At a physical glance, Eleanor Roosevelt might not be considered memorable. She never opted for the limelight and would have perhaps been perfectly content just marrying the man she loved, raising a family, and working for a charitable cause. Instead she became thrust into the national spotlight as First Lady of the United States, when her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt, became President.
If you read any of her biographies you might be struck by her shy nature as a young woman, and the nearly impossible situation of starting out marriage living side by side with an overbearing mother-in-law. However, as Eleanor matured from a young woman into a First Lady, she learned how to adapt to family situations and to the American public, simply by becoming a risk taker who worked behind the scenes to make things happen.
Born into vast wealth and privilege, she none the less started working with the poor when at 18 she joined the Junior League of New York City and volunteered in the East Side slums. When she and Franklin began to court, she took him to the East Side tenements so he could see how poor people living in desperate situations needed help from the government.
As First Lady she made appearances, supported causes, and remained loyal to her husband. But in addition, she sought out ways in which to bring attention to groups of Americans who had been largely overlooked by others, including her husband’s administration.
Shortly after Franklin Roosevelt became President in 1933, Eleanor paid a surprise visit to several of the coal mining communities of West Virginia to determine the quality of their living conditions, and subsequently launched a program to relocate several miners’ families to the government built town of Arthurdale, West Virginia where work was made available.
In 1943 she made a personal visit to the Gila River Japanese Internment Camp located in Arizona. After checking on the plight of the Japanese-Americans who had been incarcerated there post Pearl Harbor, she wrote an article for Colliers Magazine in which she decried the position of stereotyping entire ethnic groups and called for Americans to be more humane in their treatment of others.
Perhaps one of her most poignant decisions occurred in 1939 when she wrote a letter of resignation to the Daughters of the American Revolution because African-American singer Marian Anderson had not been allowed to perform at the D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. Eleanor instead helped to orchestrate an outdoor venue at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, which drew 75,000 people to hear Marian Anderson perform.
In a time when only a small percentage of women worked in professional jobs, Eleanor held press conferences, wrote a weekly magazine column, and campaigned tirelessly for civil rights and human rights for all.
Regardless of her family and husband, she made her own mark in history, and understood humility. Although not often cited, here is the poem she carried in her purse throughout World War II and was said to have read daily to remind herself of what true sacrifice is:
Lest I continue
My complacent way
Help me to remember
Somehow out there
A man died for me today.
As long as there be war
I then must
Ask and answer
Am I worth dying for?
November is the month in which we pay tribute to all Veterans, perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt deserves tribute too.