A column by Anne M. Dunn
An exceptional woman
When Gallup issued the 1999 list of the most admired people of the 20th century, Mother Theresa was at the top. MLK Jr. ranked second and, my first choice, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (b. Oct. 11, 1884, d. Nov. 7, 1962) came in ninth out of 18.
She was orphaned at age 10 and had a seemingly unhappy childhood. She was sent to a convent school in Italy (1890-1891) while her mother recovered from a nervous breakdown.
Although she considered herself an “ugly duckling”, at age 14 she wrote, “No matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and loyalty are stamped upon her face all will be attracted to her.”
She attended Allenwood Academy in London (1899-1902)) and was deeply influenced by feminist headmistress. Marie Souvestre sought to cultivate independent thinking in young women and took a special interest in young Eleanore. This was undoubtedly the first step toward her future as a human rights warrior.
Eleanor was well-liked by her classmates and would recall those years as among her happiest. She would also write that she regretted she did not go to college. But her higher education would be acquired intuitively as she exposed herself to the realities of life on common bread.
She was active with the New York Jr League and taught dancing and calisthenics in the East Side slums. She believed that physical activity was good for the bodies of poor working people who spent so much time slumped over tasks in cramped quarters.
Shortly after returning to the U.S. she met and eventually married her fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Her uncle, Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, gave her away on St. Patrick’s Day, Mar. 17, 1905. She gave birth to six children.
It was a difficult life under a domineering mother-in-law. After discovering FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer (1918) Eleanor decided to seek fulfillment in a public life of her own. However, she continued to support her husband in his political endeavors.
FDR contracted infantile paralysis or polio in Aug. 1921 at Campobello, New Brunswick. His legs were permanently paralyzed. Nevertheless, he was elected U.S. president.
As the longest serving First Lady (Mar. 1933-Apr 1945) she was determined to redefine the role that had been restricted to domesticity and hostessing.
She was criticized for her outspokenness, particularly concerning racial issues.
She was the first First Lady to hold press conferences, write a syndicated newspaper column and speak at a national convention.
She also advocated for expanded roles for women in the workplace, civil rights of African-Americans and Asian-Americans, and rights of WWII refugees.
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