Eleanor Roosevelt served effectively as the First Lady in the administrations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but her legacy goes far deeper than her advocacy activities as First Lady. This paper briefly reviews Eleanor Roosevelt’s career, her advocacy as First Lady, and more fully her profoundly important involvement in the creation and adoption of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s Brief Biography — and Involvement as First Lady
Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 11, 1884 (she died November 7, 1962). Her father was Elliott Roosevelt (brother of President Theodore Roosevelt) and her mother was Anna Hall. She lost both her parents when she was a child and lived with her grandmother, Mrs. Valentine G. Hall; she was tutored privately until the age of 15 when she attended a boarding school for girls in England, according to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
Eleanor and Franklin were married in 1905 and parented six children; when Franklin was stricken with polio (in 1921) Eleanor — who had already become heavily involved in volunteer work for the American Red Cross during WWI — she became “increasingly active in politics” to help her husband cover all the necessary political bases. Her passion for service became very obvious to the American public even before she became first lady; she was involved with the League of Women Voters, Women’s Trade Union League, and she taught at a private girl’s school in New York City (Todhunter School) (FDR Presidential Library).
During her husband’s service as president, Eleanor traveled extensively around the nation as “the president’s eyes, ears, and legs”; she advocated for the poor, for minorities, and for women’s rights. There had never been a First Lady who held her own news conferences but Eleanor did just that. Moreover, only female reporters were allowed to attend, “who were traditionally barred from presidential press conferences” (FDR Presidential Library).
She was bold and steadfast when it came to racial justice, and when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) (of which she was a member) refused to allow African-American icon Marion Anderson to sing in their auditorium, she resigned. In her letter to the DAR she wrote: “I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist. You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obliged to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed” (American Decades Primary Sources).
Eleanor Roosevelt’s Involvement with the United Nations
Author Brigid O’Farrell — whose book, She Was One of Us tells the story of the First Lady’s advocacy for the labor movement — writes in the peer-reviewed Journal of Workplace Rights that Eleanor Roosevelt (ER) “used her voice as a columnist [“My Day”] as well as a radio and television host to advocate for labor, brining visibility and respectability to people who were often invisible to media and policymakers alike” (O’Farrell, 2009, p. 333). ER was the keynote speaker at the World’s Fair in New York City on Sunday, June 2, which was also the 40th anniversary of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. She explained that “You have to learn respect for the individual but you have to learn also that each individual must have self-discipline and unselfishness in the interest of the whole group” (O’Farrell, 333).
That message is the one she took to the United Nations, O’Farrell writes, and in fact a few months after FDR’s death, ER was asked by President Truman to become a delegate to the United Nations. At first she balked, claiming she wasn’t qualified; but she soon acquiesced and was asked to join the Committee Three, which dealt with Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs. She was “forceful” but also understood how to interact with diplomacy, O’Farrell continues; ER was “a smart, hard-working, and experienced committee member” (335). Roosevelt also knew how to get things done; she invited committee members to her apartment in order to engage in informal discussions; the fact that she spoke in Italian and French was another advantage she possessed when dealing internationally with delegates to the UN (O’Farrell, 335).
In 1946 ER was asked to make recommendations for a “permanent Human Rights Commission” and was given the responsibility of chairing the committee. Meanwhile she had always continued her newspaper column (“My Day”), and in January 1947 she reported to her readers that “It is natural, of course, that labor unions should be interested in human rights”; she went on to report that her hope was that her work with the UN commission on Human Rights would give to people “the rightto economic as well as political freedom” (O’Farrell, 335).
Her fellow committee members represented cultures from the around the globe, including Charles Malik from Lebanon; Rene Cassin from France; India’s Hansa Mehta; and from the Eastern bloc A.P. Pavlov from Russia (O’Farrell, 335). Their assignment was to set the standards for “political and civil rights, as well as social and economic rights,” in advance of the establishment of the permanent Human Rights Commission.
In his scholarly piece in the peer-reviewed journal Social Forces, professor Jerry Pubantz explains that Roosevelt understood that it would be “too difficult to bridge the cross-cultural and ideological differences among nation delegations on a formal human rights treaty” (Pubantz, 2005, p. 1293). Hence, ER had her committee focused on drafting a “universal declaration with persuasive moral value,” and this declaration would be signed “well ahead” of a formal convention that was binding among signees (Pubantz, 1293).
As to the international make-up of Roosevelt’s committee, Pubantz notes that Rene Cassin was a French Jew with “an outlook colored by the most recent and appalling example of human rights violations” (the Holocaust) (1293). Also on the committee was Chinese philosopher Peng-chung Chang; and Hernan Santa Cruz from Chile (a left-leaning Latino) (Pubantz, 1293). Pubantz adds that Hansa Mehta from India insisted that “women’s equality be clearly articulated” in the declaration, and one can easily imagine that Roosevelt related to that assertion (1293). Indeed, Pubantz writes that Roosevelt “discovered that conceptualizing rights when fleshing out international law were multicultural, even multi-civilizational endeavors” (1293).
After the United Nations’ General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration with no “nay” votes in 1948, no longer could it be claimed “without challenge” that the idea of human rights was strictly a Western value (Pubantz, 1293).
O’Farrell explains that Article 23, Section 4, asserts that “everyone has the right to form and join trade unions”; after the 48-0 vote in favor of the declaration, the General Assembly’s president paid a special tribute to Roosevelt, saying that along with the assistance of “many others,” she “has played a leading role in the work” (336).
Narratives from Eleanor Roosevelt’s Autobiography
Roosevelt explains that she solicited some expert legal help as she was going through the process of creating the Human Rights Commission (URC). Marjorie Whiteman, who had worked on the legal aspect of American treaties, sat behind Roosevelt at “almost” every meeting which she attended prior to the presentation of the declaration (Roosevelt, 1992, p. 31). Whiteman was an expert on constitutional law, a subject Roosevelt was not knowledgeable about.
To say that Roosevelt was on a hectic schedule during the years she was involved helping to create the HRC for the United Nations would be a gross understatement. “I like to keep busy,” she explains on page 316 of her autobiography. Indeed, when Tyler Wood, an assistant to a UN administrator named Will Clayton, asked for a bit of her time, she agreed to chat with the two between other appointments. The two picked ER up from her hotel and Wood talked “until we had driven perhaps twenty blocks to the CBS studios,” where she left the car and did a radio interview with John Foster Dulles related to a UN issue.
She then got back into Woods’ car and the conversation continued from Madison Avenue to Broadway and Fifty-Ninth Street where she got out and went into the UN Information Center to participate in the formal opening ceremonies. Following that appearance, she got back into the car and the conversation continued until Wood and Winslow dropped her off at the Hotel Pennsylvania (Roosevelt, 316). “I suppose I enjoyed it,” she admitted.
In her meetings during the planning for the presentation of the declaration of human rights, as mentioned earlier in this paper, she invited committee members to her apartment for tea. She was charmed by the Chinese representative Dr. P.C. Chang because he would always add “philosophical observations” based on some “apt Chinese proverb to fit almost any occasion” (317). Chang observed more than once that there “is more than one kind of reality” and that the UN Secretariat “might well spend a few months studying the fundamentals of Confucianism!” The in her narrative that the conversation had become “so lofty” that instead of trying to participate, she “simply filled the teacups again and sat back to be entertained by the talk of these learned gentlemen” (317).
In conclusion, it can be said with assurance that not only did Eleanor Roosevelt fill teacups during her informal committee sessions, her genuine commitment to human rights and labor rights helped fill the gaps in these important international issues that had been left by males who preceded her in matters of international justice and rights.
American Decades Primary Sources. “Letter of Resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution. February 26, 1939. Gale Biography in Context. 2004.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. “Eleanor Roosevelt Biography.”
Retrieved December 15, 2012, from http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu. 2008.
O’Farrell, Brigid. “Restoring Workplace Democracy: Eleanor Roosevelt and Labor Law
Reform.” Journal of Workplace Rights, 14.3 (2009): 329-350.
Pubantz, Jerry. “Constructing Reason: Human Rights and the Democratization of the United
Nations.” Social Forces, 84.2 (2005): 1291-1302.
Roosevelt, Eleanor. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Jackson, TN: Da Capo Press,