Monday, October 11, 2010

In Memoriam: Eleanor Roosevelt

There have always been First Ladies famed as hostesses; until she came along, though, no one could have imagined a First Lady as activist. By imbuing her role (which has no official status) with a level of importance unimagined by the previous holders of the post, Eleanor Roosevelt earned the title 'First Lady of the World' from President Harry S. Truman and her actions have caused reverberations which are still being felt - for instance, as recently as the current Presidential campaign.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1884, into New York society, Eleanor was orphaned by the age of ten, following which she was raised by relatives. At nineteen she was engaged to her distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom she married on St. Patrick's Day 1905. In lieu of her dead father, she was escorted down the aisle by her uncle, President Theodore Roosevelt.

Her early marriage was stressful: a domineering mother-in-law, coupled with her husband's demanding relatives and his open philandering, must have left the shy, insecure Eleanor feeling terribly marginalized.

Following FDR's illness in 1921 (which left him all-but paralyzed from the waist down - unable to walk, but still able to philander) Eleanor emerged into public life, often making appearances in her husband's stead. Allowed to flourish on her own terms, Eleanor Roosevelt quickly became the smart, compassionate force of nature for which she is still so rightly renowned.

The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency of the United States at a pivotal time in US history finally brought Eleanor entirely into her own. Her advocacy on behalf of women's and children's issues, poverty, literacy, civil defense, and human rights, though, was so much more than noblesse oblige - it was a duty which she took very seriously. In a very real way she completed him, and the President never failed to honour her for the good works she did.

Following FDR's death in 1945, Eleanor's activism became more strident; she famously battled with New York's Francis Cardinal Spellman, and was pivotal in the founding of the United Nations. She was struck by a car in New York City in 1960, and died from complications related to that accident two years later. She is buried next to her husband at their Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York.

In death - as will happen - she's become even greater than she was in life. Her spirit presides over both the office of the First Lady and the United Nations still. She's even been given pride of place at the FDR Memorial in Washington, the first First Lady to be so honoured. From the introverted orphan whose aunts called her 'ugly' to a paragon of tolerance and understanding in one short lifetime, Eleanor Roosevelt's life lit a light that will never go out.
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