A story from The Best Way Out is Always Through
THE UGLY DUCKLING
I think that somehow we learn who we really are and then live with that decision.
- Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady, social activist, U.N. delegate
Although Eleanor Roosevelt was born into the lap of luxury in New York City - part of a high society known as the "swells" - she was not a happy little girl. Insecure and starved for affection, she thought herself to be ugly and ungraceful. Her mother Anna didn't help her daughter's poor self-image, telling guests that Eleanor was "such a funny child, so old-fashioned, we always call her Granny."
Anna Roosevelt died of diphtheria when Eleanor was just eight, so she and her two brothers were sent to live with their maternal grandmother. Her father Elliot died of alcoholism two years later, just before Eleanor turned ten.
At age 15, she was sent off to finishing school in England. There, she gained a bit of confidence, learned to speak fluent French, and thrived under the tutelage of a feminist headmistress who was committed to teaching her girls to think for themselves.
At 17, Eleanor returned to the U.S., ending her formal education. She was given a debutante party to mark her entrance into society, as was customary for young ladies of that era and social class. Shortly thereafter, she met a distant cousin, young Franklin Delano Roosevelt who was a student at Harvard, and their courtship began.
Franklin married Eleanor when she was 19, beginning what would be a long and challenging marriage. Franklin's domineering mother, Sara, bullied the young bride, who was still struggling with insecurity and self-doubt. Sara wanted to help the motherless girl, but the relationship proved difficult, especially for Eleanor. Sara had always doted on her son and was determined that he be successful in life; she made it her business to mold his new bride into a suitable wife.
Eleanor bore Franklin six children in the first ten years of marriage, one of whom died in infancy. Her hands full with her brood, Eleanor had little time for, or interest in, her husband's political career. She let her mother-in-law dominate their family life in these early years of her marriage, feeling the need for the older woman's experience and advice.
But all that changed in the summer of 1921, their sixteenth year together. Franklin came down with a high fever while they were summering on Campobello Island, off the coast of Maine. The doctors said it was polio; Franklin's legs were permanently paralyzed.
Sara was devastated by her beloved son's illness and wanted to baby and pamper him. Eleanor, strengthened by the crisis, stood up to Sara and refused to let her husband become an invalid. She devoted herself to nursing him back to health and encouraged his political aspirations.
Eleanor began filling in for her husband at public appearances. She got involved with the Women's Trade Union League, raising money for the union's goals: a 48-hour work week, minimum wage, and the abolishment of child labor. She was getting a taste of the social and political activism that would grow to dominate her later years. Throughout the ';20s she became increasingly influential in the Democratic Party of New York. She campaigned for Alfred E. Smith to become President and her husband to become Governor of New York. Smith lost, but Roosevelt won.
Franklin's political career progressed, and so did Eleanor's self-confidence. She was no longer the brow-beaten daughter-in-law of Sara Roosevelt - she had become her own woman.
When Franklin won the White House in 1933, Eleanor knew that she was going to be a different type of First Lady than her predecessors. She continued with speaking engagements and social activism, despite criticism from those who insisted that a woman's place is in the home. She started holding weekly press conferences, the first First Lady to do so. Eleanor began writing a syndicated newspaper column, made personal appearances at labor meetings to reassure workers that the White House was not insensitive to their plight during the Depression. She saw herself as a human link between government bureaucracy and the citizens who so needed government's help.
This pioneering First Lady spoke out in support of the early civil rights movement of African-Americans, resigning her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution when in 1939 when they refused to allow black singer Marian Anderson perform in Constitution Hall. She helped arrange a subsequent concert for the singer on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Eleanor accomplished much in her twelve years in the White House, and she continued her activism after Franklin died in 1945. She served as a delegate to the United Nations from 1946 to 1953, and was the first chairperson of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed a new "President's Commission on the Status of Women" with Eleanor as its first chairwoman.
Eleanor's personal life was as challenging, or more so, than her public life. Her husband's affair with Lucy Mercer nearly destroyed her marriage and family. Despite the fact that Franklin vowed the end the affair, he and Lucy continued their romance for the last fifteen years of his life, including his entire time as President. Many scholars have suggested that it was Franklin's infidelity - not his illness - that fueled Eleanor's newfound independence and strength. She emerged from that crisis with the awareness that fulfillment could only come through her own influence and life, not someone else's.
Eleanor's life exemplifies one of her most famous quotes: "A woman is like a tea bag - you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water."