Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A woman is like a teabag—you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” If this is true, Roosevelt liked to keep her temperature boiling. In the thermal springs of human rights advocacy, she distinguished herself from First Lady of the United States to one of our country’s greatest leaders. Her life was a testament to her strength as a leader, whether campaigning for women’s rights, fighting for labor rights, visiting war-torn countries, or becoming the first U.S. Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
As a servant leader, her passion for helping others made her was notoriously hard to keep up with. During World War II, she braved war zones, jamming her days full of events and activities to support the war effort. Each day began at 8:00 a.m. and ended at midnight. “She walked 50 miles through factories, clubs, and hospitals. She walked me off my feet,” a reporter said of Eleanor Roosevelt when she toured England.
The details of her personal life are even more telling of her strength and desire to serve. Despite many life challenges, the adversity she faced never broke her. In fact, it seemed to make her stronger. As she remarked, “We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it as not as dreadful as it appears, discovering that we have the strength to stare it down.”
Find out more about Eleanor Roosevelt and why she’s a leader you should model below.
The Life of Eleanor Roosevelt
Experiencing Family Tragedy at a Young Age
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, to New York socialite parents Anna Rebecca Hall and Elliot Roosevelt. Young Eleanor, nicknamed “Granny” due to her serious demeanor and homely appearance, had a troubling childhood.
Her mother was a cold woman who showed her little affection. As scholar Hugh Davis Graham writes, a family member once recalled her mother saying to her as a little girl, “Eleanor, I hardly know what’s to happen to you. You’re so plain that you really have nothing to do except be good.”
On the other hand, Eleanor Roosevelt adored her father. Yet, his battle with alcoholism continuously let the family down. Even so, after her mother’s death in 1892, she daydreamed about a world where her father was healthy and they lived happily together. Two years later, he jumped from a window, later dying of a seizure.
By age 10, she was an orphan who had suffered immense psychological damage.
Going to School Outside of London
At 15, Eleanor Roosevelt left New York to attend a prestigious private school, Allenswood Academy, in Wimbledon. Here, she finally felt at home. She was well-liked by her classmates and found a mentor in the school’s eccentric, bold, and alternative-thinking headmistress, Marie Souvestre. The progressive thinker became a role model for Roosevelt, challenging her to form her own beliefs, fight for social justice, and develop leadership skills.
During her studies, Souvestre took Roosevelt throughout Italy and France. This exposed her to poverty and working-class issues that needed attention. These trips heavily influenced Eleanor Roosevelt’s political beliefs and life’s work.
Meeting and Marrying Franklin D. Roosevelt
At age 17, Roosevelt’s grandmother called her back to New York. It was time for her to find a husband. However, she wouldn’t meet a suitable match until the summer of 1902—her fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR).
FDR’s mother, a controlling figure, did everything in her power to stop the marriage. Her efforts were in vain. The two married on March 17, 1905. The attendance of their shared famous relative, former president Theodore Roosevelt, made their wedding headline news.
The newlyweds enjoyed a one-week honeymoon in Hyde Park, New York, followed by a lengthier three-month European honeymoon.
Becoming a Mother
After returning to the U.S., the couple settled in New York City. The Roosevelts grew their family quickly. A year later, they had a daughter, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt. Next came the births of James, Franklin (who died in infancy), Elliot, Franklin Jr., and John.
However, “mother” wasn’t a role Eleanor Roosevelt felt comfortable playing. The trauma stemming from her childhood caused her to be emotionally reserved and avoidant in close relationships. Because of this, an English governess and her overbearing mother-in-law bore most of her mothering duties. As she explained, “I have often felt that I cheated my children a little. I was never so totally theirs as most mothers are. I gave to audiences what belonged to my children, got back from audiences the love my children longed to give me.”
Making Moves Toward D.C.
Eleanor Roosevelt found her calling as her husband’s political ambitions rose. In 1910, FDR was elected to serve in the New York State Senate. Three years later, he became Woodrow Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy. In 1920, Roosevelt began taking steps toward the White House. He joined forces with Democratic presidential nominee James M. Cox in the hopes of becoming vice president.
On the campaign trail, ER found purpose and the emotional validation she couldn’t find in those closest to her. It was a God-send for her husband, who would need a co-leader in the coming years.
Amid setting his political ambitions on fire, FDR contracted polio. This caused Eleanor Roosevelt to step up not only as his domestic partner but his political partner. Ultimately, the changes the Roosevelts faced were positive, especially after ER found out about FDR’s affair (which almost resulted in divorce). The two formed an egalitarian alliance of sorts which entirely shifted the dynamics of their marriage and its reason for existence.
Increasing Her Activism
Even before her marriage, Eleanor Roosevelt cared about social causes. Her husband’s political career just gave her a more elevated platform to help others—her true passion. For example, prior to their marriage, she spent time in the slums of New York City, volunteering at settlement houses where she taught dance and exercise classes.
In 1917, as America entered World War I, Roosevelt helped out the Red Cross and the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. She volunteered at military hospitals, served refreshments to soldiers, and raised funding for wounded veterans and their families.
After her husband ran for vice president of the United States in 1920, she became heavily involved in women’s rights. She believed women should be given equal opportunities because they make the world a better place. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “On the whole, during the last 20 years, government has been taking increasing cognizance of humanitarian questions, things that deal with the happiness of human beings, such as health, education, and security . . . I think that it is significant that this change has come about during the period when women can have been exercising their franchise.”
To show her support, she joined the Women’s Trade Union League, which advocated for fair, safe working conditions and women’s suffrage. She also served in the League of Women Voters, which helped women adjust to their new civic duties and become more involved in the public sphere. Additionally, after FDR’s paralysis, she joined the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee.
Furthering FDR’s Political Career
ER’s increased public presence is what allowed the Roosevelts to remain politically relevant in the 1920s. So much so that from 1929 to 1932, FDR became the governor of New York. It was an important role that positioned him to run for president.
However, none of this would’ve been possible without Eleanor Roosevelt’s support. Because she volunteered to go into the trenches her husband could not reach, the couple stayed at the forefront of American politics.
Working together as a team was the only way FDR could become—and remain—the country’s longest-serving president.
Living Life as the First Lady
By 1932, the country was ready for a change: The U.S. needed a strong leader. With his promises of social reform and economic relief and recovery, the Roosevelts shone like a beacon of hope for Americans living through the Great Depression.
FDR took office on March 4, 1933.
Initially, Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t like the idea of being the first lady. Having served as a public-facing leader, the role of becoming a glorified dinner host and wife to the president didn’t seem appealing or fitting.
In an unprecedented move, Roosevelt created a new definition of the first lady by being herself—a civil servant who interacted directly with the American public.
Some of Eleanor Roosevelt’s accomplishments as the first lady include:
Holding 348 Press Conferences Open to Female Reporters Only
This move forced employers to hire more female journalists.
Writing the Syndicated Newspaper Column “My Day”
The column chronicled her daily life. It provided an intimate look into her beliefs, what she was working on, and what was going on in politics. Over a million Americans subscribed to the column, which she kept writing up until her death.
Encouraging Women to Become More Involved in Media
She penned magazine columns, wrote articles, and hosted radio programs.
Serving as the President’s “Eyes, Ears, and Legs”
As the first lady, she toured the U.S. to monitor the pulse of the country and see how New Deal initiatives faired with the American public. Between 1933 and 1937, Eleanor Roosevelt drove 40,000 miles per year, paying visits to her fellow countrymen.
Diffusing Conflict Among Veterans
Eleanor Roosevelt visited protesting veterans from the “Bonus Army.” The Hoover administration handled the situation poorly, but Roosevelt met soldiers with empathy and kindness. This won her public favor and helped resolve the conflict.
Visiting England and the South-Pacific During World War II
She spent her time going to places like hospitals, factories, bombed neighborhoods, and evacuation centers. She met one-on-one with soldiers, listened to their complaints, and instigated immediate change for many of the issues they communicated with her. When she left England, Winston Churchill wrote her saying, “You certainly have left golden footprints behind you.”
Showing Up to Honor Fallen Soldiers
Every Armistice Day, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Arlington National Cemetery to put flowers on soliders’ graves and attend the funerals of those who had no one to mourn them.
Fighting for Reformational Causes
Throughout her life, Eleanor Roosevelt fought for equal rights, housing rights, youth rights, labor rights, and civil rights.
Letting Her Actions Speak Louder Than Her Words
Above all, ER was a leader who took action. While she used her voice to draw attention to important issues, she was never one to sit on the sidelines. For example, when it came to civil rights issues, she dropped her membership with the Daughters of the American Revolution after they discriminated against an African American opera singer. To support the woman, she hosted a huge event with 75,000 attendees.
Her words partnered with actions were so threatening, the Ku Klux Klan put a 25,000 dollar bounty on her head in the 1960s.
Transitioning to the First Lady of the World
Eleanor Roosevelt’s role as the first lady ended on April 12, 1945, when Franklin D. Roosevelt died from a cerebral hemorrhage. But her work after his death proved that her role as a leader wasn’t dependent upon her husband’s political career.
Her life of service would continue with or without him.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s accomplishments that stand out the most throughout her long career as a leader are from her work with the United Nations. In 1945, FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, appointed her to the United Nations General Assembly. A year later, she served as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights chair, becoming the U.S.’s first representative. Truman would later call her the “first lady of the world” due to her dedication to universal human rights.
As explained by archivists at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, “The men who made up the rest of the American delegation weren’t quite sure what to do with Roosevelt. They assigned her to Committee 3 concerned with humanitarian, economic, and cultural questions rather than to one of the other committees dealing with what they considered to be more important political, financial, and legal matters.”
Unsurprisingly, Eleanor Roosevelt proved them wrong through her actions. She spent her years of service fighting against world hunger and malnutrition. Following World War II, she helped determine how the world could come together to enforce basic human rights. She also played a large role in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which still serves as the standard for the U.N.’s protections.
The Biggest Takeaway Leaders Can Learn from Eleanor Roosevelt
Although Eleanor Roosevelt passed away on November 7, 1963, her legacy as a leader lives on. As David Michaelis, author of Eleanor, tells Smithsonian Magazine, “Action was the key to everything she did. Words mattered—and she expressed herself in plain, simple, beautiful, clean language—but they were not finally as important as doing something. The phrase that Eleanor Roosevelt brought everywhere she went was, ‘What can be done?’”
What can be done?
In a day and age where people spend so much time talking about their problems, Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership example encourages people to raise their voices and be the first to take action.
Experiencing a problem in business or in life? Ask yourself, “What can be done?” and do it.
Know of people who need of your help and service? Ask yourself, “What can be done?” and do it.
Hate the injustice in this world? Ask yourself, “What can be done?” and do it.
Learn more about how to lead like Eleanor Roosevelt by checking out these articles on servant leadership:
Servant Leadership: The Ultimate Key To A Healthy Business