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A New Deal:  A New Kind of First Lady

A New Kind of First Lady

Eleanor Roosevelt dreaded becoming First Lady.

A writer, teacher, social reformer, and political activist, she relished her hard-won freedom and financial independence. Though happy for her husband's success, she now faced the prospect of a life confined to the traditional social duties of the "President's Wife." At FDR's insistence, Eleanor resigned all of her professional positions. She came to Washington with no defined role other than White House hostess.

Yet ER soon began showing FDR how her energy and interests could help him achieve his goals. Instead of conforming to the accepted role of First Lady, she redefined it. She began holding press conferences on political matters for female reporters. She made fact-finding trips, logging 40,000 miles in three months. She asked Americans to write to her with their concerns. Within months, she received 300,000 letters. ER's actions served notice that she was a new kind of First Lady.

A Revolutionary Partnership

"No one who ever saw Eleanor Roosevelt sit down facing her husband, and, holding his eyes firmly, say to him, 'Franklin, I think you should'...or 'Franklin, surely you will not'...will ever forget the experience."

     - New Deal administrator Rexford Tugwell

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt created a revolutionary political partnership.

A tireless traveler and astute observer, Eleanor provided vital assistance to her husband by making fact-finding trips to get a first-hand perspective on economic conditions and the progress of New Deal programs. The First Lady lobbied FDR for the appointment of women and minorities to administrative positions and gave them access to the President. She criticized racial and gender discrimination within New Deal programs, urged administration figures to address it, and became a vocal advocate for education and youth. "I sometimes acted as a spur," she recalled, "even though the spurring was not always wanted."

Though ER often challenged FDR in private, she rarely dissented from his policies in public. The President sometimes used Eleanor to test the waters for legislation he was considering. If political reaction was negative, FDR could smile and claim it was simply his "missus' view."

Newspaper Columnist

Eleanor Roosevelt reached out to Americans in ways no previous First Lady had ever done.

She traveled the country on lecture tours. She hosted radio programs where she defended New Deal programs and spoke out on public issues. And in 1936, she inaugurated a six-day-a-week syndicated newspaper column titled "My Day." Written in a simple, unpretentious style, "My Day" initially chronicled the large and small details of Mrs. Roosevelt's life as First Lady. But she increasingly used it to discuss social issues and promote political policies. During ER's years as First Lady, "My Day" appeared in up to 62 newspapers with a total circulation of over four million. For a time she was the third most popular syndicated columnist in America. She continued writing the column until shortly before her death in 1962.
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