Government and Politics

The American Presidency

Why was Eleanor Roosevelt called “the people’s First Lady”?

While several First Ladies before her had also been active in the nation’s life, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), wife of thirty-second president of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945), stands out as one of the country’s most active first ladies and as a woman of enormous accomplishment in her own right. During her husband’s administration, which began in the dark days of the Great Depression (1929–39) and continued as the world again went to war, Eleanor Roosevelt acted not only as an adviser to the president, but as the president’s eyes and ears on the nation—traveling in a way that his physical condition prevented him from doing.

From the start, Eleanor Roosevelt remained in constant communication with the American people: She was known for her weekly press conferences, numbering some 350 by the end of the Roosevelt presidency, that were open only to women reporters. In 1934 she began a radio program, which became so popular that she was soon dubbed “the First Lady of Radio.” Beginning in 1936 she authored a daily column called “My Day,” which was syndicated to newspapers around the country. These forums gave the First Lady an unprecedented voice in American life and gave Americans a clear understanding of their First Lady and her concerns.

Concerned about the effects of the Great Depression on American children, she was instrumental in creating the National Youth Administration, which helped high school and university students complete their studies before joining the workforce. She was a champion of minority groups, declaring that the right to work “should know no color lines” and resigning from the Daughters of the American Revolution when the group refused to allow black singer Marian Anderson (1897–1993) to perform at Constitution Hall.

Eleanor Roosevelt was known for getting out among the people; she lectured frequently and made other public appearances in which she met and spoke face to face with the American people. A famous cartoon depicted a coal miner pausing in his work to exclaim, “For gosh sakes, here comes Mrs. Roosevelt.” During World War II (1939–45) she made a remarkable 23,000-mile trip across the South Pacific, where she untiringly visited American GIs in field hospitals and on the lines.

Mrs. Roosevelt was an advocate for the people, and it just so happened that she lived in the White House. A beloved First Lady who actively supported liberal causes and humanitarian concerns, she has been a model to subsequent first ladies and women politicians and activists.


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