How Eleanor Roosevelt Became the ‘First Lady of the World’


5 cent stamp Eleanor Roosevelt main

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) started as a quiet and studious child but blossomed into a passionate advocate for social justice. As the niece of Theodore Roosevelt and wife of her distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor redefined the role of First Lady, championing civil rights for all. Her influence extended globally when President Truman appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations. Known as the “First Lady of the World,” she played a pivotal role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, cementing her legacy as a tireless human rights activist.

First Lady of the United States 

A director of social affairs, presidential liaison, symbol of strength, policy advocate, political reformer, keeper of “the People’s House,” partner, and confidant, the First Ladies of the United States have taken on numerous roles throughout American history. 

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 11, 1884.  

She was the favorite niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. Eleanor married her distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). She became a mother and politician’s wife. After he was partially paralyzed by polio, Eleanor helped him return to politics.  He became president in 1932.

As first lady, she became the eyes and ears of President Roosevelt. Millions of people read her syndicated “My Day” column. She traveled so much, including by airplane, that some people began to wish she stayed home more.  FDR did convince her against getting a pilot license. 

She became a social justice warrior, advocating for the poor, civil rights, and workers. Eleanor resigned from the Daughters of the Revolution when they prevented African-American singer Marian Anderson from singing in front of an integrated audience in Washington D.C.

A Phone Call 

President Roosevelt died in April 1945. Eleanor continued to advise his successor, President Harry Truman. He soon had a very important job offer. 

President Truman called Eleanor Roosevelt in the winter of 1945. Would she join the upcoming United States delegation to the United Nations in London?  

The United States did not join the League of Nations after World War I. The absence of such a significant nation played a role in its failure. The U.S. played a fundamental role in creating the United Nations, the new international world peacekeeping force. 

Eleanor Roosevelt’s involvement would show the world how much the U.S. respected the importance of the new institution. She accepted the role as a tribute to her late husband. 

Eleanor vs. The Soviet Union 

She joined Committee III, which handled educational, humanitarian, and cultural issues. 

Eleanor established herself by challenging the Soviet Union delegation on the question of refugees. Many refugees from Eastern Europe, now controlled by the Soviet Union, feared returning home. The Soviets opposed a plan to let them choose where they would go. 

Eleanor convinced the United Nations to agree to let the refugees choose. The United Nations had the responsibility to protect the rights of everyone. It was not bound to any one nation. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

The horrors of World War II, including the Holocaust, underlined the importance of protecting human rights. An all-powerful state could lead to horrible injustices. 

Eleanor Roosevelt became the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission. They had the task of writing an international bill of human rights. Could they write a bill of rights for the world? 

President Roosevelt had earlier outlined the “four freedoms,” including freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The Bill of Rights protects us from governmental power. The New Deal honored what the government can do for us.  

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes individual, economic, and social rights. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person. They also have the right to a basic standard of living and adequate health care. Men and women have the right to marry and start a family. Each spouse voluntarily chooses. Society must protect the needs of the family.   

First Lady of the World  

The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. Human Rights Day continues to honor that landmark day.   

The Declaration of Human Rights was a model for the world. Over time, the United Nations agreed to covenants that bound each party to protect them. The United States ratified a treaty to protect individual rights. We never ratified one for economic and social rights. 

Eleanor Roosevelt continued to serve in the U.N. until 1953. President Trump honored her as the “first lady of the world.”  She resigned to allow the new Republican president to fill her position with someone of his choosing. Eleanor supported Eisenhower’s opponent in 1952 and 1956.  

Final Days 

Eleanor Roosevelt continued to promote human rights in the United States and the world. 

Eleanor volunteered her services to the American Association for the U.N. She was also the U.S. representative to the World Federation of the U.N. Associations. She later became the chair of the Association’s Board of Directors.

She also opposed McCarthyism, the excess anti-communist “Red Scare” in the United States. 

Eleanor also continued to defend racial justice. She publicly supported the Montgomery bus boycott, which pushed for the desegregation of public transportation. 

President John F. Kennedy reappointed her to the United Nations. She also chaired the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.  She died at age 78 in 1962.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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