On December 10, 1948, after midnight, the UN General Assembly saw its first standing ovation for a single delegate. Representatives of 51 nations across the globe rose from their chairs to honor a 64–year-old woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, who had just made history.
For the first time, the world had agreed on the fundamental freedoms that belong to all on earth. It was fittingly called the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” And the recently widowed and former First Lady had been its driving force. As Chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the achievement of the 1948 charter of liberties will always be in a substantial way her legacy, one which now appears in the constitutions of scores of nations and in an evolving body of international law which protects the rights of men and women worldwide. In her speech at that historic Assembly, Roosevelt said:
We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This Declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere.
In 1946, Eleanor Roosevelt had been appointed a delegate to the United Nations by President Harry Truman, who had succeeded to the White House after the death of Franklin Roosevelt. When she was unanimously elected to serve as Chair of the Human Rights Commission, Roosevelt warned that she would be not only impartial but a “harsh driver.” For it was a herculean task to reach consensus on a declaration of principles that people of all creeds, colours, races, and backgrounds could support. When arguing for the inclusion of economic and social rights in the UDHR, she went against the views of the US State department and the skepticism of Secretary of State George Marshall. It had taken all her diplomatic and political leadership skills to achieve the Declaration, adopted with only eight abstentions, and no votes against.
Eleanor Roosevelt was born in 1884, the daughter of Elliott Roosevelt, brother of Theodore Roosevelt, US president from 1901–1909, and Anna Hall. The progressive headmistress of London’s Allenswood Academy for Girls where Eleanor was sent to study in 1899, recognized her intellect and potential and urged her to be socially and politically involved. She and Eleanor spent the summers in Europe seeing the grandeur and squalor of the nations they visited. On her return to the US, Eleanor surprised her family by volunteering to work in settlement homes in the New York slums.
In 1905, she married her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and within ten years had six children, one of whom died in infancy. Eleanor hated the social duties that were expected of her as a politician’s wife. In response, during WW I she volunteered to work for the Red Cross. After the war, she became active in the National Consumers League, the New York chapters of the League of Women Voters and the Women’s Trade Union League. In 1921, she became the Democratic Women’s Committee vice-president and finance chair and edited the Women’s Democratic News. Her political contributions and organizational sagacity made her one of New York’s leading politicians and communicators, giving speeches, radio broadcasts, and writing articles and opinion pieces. FDR was famous for “fireside chats,” but it was Eleanor—known already as “ER”—who broadcasted more frequently. In the 1930s, she was one of the most highly paid broadcasters in the US, unusual when the numbers of women on air were extremely low and those speaking about social and political issues even lower. She was heavily criticized, as her activities were seen as unbecoming for a woman.
By the time Franklin and Eleanorarrived in the White House in 1933, she was already deeply involved in human rights and social justice issues. She took the unusual step of holding women-only press conferences so that newspapers during the Depression would have to employ at least one female political reporter if they wanted to cover the First Lady. She pressed for the appointment of women to key positions in government and reminded the administration to ensure that women, and African Americans, were not left out of the New Deal support programs.
She fought for the rights of African-Americans and Depression-era workers, joining the Washington chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, inviting key activists to the White House, and advocating for the integration of African-Americans in the American military and the rights of refugees. As noted by Anya Luscombe, her stance on civil rights attracted much criticism from politicians and commentators opposed to the Roosevelt administration or to her personally and earned her death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
ER resigned in 1939 from the prestigious Daughters of the American Revolution when it refused to allow the African-American contralto Marian Anderson to use its hall. Roosevelt saw to it that Anderson performed instead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In one of her last speeches at the UN, Roosevelt asked:
Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. . .
In April, 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt was the first woman awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by Utrecht University. In her acceptance speech she took the opportunity to stress the importance for the world of a strong United Nations: “There must be a crusading spirit and a maturity, which comes from the love of other human beings, or our best plans will fail.”
Her ability to both set direction and achieve the cooperation of others made the modest, compassionate, courageous Roosevelt a masterful leader, who appreciated the importance of listening and hard work. At her funeral in November 1962, Adlai Stevenson asked, “What other single human being has touched and transformed the existence of so many?” adding, “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.”