Complete Story


Volume 3, Issue 1 June 2024


Abby Palazzo

FLARE Focus on Eleanor Roosevelt: Pioneering and Normalizing

Activism for First Ladies

Abby Palazzo

Editor’s Note: Abby Palazzo is a Washington, D.C.,-based communications strategist currently serving as a communications specialist at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation. She holds a B.A. in Journalism and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Georgia and is a graduate student in Political Communication at the American University School of Public Affairs.

            Rhetorical scholar Myra Gutin sorts America’s first ladies into three categories: White House Keepers, Emerging Spokeswomen, and Political Surrogates/Independent Advocates. Many women who occupied the role of first lady, such as Bess Truman, preferred to stay out of the spotlight and declined to take advantage of the political power inherent in the role, instead choosing the primarily social and ceremonial role of White House Keepers. Others were Emerging Spokeswomen, like Lou Henry Hoover, who championed social causes such as Girl Scouting, and made history by speaking on the radio as First Lady, but still largely avoided the press. And others, such as Lady Bird Johnson, were Political Surrogates who took advantage of their private political influence to affect policy by proxy. Activism through independent advocacy was only loosely associated with the role of first lady until one woman redefined the title: Eleanor Roosevelt.

            While earlier first ladies had private political influence, Eleanor Roosevelt was the first first lady to occupy openly the category of Political Surrogate/Independent Advocate, taking full advantage of the access, awareness, attention, audience, and authority that first ladies historian Stacy Cordery attributes to the role. Even prior to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s success in the 1932 presidential election, Eleanor was a devoted activist, belonging to the League of Women Voters and the Women’s Trade Union League in addition to teaching young women at the Todhunter School. She was also active in the women’s division of the Democratic National Committee. When Franklin rose to power as president, it became clear that, even though Eleanor was “deeply troubled” at the prospect of becoming First Lady, she would accelerate her existing efforts to pursue justice in this new role.2

Although she did host White House receptions and other social events in the tradition of White House Keepers such as Dolley Madison and Grace Coolidge, Eleanor is best remembered for her support of marginalized and disadvantaged communities, especially women and people of color. Her ardent involvement in public affairs led to scrutiny and criticism; the KKK even put a bounty of $25,000 on her head after she advocated for abolition of the poll tax, anti-lynching legislation, and supported Black singer Marian Anderson’s proposed concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.3 Before, during, and after her tenure in the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt used her voice to pursue a more equitable and democratic country.

With a husband who was physically limited by polio, Eleanor became the President’s “eyes, ears, and legs.” She traveled internationally in his stead and realized Cordery’s elements of authority and access. Blatantly political, Eleanor was unafraid to share the power and responsibility that burdened her husband. She had her own views, sometimes disagreed with him on issues of civil rights, and has even been credited with helping to shape the New Deal.

Capitalizing on the audience element of the role as defined by Cordery, Eleanor frequently shared her opinions publicly and prioritized communication with her husband’s constituents. Not only did she encourage Americans to contact her by mail, receiving hundreds of thousands of letters while in the White House, she also spoke back to them through vehicles such as her Ladies’ Home Journal Q&A column, “If You Ask Me,” a diary-format newspaper column called “My Day,” and numerous radio broadcasts.4 In this regard, Eleanor stands in stark contrast to first ladies who came before her. She allowed the general public “access” to her inner life and committed to a two-way exchange of information.

Eleanor Roosevelt took full advantage of each of these privileges (access, awareness, authority, audience, and attention) to advance her own agenda while supporting her husband’s. Indeed, her role as a politico continued after she left the White House when President Harry Truman invited her to serve on the United Nations Delegation. Without Eleanor’s unprecedented approach to the role, future Independent Advocates such as Rosalynn Carter (mental health care), Hillary Rodham Clinton (health care), and Michelle Obama (girls’ education) may never have had the opportunity to claim their own power. Eleanor Roosevelt showed America how to seize the power inherent in the role of first lady and not look back.

  1. Myra G. Gutin, The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989).
  2. Roosevelt as cited in Diana B. Carlin, Anita B. McBride, and Nancy Kegan Smith, Remember the First Ladies: The Legacies of America’s History-Making Women (San Diego, CA: Cognella Press, 2024), 87.
  3. Carlin, McBride, and Smith, 91.   
  4. Carlin, McBride, and Smith, 93.

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