The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project is a university-chartered research center associated with the Department of History of The George Washington University

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The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project
Questions and Answers about Eleanor Roosevelt

Question: How political was Eleanor Roosevelt before FDR contracted polio?

Answer:

The seeds of ER's activism were planted in 1903 when she volunteered to work at the College Settlement on Rivington Street in Manhattan and joined the National Consumer's League, which pushed for better working conditions, particularly for women and children. These experiences opened her eyes and whetted her appetite for the activities in which she would later immerse herself. Yet once her children were born, ER, encouraged by SDR, focused on her children and charity boards.

Unlike many of the women with whom she would later work, ER only grew interested in politics in 1919. She was not a suffragist and rarely participated in FDR's campaign activities. But by 1920, ER had become a political activist.

[group picture of the International Congress of Working Women, 1919] Three elements spurred her political development: World War I, FDR's affair with Lucy Mercer, and her friendships with Louis Howe and a group of women activists, most notably Esther Lape and Elizabeth Reed. The horrors of war compelled ER to work for the Red Cross and a canteen for soldiers departing from Washington's Union Station. A 1919 tour of French hospitals and battlefields with FDR left her astounded by war's devastation and she became a passionate supporter of the League of Nations and the World Court.  The International Congress of Working Women held its convention in Washington, DC and ER, as a supporter of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL), volunteered to translate sessions for women who were not multilingual. There she met many women who were to become her lifelong friends. [picture: Louis Howe, T. Lynch, ER and S. Prenosil on 1920 campaign trail.]When FDR received the 1920 Democratic vice-presidential nomination, ER accompanied him on a five-week, cross-country campaign trip during which she formed a close friendship with FDR's advisor Louis Howe, who would be the first of many politicos to appreciate ER's skills and interests. She kept a record of campaign events, monitored FDR's press coverage, and helped Howe draft talking points. After FDR's defeat, she returned to New York determined to avoid the pitfalls of loneliness and worry characteristic of her earlier life. She continued to work for the WTUL and, upon the advice of some WTUL activists, ER began to work with the League of Women Voters and the Women's City Club. Soon she chaired the League's committee for national legislative affairs and wrote weekly legislative updates and other articles for both its state and national newsletters. In short, by 1921, before polio struck FDR, ER had moved away from charity boards and into the political arena.
 


Sources:

Black, Allida M. Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, 7-11.

Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume One, 1884-1933. New York: Viking Press, 1992, 9, 134-138, 209, 215-217, 242-245, 258-259, 275-276, 278-282, 288-301.

Lash, Joseph P. Eleanor and Franklin. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971, 167-264.