The legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt is essentially contested. To many, her role as First Lady, delegate to the UN, Democratic Party member, humanitarian and social activist immortalized her as “the conscience of the nation”.  However critics - deriding her as a “gadfly” and an “unfit woman” - cite many flaws in her leadership capacity. Roosevelt was never elected to office. She was reluctant to assume the responsibilities of being the First Lady. Unlike Lincoln or King no single ‘great’ speech defined her vision, passion or ideology.  In effect, the success of Roosevelt is merely the result of a privileged background and simply being ‘in the right place, at the right time’.  This conflict formed the starting point of our research. 


In June 2002 the Eleanor Roosevelt Learning Team met with Senator Hillary Clinton. Motivated by the above debate we asked what it was that made Roosevelt stand out amongst other great leaders of the US.  Senator Clinton expounded a convincing hypothesis, arguing that Roosevelt was one of the most influential figures in 20th Century history with a life spanning some of the most dramatic and challenging events in modern history e.g. the Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the civil rights movements. 


Senator Clinton argued that Roosevelt’s achievements were numerous.  For example, as America’s longest serving First Lady she re-defined the office and worked tirelessly in the interests of US people starved of opportunity and equality such as underprivileged children, coal miners, African Americans.  As Chair of the UN Committee III she extended her compassion and interest in human rights by playing a pivotal role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, perhaps her greatest and most enduring achievement.


What Senator Clinton stressed most however was the unique nature of Roosevelt’s leadership style and skill.  Throughout her life Roosevelt held a deep commitment to the principle of citizenship; she led by the people and with the people. Steadfast in her commitment to America, democracy, and a world that honored human rights, she told Americans across the Nation, "We are on trial to show what democracy means."  Throughout her life Roosevelt opted to act on this motto.  Her last printed words read “Staying aloof is not an option, but an act of cowardice”. 


Senator Clinton’s hypothesis that Roosevelt’s leadership style was based on a principle of citizenship, emerged as the focus point of our research:  In this capacity her achievements were numerous and her influence all-pervading.  But how was this achieved?  To answer this question The Eleanor Roosevelt Learning Team decided to proceed with our research using primary resources.  Continuing from our interview with Senator Clinton, we solicited the advice of leading Roosevelt scholars:  Prof. Robin Gerber (Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland), Dr. Allida Black (George Washington University) and Vern Newton (Former Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library).


From our research what quickly emerged was that to understand the leadership capacity of Eleanor Roosevelt one has to understand her personal circumstances, personality and family background.  As a result our research work focused on the characteristics driving the brilliance that is Eleanor Roosevelt.  Drawing from lengthy interviews with the Roosevelt scholars three characteristics emerged (i) her transformation ii) her courage iii) her ability to break beyond expectations.


The chapter proceeds as follows.  It begins by providing biographical information on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt.  Then each characteristic is fully dissected with an emphasis on how it relates to Roosevelt’s leadership.



"...some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."
Twelfth Night




It is very easy to take for granted that a leader, an individual who has at any time held a position of power, somebody who has spent time in the public eye, a public figure who has fought for principles and pressed for change has led a life that was a world apart from mine or yours. It is easy to presume that that person is in the position they are in because of money, connections or an extraordinary intellect. We may suppose that any adversity or problems that this type of person has encountered are on another level to those that we face. Perhaps we don’t imagine that there were private obstacles to overcome, personality traits that needed adjustment or adaptation, that private insecurities or personal failings had to be surmounted. It is simplest to assume that the role of leadership was cut out for him/her alone. More often than not, one imagines that the “leader” in an individual emerges early on in life, apparent from an early age: a bright child with above average intelligence, active in all walks of life, successful in anything that he puts his/her hand to, popular with peers and admired by elders. But nothing is that simple.


Take Eleanor Roosevelt: 


Eleanor Roosevelt was born into a rich elitist family. Her life was blessed with plenty, and she was brought up on a diet of French maids, German maids and governesses. Her wealthy extended family assured her the privilege of lavish living arrangements, she was brought on frequent visits to the theater, she had libraries of books at her disposal and was given the chance to travel the world. The circumstances of her privileged yet very dysfunctional childhood left her wanting for nothing but the intangible: love, affection, praise and recognition.


Juxtaposed against her mother, a beautiful socialite, she was a plain child with a lackluster personality. Her mother was ashamed of this facet of her daughter’s person and Eleanor was brought up being very conscious of her looks and her lack of manners. She had an unhealthy obsession with her looks and it is obvious from her biography that it was an element of her person that she could not come to terms with in her early years. She attended dances and was notably affected by the lack of attention shown to her. “By no stretch of the imagination was I a popular debutante!” She struggled with this obsession through her whole career and it may have been responsible for her discomfort in the ceremonial role of “First Lady”


Eleanor was heavily influenced by her elitist background, as she was probably more strictly kept to the formalities than were many of her friends. “ I was a curious mix of extreme innocence and unworldliness with a great deal of knowledge of some of the less agreeable sides of life, which didn’t seem to make me any more sophisticated or less innocent.” She admitted that she had “painfully high ideals and a tremendous sense of duty entirely unrelieved by any sense of humour”. Things were either right or wrong toher. Her privileged lifestyle and that of those around her had forced her into a complacency that blinkered her from recognizing the necessity to change.


Although Eleanor had high standards of what it meant to be a wife and mother, she did not have the faintest notion of what it meant to be either. She neither welcomed the pressures and the challenges of motherhood nor did she fall into this role with any degree of ease. She slipped very easily into being an entirely dependant person, relying on maids to see to her children’s needs and her mother-in-law to deal with the administrational aspects of her own life. Furthermore, according to primary sources, her culinary skills also left a lot to be desired!!


Eleanor’s political inclinations did not emerge until a very late stage in her life, which was very much in keeping with the role that women had to play on the political stage of the early 20th century. In fact, she looked upon woman suffrage with disgust, as she believed that men were superior creatures and knew more about politics than women did.


Having no consolidated political views, she used the quickness of her mind to delve into other’s opinions and use that knowledge as her own. Consequently she developed no individual initiative, but placidly absorbed the personalities of those around her, letting their tastes absorb dominate her. She played no part in the early stages of her husband’s political career, nor did it ever occur to her that she had anything but a domestic part to play. Women of her class were very much “slaves of the Washington social system” and Eleanor admitted abhorrence towards any woman showing signs of breaking this mould, horrified by this “appalling display of courage and independence!” Her duty lay with her husband’s political life. “What contribution could I possibly make of an individual nature?” How wrong could she have been.


Insecure in social gatherings, she never mastered the art of the superficial small talk that dominated the high society circles she was obliged to frequent. She also felt much more at ease among older people, feeling inadequate to meet young people on their own gay, light terms. She was also quite certain that she would never utter a word aloud in a public place. An innate shyness swept over her when faced with a crowd. Her fears were not unfounded, and she appeared painfully self-conscious when in front of a crowd: her uncultivated voice soared to unflatteringly piercing levels and her monologues were often interspersed with spasmodic bouts of nervous laughter. People were known to squirm with embarrassment on her behalf.


Yet this woman was to become one of the most prolific female leaders of her time? She was to be accredited with changing the face of the role of First Lady: homemaker or policy-maker? Having failed at the culinary school of art, Eleanor didn’t really have an option! Change was inevitable. It was only the consequences of her later years that allowed Eleanor to look back with disgust at this early lifestyle.


Her escape to Allenswood boarding school in England was a watershed in her early life. It set the scene for her first taste of a world where she wasn’t being constantly disparaged by the people around her. She described it herself as “the start of a new life, free from former sins. This was the first time in my life that my fears left me.” Mlle. Souvestre, the headmistress of the school and a recipient of a great deal of Eleanor’s affections actively encouraged learning. Suddenly for Eleanor, delving curiosity and spirited spontaneity became positive elements that were to be striven for and not dejected, as she had come to believe from her home life. “Never again would I be the rigid little person I’d been theretofore.” According to Eleanor’s biographer Blanche Wiesen Cooke, Mlle. Souvestre was a passionate humanist committed to social justice, (she) inspired young people to think about leadership, to think for themselves, and above all to think about a nobler more decent future. Eleanor saw Mlle. Souvestre as a personal mentor, an important element in building personal leadership and she testified to the importance of Souvestre’s impact her life when she said: “what you are in life results in great part from the influence exerted over you over the years by just a few people”.


Louis Howe, Eleanor’s husband’s close political confidante, can also be attributed with contributing to Eleanor’s personal development. He focused what he called Eleanor’s “natural gifts for communication and politics” and coached her in the art of public speaking. “You can do anything you have to do,” he told her. “Now, get out there and try”. With his aid, Eleanor was transformed from a stuttering, giggling speaker to a prepared and well-versed orator. She learned to take a deep breath to alleviate her nervousness and hold the podium to still her shaking hands; she took voice training and eventually overcame the shortfalls of her quavering voice. She was taught to work at being prepared in order to boost her level of confidence. The change in Eleanor was so effective that she began to electrify audiences with her spirited messages and heartfelt delivery. She used her public limelight to gain recognition for a wide span of issues, ranging from women’s rights to improved working conditions, social justice, anti-lynching laws, civil rights, conflict resolution, the list is endless.


As was apparent, Eleanor’s childhood and formative years did not necessarily set the scene for a life where women got their hands dirty and took on menial tasks in the name of social justice. In that society although you were expected to fulfill your philanthropic duties, they extended to donating to the poor and occasionally assisting in hospitals. Eleanor pulled away from these social norms and restrictions. A mixture of factors led her to this unique outlook at life: exposure to the less agreeable sides of life at a young age, her compassionate and empathetic nature that had begun to emerge during her years in Allenswood and the unique position of power that worked as a springboard to gain recognition for her activities. According to Robin Gerber, she donned a miner’s hat and rode a coal car into a mine. She sat with impoverished families in their kitchens sipping tea and listening to their problems. She got down on all fours in the Red Cross canteen and scrubbed the floor clean. By the end of the twenties, Eleanor had developed political savvy and an arsenal of knowledge about public relations. A far cry from the young woman who sat listening to her husband deliver speeches in the early days of his political career, in awe of his wonderfully charismatic delivery but in complete ignorance of the subject matter. Eleanor was a woman transformed. She was not a born politician, she had her politics, her leadership, thrust upon her. The development of her passion gave her a new perspective on the world, and this was one of her most inspirational features: she knew first hand the failings of apathy and social cowardice, and worked tirelessly against them.

A Life of Courage



         Courage is a quality that is lauded and admired in many walks of life. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, one of the most enduring images was that of two firemen embracing. This embrace meant so much because the firemen were the most immediate symbol of American courage in the face of the attacks. To be sure, these men displayed heroic bravery in their attempts to save the lives of those trapped in the World Trade Center buildings. However, though the willingness to risk one’s life in great danger may be the most immediate image of courage, it is not the entirety of that quality. Eleanor Roosevelt displayed courage in the face of danger in the course of her life- most notably during her Civil Rights campaign- but this is not what she will be remembered for.  Throughout her life, Eleanor embraced another, less dramatic kind of bravery. This is the bravery to stand up for personal beliefs and morals in the face of overwhelming opposition. To many, this will seem a poor relation to the courage displayed by the firemen of September 11th.  However, in one way it is a more difficult bravery: a fireman entering a building to save a person’s life knows unequivocally that he is doing the right thing, and there is no argument. Eleanor Roosevelt had to face detractors and political opponents, who denounced both her and the principals she stood for. Her bravery is all the more admirable when you consider that, at times, the opponent she was fighting was her own self-doubt. Eleanor Roosevelt’s greatest achievement, the legacy for which she will be remembered, is the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Her work on this document united all the strands of courage, in its realization and as a symbol of the distance she herself had traveled.




Elelanor Roosevelt did not have an easy or a conventional upbringing. The fact that she herself amounted to anything in life is somewhat remarkable when you examine her childhood. It is something of a stereotype to believe that American politicians tend come from privileged backgrounds. Though Eleanor Roosevelt was born into a family that was by no means impoverished, her upbringing was not one that was conducive to a life in the public limelight. Her father, to whom she was tremendously devoted, had problems with both drugs and alcohol. When she was seven years old, he was committed to an insane asylum. His promise to her, that they would set up a home together, was one to which she clung for years. She fantasized in detail about this promised life, as a means to escape the harsh realities of the existence she was left with. This existence only worsened as her father was committed: that same year, her mother died. She was packed off to live with an aunt, effectively an orphan. This status was confirmed a mere three years later, with the death of her father. 

         Eleanor needed a day to day courage to deal with realities of this harsh upbringing. It was not simply mustering the bravery to deal with one challenging event: rather the ability to face every new day, with its continuing problems. Deprived of the love of both her mother and her father, she had to draw on inner resources, inner bravery, to reach her goals. Indeed, even the brief time she spent with her periods sewed the seeds of a future challenge to her character. The Roosevelt family into which Eleanor was born was a prominent one in American high society, and its women, particularly Eleanor’s mother, were noted for their beauty. Eleanor herself, however, was considered something of an exception to this rule by her mother. Indeed, she was frequently derisory about her daughter’s looks and somewhat sullen demeanor. Though she made a great effort to grow close to Eleanor, she referred to her child as “Granny”, in reference to her “old-fashioned” nature and clothing.

         This brief time with her parents planted in Eleanor a deep-seated insecurity. When, in her late teens, she made her arrival as a debutante on the social scene, Eleanor felt herself out of sorts. She was sensitive about her appearance, and felt intimidated by the pressure to speak and socialize. She referred later to these social gatherings, which were thought of as a paradise for the upwardly mobile young women of the time, as “utter agony.” The deep-rooted self-doubt that later unnerved her as a public speaker, was on full display. Her marriage to FDR offered an escape from the limelight of public life.

         Eleanor, however, was a woman of principle. All around her, she saw the economic and social deprivation of Depression-era US. FDR attempted to overcome the economic problems with his “New Deal.” Eleanor recognized that society’s problems were more important than her personal ones. She had the courage to face nerve-racking situations: public speaking, arguments and debates in order to further the cause of American people’s rights. That this was a struggle is undoubted. Eleanor found herself facing the wrath of organizations with great sway. She defied the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization of which she herself had been a member, over their refusal to allow Marion Anderson to sing at their hall in 1939. Eleanor arranged an event for Marian to sing at the Lincoln memorial, to highlight the injustices that blacks were facing in the US. This was just one example of her long-running involvement with the Civil Rights movement and it illustrates just how brave her involvement was: the high-class society she herself was a part of, epitomized by the Daughters of the American Revolution., rejected the Civil Rights campaign and all it stood for. Eleanor stepped out of the security of this society in order to fight for what was right. Such an act of bravery should not be underestimated. She was vilified at every opportunity by the press of the Southern States. For many years, she carried the highest price on her head every issued by the Klu Klux Klan. Even more liberal commentators referred to her as something of a busybody, a “one man Whitehouse staff.” Eleanor recognized that to stand up for what is right, you must be willing to step on some toes.



Human Rights


Eleanor Roosevelt made an immense contribution to political and social movements in the US before world war two. Her influence on the Civil Rights movement, in particular, was profound. Yet this is not what she is most remembered for. She was the main figure behind a document that enshrines many of the principles that dominate world thinking and politics in the twenty-first century. I refer, of course to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

         That document is well known; Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in its creation is not. Indeed, her involvement in Committee 3, the UN committee to deal with human rights, did not come about through her own volition.  Eleanor had never considered working with the UN in the aftermath of World War Two and the death of her husband. When the idea was put forward, her immediate response was “Oh no! It would be impossible.” The impossibility, to Eleanor, was not one of circumstance; she simply believed that she was neither capable nor qualified. President Truman urged her to take up the post, and she finally agreed “in fear and trembling.” The task of taking up this role as a figure with no experience in international relations was not easy. However, since this was an area of the UN that was devoted entirely to the welfare of people across the world, she was forced to overcome her personal considerations for the greater good. Even after many long years of political activism, she was still plagued by insecurity.

         This insecurity, however, was more than simply a barrier between her and the achievement of her goal. It was a positive weakness, one that many felt they could exploit. In her conception and preparation of the declaration, Eleanor pitted herself against some of the finest political minds of her day. These were men and women who had worked extensively in such negotiations, and knew exactly how to exploit them. Throughout the preparation of the declaration, the soviet delegation pushed to have a clause inserted which said that each element of the document would be “enforced by the state”- in keeping with the Communist system. In the face of such hostile attempts to hijack the document, Eleanor had to remain focused, and continue to push for what she believed the document should stand for.  On top of this, she had to face the ordinary complications involved in drawing up such a declaration: how to include the views of conflicting ideology, phrasing to avoid misinterpretation etc.

         In other words, the document was a mammoth task from the very beginning, even for an experienced negotiator. Yet Eleanor never allowed her courage to sag: she even addressed the UN assembly to insist that the document be dealt with promptly.  The fact that the document now stands as one of the UN’s greatest achievements demonstrates the extent of Eleanor Roosevelt’s courage. Without the help of a stable, loving upbringing, she devoted herself to tireless achievements for the deprived of the US and the world. There were countless obstacles: her self-doubt, her social situation, opposition to the civil rights movement, attempts to manipulate committee 3. Eleanor had the courage to try and to persevere, two qualities that no leader can do without.






Although Eleanor Roosevelt came to symbolize the independent and politically active woman of the twentieth century, her views early in life reflected those of most women of her time and class.  "I took it for granted that men were superior creatures and knew more about politics than women did, and while 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." For most of her early life, Eleanor was dependent on and deferential to the wills and demands of those around her. But history and personal events combined to propel Eleanor from the rigid confines of Victorian femininity to the center stage of twentieth century political activism.

It has been said that Eleanor was in the right place at the right time and a lot of what she achieved was due to this fact.  However it is important to realize that while she may have been in the right place at the right time she was responsive.  While she was reluctant to take on public position she actively disagreed with her husband, the president of the US.  She always denied she had influence over him but there is clear evidence in her archives that she was beyond a doubt, a leader from behind.  She always appreciated what could be achieved when one would take a risk.  She knew that in order to change something risk was necessary.


In the times of crisis in her life she always took risks.  During World War II, Eleanor could not remain silent about the injustice around her.  She was dismayed that America had to be brought with its heels dragging into the war.  Lesser known is her harsh criticism of the concentration camps that existed in America.  However she remained silent and acted from behind the scenes once her husband signed and made the camps legal in February 1942.  From then, until the end of the world she used her influence to correct this wrong.  When rioting occurred in the camps in California, Eleanor was sent into the camps to calm the disgruntled inmates.  She came into a lot of criticism for acting against the president at a time of war.  However in true Eleanor fashion, in her column the next week, she wrote, “It chills my soul to think of a US child behind barbed wire.”


When FDR died Eleanor put aside personal grief and came out in support of Harry S. Truman.  After a brief period of seclusion, Eleanor resumed her public activities.  She began to create a loyal following of her own.  She existed beyond being a widow and people began to see her, it has been argued, as a living symbol of the President.  Her life in the postwar years was tremendously active.  It was during that time that she became a real stateswoman.  In what was seen at the time as a purely symbolic gesture, President Harry Truman chose her to head the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 1945.  She was the only female delegate from the US panel.  Through her unique style in negotiating she managed, three years later, to secure the passage and drafting of the Declaration of Human Rights.  Her chief negotiating stance was to have everyone involved and she liked to empower others so that they felt as much a part of the outcome as anyone else. 


As when she had been first lady, she used this time to ensure protection for civil rights and civil liberties.  She was an advocate for not a minimum wage but a living wage.  She was a firm believer in the adage that life isn’t simply about existing; it is about living.  Eleanor was a huge advocate for refugee rights and for the developing world.  She had great foresight to raise these issues forty years before they came to the rest of the worlds attention.  At a moment of great pressure in her life she threatened to resign from her position at the UN unless the American government recognized the state of Israel.  However she not only wanted recognition for Israel but also for Palestine.  If her voice was heard then maybe many of today’s problems would be lessened. 


The novice political spouse whom once stated, "It was a wife's duty to be interested in whatever interested her husband…" had traveled a long and sometimes lonely road.  "I could not, at any age, really be contented to take my place in a warm corner by the fireside and simply look on," she wrote in her final years.  This vitality lasted until tuberculosis took her life in 1962.


According to Vern Newton, the ‘thirty second sound bite’ on the life of Roosevelt is an ability to break beyond what was expected of her in her many roles.  She is quoted as saying, “You gain strength, courage, confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.  You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”   Eleanor redefined the role of First lady.  She was the first First Lady to hold press conferences and had an active, although somewhat behind the scenes, approach to governmental affairs. 


Her negotiation tactics amazed everyone.  She used her influence to arrange an alternative concert for Marian Anderson, a black singer, at the Lincoln Memorial.  She did not attend the event herself.  She did not feel that it should be used as a publicity stunt to promote her own public image.  She believed in a collective approach in order to bring about change.  Blanch Wiesen Cook has said of Eleanor, “she would always tell people, never do things without a gang.  Individuals have to fight together in order to be effective.”


To say Eleanor Roosevelt was a prolific writer would be an understatement.  During her lifetime she wrote seventeen political books; more than eight thousand columns, over four hundred articles, on average she responded to about one hundred and fifty letters a day and she wrote countless memoranda and speeches.  Her duty as a citizen never ended and she was always responsive to those around her.  The State Department boxes on her life on her position on Human Rights number one hundred and ninety eight alone!


Eleanor Roosevelt was never a conventional anything. She never conformed to the traditional view of a young woman, a president’s wife or a politician. She went beyond the boundaries of pigeon-holing and excelled in all the areas she involved herself with. She was called “First Lady of the World.” This title explains and illustrates her achievement: she took specific roles, such as that of First Lady, and used them to transcend any one doctrine or agenda, to work for the good of the underprivileged





In summary the story of Eleanor Roosevelt is one of an awe-inspiring, all American leader.  The story of Roosevelt is one of deep personal challenge and adversity that could so easily have ended in failure.  However Roosevelt stepped up to this challenge.  Roosevelt fully appreciated the value of self-discovery and by finding her inner self she realized how to make the world a better place.  Roosevelt was firmly committed to being a citizen of the community, country and world.  While her husband was alive, she led from behind.  When he died, she did not die with him but became a true statesman in every sense of the word. Her compassionate nature, sense of duty and sheer persistence were an inspiration to those around her throughout her life and the legacy which she has left behind will echo long into the future.