Who Was Eleanor Roosevelt?

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 14057

Her husband often prayed, "Lord, make Eleanor tired!" Her constant activity exhausted her family and friends. Was she a bumbling busybody or a heroic public servant? Learn all about this unique lady!


United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Eleanor was related to two very famous men: Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt.

  • Can you determine which of the following statements is true about these men?

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  • Did you guess correctly?

Keep reading to learn more!

Eleanor Roosevelt overcame a sad, lonely childhood and a difficult marriage to become an iconic First Lady and a famous advocate for human rights and other causes.

Examine the evidence and decide if she was a bumbling busybody, a heroic public servant, or something in between.


Though born to a beautiful socialite mother and a handsome and charming father, Eleanor was a rather plain-looking, quiet child. Her mother took offense at her plainness and serious demeanor, nicknaming her Granny.

Eleanor Roosevelt as a child in 1887

Eleanor was very attached to her father, but, unfortunately, he could not overcome his addiction to alcohol. Eleanor's mother died suddenly when Eleanor was only eight, and her father died two years later. 

She was sent to live with her very stern grandmother, who taught her the importance of duty and gave her very little affection.


Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt with Anna and baby James in 1908

In 1905, Eleanor married Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her distant cousin. Her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, president at the time, took her father's place at the wedding, giving the bride away. 

Franklin was elected to the New York state senate five years into their marriage, beginning his political career. He later served as Secretary of the Navy and was eventually elected governor of New York and, finally, president.

The Roosevelts had six children, though one died in infancy. It appears as though they did not have a happy marriage. It's thought that, perhaps, Franklin never really loved Eleanor and only married her to advance his political career. He was not a faithful husband, and he let his mother rule the house and raise the children, leaving Eleanor again feeling unnoticed and unloved.  

Franklin's Illness

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt seated on the south lawn at Hyde Park in 1932

In 1921, at 39, Franklin was struck with a debilitating illness called Infantile Paralysis, or Polio. According to some reports, Eleanor cared for him and may have even saved his life.

The disease caused her husband to lose strength in his legs, and he would never walk again alone. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, unable to get in and out of bed independently. Imagine what it was like for a strong, determined man to depend on others to get around. He became very discouraged and was ready to give up on politics completely.

Watch a brief portion of a 1976 miniseries on the couple to understand how Franklin Roosevelt might have felt and acted.

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Eleanor was sad to see Franklin suffering, but his illness became a positive turning point in her life. She convinced him to stay in politics and even to run for president.

As Franklin depended on her more and more, they formed a political partnership that allowed Eleanor to become a public figure in her own right.


Eleanor Roosevelt in Galapagos Island in 1944

Even before her marriage, Eleanor was interested in societal issues and was involved in social organizations. Shortly after graduating high school, she volunteered to teach children in a poor section of New York and joined a group that fought against unsafe working conditions for factory laborers.

During World War I, Eleanor volunteered with the Red Cross and helped in Navy hospitals. She was also active in the Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters.

After Franklin became president, Eleanor had a choice: would she settle into the normal role of a First Lady or continue her life as an activist? 

Discover her answer as you watch the following video. Take notes on the causes and activities that Eleanor was involved in.

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Besides her interests and causes, Eleanor was also involved in the policies and programs that Franklin implemented.

She traveled across the country to supervise how his New Deal projects were going. She encouraged him to appoint more women to positions of power. She encouraged women journalists by having ladies-only press conferences, where she shared tidbits of news not shared in the men-only White House press room.

Though many of Eleanor's efforts were laudable and successful, one of her plans was a big financial failure. Watch the video below to hear the story of Arthurdale.

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Civil Rights

Perhaps the most important cause Eleanor championed was civil rights for Black Americans. In 1939, she resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution when they refused to rent their hall for a performance by Marian Andersen, a Black opera singer. 

She wrote a newspaper column called "My Day," which called for ending racial discrimination. As First Lady, she hosted many White House receptions for Black leaders, entertainers, and organization heads.

She even visited with the Tuskegee Airmen and took a plane ride with one of their pilots. She strongly urged Franklin to ban discrimination in the military. 

One of her biggest battles was passing anti-lynching legislation. Unfortunately, Franklin did not support this effort — because he was afraid to lose the support of southern Democrats — and the bill died in Congress.

Despite this and other setbacks, Eleanor fought for civil rights until her death.

She also strongly opposed her husband's internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. She wrote columns decrying the injustice of the internment and went to one of the camps to visit and talk with the people there.

Later Life

After being elected to an unprecedented fourth term as president, Franklin Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945 at 63. His Vice President, Harry Truman, took over as president, and Eleanor returned to New York, remaining very active in social issues.

President Truman appointed her a delegate to the United Nations, and she was instrumental in writing and passing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor considered this one of her greatest accomplishments.

Eleanor Roosevelt holding a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949

Some years later, President John F. Kennedy asked her to head the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. It was her last public position, and she died before its final report was issued. 

In 1960, Eleanor was hit by a car while walking in New York City. This set off some health problems for her, and she died two years later, in November of 1962, after being cared for by her daughter, Anna.

  • Mrs. Roosevelt lived an interesting life, didn't she?

Move on to the Got It? section to review what you've learned about her life, and then analyze her social activism.

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