled how she was impressed by the young Queen Elizabeth while visiting England:

I was particularly struck by the then Princess Elizabeth, just twenty at the time of my visit, but very serious-minded. She came to me after a dinner given by the Pilgrim Society and said, “I understand you have been to see some of the homes where we are trying to rehabilitate young women offenders against the law. I have not yet been to see them, but could you give me your opinion?”

I told her I was very favorably impressed by the experiment in which the government had taken over some of the country’s historic houses that the owners could no longer afford to maintain. These houses had been put under the care of young women prisoners, who had done the work of rehabilitating the houses and gardens to preserve them as national monuments. Thus it was hoped not only to maintain these monuments to the past but in doing so to assist the young women to rebuild their own lives in a useful way. What struck me at the time was that this young princess was so interested in social problems and how they were being handled.

The monarchs were not the only Brits who made an impression on the former First Lady, although Prime Minister Winston Churchill made one of a different sort:

Mr. Churchill—now Sir Winston—is, of course, one of the very unusual figures of our time. He was frequently at the White House during the tense years of the war and he and Franklin had many interests in common—not counting winning the war—so that they enjoyed each other’s company. They could talk for hours after dinner on any number of subjects. My husband, however, was so burdened with work that it was a terrible strain on him to sit up late at night with Mr. Churchill and then have to be at his desk early the next day, while his guest stayed in his room until eleven A.M. I suppose I showed my concern about this at the time, and the prime minister probably remembered it when he said to me, “You don’t really approve of me, do you, Mrs. Roosevelt?”

Looking back on it, I don’t suppose I really did.

Although she didn’t get along famously with Churchill, Roosevelt did leave a very favorable impression on other noteworthy dignitaries—including Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie:

One of the most interesting [visitors] was Emperor Haile Selassie, of Ethiopia, who came to Hyde Park while on an official visit to the US. He was a slight, bearded man with dignity and strength of character and, I felt, a desire to foster freedom, peace and progress in his country …

He would arrive at noon and I was to meet him at my husband’s grave in the rose garden. He was to visit the library where the records of my husband’s administration are kept. He positively must get to the house by one o’clock because he wanted to see a television broadcast of a film that he had made. Then the State Department representative added sternly that it was imperative that the emperor have a half hour alone in his room before luncheon for rest and contemplation.

I thought this a rather crowded schedule, but I didn’t try to argue with the State Department protocol officer. I met the emperor and accompanied him to the library. He was much interested in modernizing his own country and when he saw the excellent system for keeping records in the library he became excited and summarily ordered his entire staff to be assembled.

“Look!” he exclaimed, waving his hand toward the library stacks. “Study this system! Here is how you do it! Here is how you keep history!”

He was so busy examining the library that I barely managed to get him to the house on the stroke of one o’clock. He found a low stool in the living room and seated himself in front of the television set and seemed to forget everything else as the film of himself came on the screen. I am not sure that he had ever seen television of any kind before. In any event, he was fascinated and the minutes passed with no sign that he was ready to retire to his room for the scheduled half hour before luncheon. This rest period had been so strongly emphasized to me, however, that at last I approached and spoke to him in French.

“Your Majesty,” I said. “I believe you want to rest for half an hour alone.”

He did not turn his gaze from the television screen, but his reply was prompt, “Oh, no. It is not necessary for me to be alone. I only wanted to take off my shoes for a little while.” Still watching the screen, he pointed downward. “And,” he added, “my shoes are off.” I looked down. The emperor’s shoes were certainly off and he was wiggling his toes comfortably …

After the emperor returned to his own country, he thoughtfully sent me some Ethiopian whole coffee beans. In fact, he sent me 400 pounds of them and I had quite a time using them up.

Roosevelt also had much to say of another important world leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of newly sovereign India:

As I got to know the prime minister better when I later visited India, I felt he was a man with great physical and moral courage. But I discovered that his remarkable intellectual abilities did not free him entirely from prejudice. In the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Mr. Nehru was completely emotional because of his personal ties to Kashmir. I felt he suffered a stoppage of all reason on that particular subject and contradicted the high ideals that he normally expressed in regard to the right of people to decide their own destiny …

It seems to me that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ method of dealing with Prime Minister Nehru has been unfortunate and unwise. You have to remember that India is newly independent and the Indians are highly sensitive in regard to their independence. You have to remember, too, that since the Communists came into power in China, India is the only large non-Communist nation in Asia. Mr. Nehru firmly expects India will remain non-Communist, and this is of great importance to the West. Yet Secretary Dulles has, in my opinion, made several grave errors in dealing with India. When negotiating the Japanese treaties, for example, he visited various Far Eastern countries, but did not go personally to India. Mr. Nehru felt this was an obvious slight, and I cannot see how it was wise to create resentment toward us in such an important country. Then when India and Pakistan were in conflict, we sent arms to Pakistan, theoretically at least for defense on her northern borders. It created more bitterness against us in India, and it might well have been avoided by limiting our aid to Pakistan to the economic field. I cannot help but feel that Mr. Dulles fails to understand the feelings of many of the peoples with whom we must deal—that he lacks antennae with which to reach out and sense the attitudes of others at times when such attitudes may be of utmost importance in our struggle against Communism.

After recalling her visit with Nehru, Roosevelt reflected on the very different impression she received while hosting a dignitary from India’s even more highly populated neighbor, Madame Kai-shek of China:

[Kai-shek] had stayed with us at the White House and she came to Hyde Park after Franklin’s death. She once told me that she and her husband felt it was their duty to establish democratic government in China and that they should carry on to the bitter end in the struggle toward that goal. She always seemed to me to be a woman of great ability, but I never ceased to be perplexed by her ideas about the establishment of democracy. I think that intellectually she understands what democracy means, but despite the fact that she went to college in this country she does not know how to live democracy.

A Brief Biography of Eleanor Roosevelt

Born in 1884, humanitarian, civil rights activist, and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most influential woman in American history. Throughout the Great Depression and World War II—and afterward—she ceaselessly worked to better the lives of all, and her achievements still resonate globally today.

At home, she fought to improve the rights of women, African Americans, farmers, and the unemployed, and—alongside husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt—helped shape policies to combat deplorable living conditions, provide a safety net and jobs for the poor, establish child labor laws, set a minimum wage, and provide better working conditions. Abroad, she helped create and served for the United Nations and helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Roosevelt was shy as a youth, but her compassion and desire for social reform were evident by young adulthood when she became a social worker in New York City’s decrepit East Side. Around this time she met FDR. During their courtship, she exposed him to the hardships faced by people in the slums; a transformative experience for the “New Deal” president. In 1905, they married.

Eleanor worked with the UN after FDR’s death, where she continued her fight for the downtrodden on a global stage. At this time she helped create what she considered her greatest achievement—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted by 48 countries, it stated freedom and justice were universal and condemned discrimination, torture, and slavery.

Roosevelt continued to work for equality until her death in 1962; she was serving on President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women—which aimed to overcome gender discrimination—when she passed away.

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  • Nancy Hickey

    Instead of politicians placing blame on everyone else – take a page from history and do something for their fellow Americans. Eleanor Roosevelt was an untiring advocate for social justices.