She describes herself as "rebellious," but that's a massive understatement. In fact, Eleanor was entirely ahead of her time. Over 12 daunting years starting in 1933, she used her platform as first lady to fight for civil rights and challenge the traditional, limited expectations of a woman's role in the world. She was the definition of a trailblazer, and her empathy was her guiding light.
She rallied the country during World War II, fought for racial justice and against gender discrimination. She became her husband's eyes and ears, traveling around the country -- once logging 40,000 miles in three months -- and reporting back to FDR about the cruel racism and crushing poverty she'd encountered.
She engaged with the public in an unprecedented way, establishing weekly press conferences for female reporters and writing a syndicated newspaper column called "My Day." She asked Americans to write to her about what worried them most, and within months she received 300,000 letters.
Her actions spoke even louder than her powerful words. She made a potent point when she resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution after the organization barred celebrated African American singer Marian Anderson from performing in its Constitution Hall because of her race.
Out of the public eye, the first lady's marriage was complicated by her husband's long affair with her personal secretary, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. On April 12, 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt died at his cottage in Warm Springs, Georgia, with his longtime mistress by his side. Eleanor was at work back in Washington, where she had delivered a speech that afternoon. She was 60 years old when her husband died, and her life was far from over.
Below, join us for a "First Ladies" viewing party as we break down seven of our favorite moments and key takeaways from this episode.
1. The anti-FLOTUS
Kate Bennett: This opening scene is so great; I love that she did the game show "What's My Line." That would today be the equivalent of Melania Trump doing "Wheel of Fortune" or something.
Kate Andersen Brower: I know! Can't imagine how thrilling that must have been for the people on the show once they discovered who they were talking to.
It's incredible that FDR was president for 12 years, 1933 to 1945 -- which makes Eleanor the longest-serving first lady in American history.
Bennett: She was the anti-FLOTUS in many ways, too: She was so needed beside her husband, and she had a completely different philosophy than first ladies before her. Before Eleanor Roosevelt, first ladies were privately advising their husbands while publicly playing the role of the White House hostess, and Roosevelt didn't do that.
Brower: Indeed, she had a completely original approach. No wonder HRC admired her so much.
Bennett: "You have a megaphone to speak to the world, if you learn how to use it." That's such a good way to describe the potential of a first lady. The ones who learn how to use it are often the ones who go down in history.
Eleanor only invited female reporters to her press conferences??
Brower: Yes. Isn't that great? By only inviting female reporters she made sure that papers hired female correspondents to cover the White House. It was very clever of her.
I love that she had her own press conferences. The fact that she planned her first two days after her husband's inauguration -- before her husband could even hold his own -- is just incredible.
Bennett: The staff would say they had to "get the pants off of Eleanor and onto Frank." Again, making her mark. It was almost like America got a two-for-one deal with the Roosevelts.
2. Three locks on her door
Bennett: Aww. Her childhood sounds hard.
Brower: It sounds horrendous; how awful for her mother to shame her for her looks, calling her "granny." And her father died of alcoholism at just 34 years old.
Bennett: Awful. She had such a sense of compassion for others when she was older; I wonder if it's because she drew on her past, where it seems no one had any compassion for her.
Brower: It must have made her strong.
I've always been interested in her relationship with her uncle, Teddy Roosevelt. She grew up around progressive politics and also around lots and lots of money. It's fascinating how she used her social standing to do good. When she was first lady, she connected with the people living in New York City slums and the miners in West Virginia. She never acted like she was better than any of them.
Bennett: I know! Ugh, this line about three locks appearing on her door "to keep (her) uncles out." What a horrific way to grow up!
Brower: I didn't know about the abuse; historians aren't sure what exactly happened. Her experience at an all-girls boarding school as a teenager might have saved her life.
I love this story about the little books and violets the students would leave each other to show appreciation. I think that's so important for young women to experience that kind of support from one another.
Bennett: It can be life-altering for sure. You know what I just realized? Eleanor loved violets, she carried a little bouquet of them at FDR's inauguration in 1933 and 1937. I wonder if there was symbolism to acknowledge the school she loved.
3. 'I want you to write to me'
Bennett: How tall was Eleanor? Do you know? She is statuesque.
Brower: She was almost 6 feet tall.
Bennett: Oh wow!
He and Eleanor were actually fifth cousins; they married in 1905 and had been together for almost 30 years when he became president.
They seemed to have such a strong marriage on the surface. Some of his advisers were clearly threatened by Eleanor's intelligence, but FDR took advantage of it. He was paralyzed from the waist down after contracting polio, and she would travel for him -- crisscrossing the country and reporting back on New Deal projects designed to help Americans after the devastation of the Great Depression.
When she returned to Washington, Eleanor let her husband know which programs were successful and which were not. And she was the first first lady to testify before a congressional committee -- which she did in 1945 in support of housing for the poor -- and to speak at a national party convention.
Bennett: Still whoa over the "distant cousins" part😯. But where other men might have been jealous it seems like FDR was smart enough to realize her intelligence was an asset.
I love that she actually asked people to tell her how they were doing once she became first lady; she said, "I want you to write to me." Can you imagine? It sounds cheesy, but I think she was the most deeply empathetic first lady in our history.
Bennett: Completely agree! You could feel her sense of mission more than any other.
"She turned her hearing aids off so we could make all the noise we wanted" -- what a lovely memory for grandchildren to have of their grandmother. Shows her sense of fun.
Brower: Have you been to FDR's library in Hyde Park, New York?
Bennett: No! Never been.
Brower: This footage inside of her cottage, called Val-Kill in the Hudson Valley, is absolutely wonderful. And that's one of her granddaughters, Nina Gibson Roosevelt, giving the tour.
It's incredible seeing her talk about playing while Eleanor worked answering letters at her desk. FDR's library is one of my favorite presidential libraries documenting those tumultuous 12 years.
Bennett: I want to go; will put it on my list!
4. She wouldn't 'stick to her knitting'
Bennett: Totally. She was just so spectacularly ahead of her time! I think it's even more remarkable to look back on her now and see how rogue she went on the "typical" wealthy wife of a successful man.
Brower: She was so strikingly intelligent, but her empathy made her somehow approachable.
Bennett: I didn't know they had so many kids. One daughter and five sons, one of whom died in infancy.
5. Eleanor and 'Hick'
Bennett: Uh-oh! She discovers letters between her husband and her secretary!
Brower: What is it about unfaithful presidents?
Bennett: It must be an ego thing.
Nina Gibson Roosevelt remembers her grandmother saying, "'You forgive; you don't necessarily forget, but you can forgive.'" From then on, she says her grandparents' marriage "became a partnership in a way that freed (Eleanor) up to become the woman she became. So through adversity, sometimes we rise and become things that we never thought we might become."
That's a meaningful and inspiring quote.
Bennett: Just shocking and sad. And that put an end to FDR and Eleanor's romantic relationship.
OK. I'm obsessed with her friend, Lorena "Hick" Hickok 🙋🏻♀ Men's clothes, bourbon, plays cards, journalist ... what a great character to infuse into this story. And it's real!
Bennett: I'm definitely reading -- they wrote about 3,000 letters to each other!!
We should all be more like ER and care less about what people think of us!
Bennett: I just got goosebumps! I love this sort of personal side story that I really had no idea about. It feels fulfilling for Eleanor.
Brower: It's a wonderful love story, even if it was platonic in the end. We will never know for sure. And how Allida Black says she's grateful for Hick, regardless of whether it was romantic, because "Eleanor loved and was loved in return. And she was empowered by that relationship."
Bennett: Yes!! 👭🏻
6. A price on her head
Brower: Like you said, Eleanor was ahead of her time as first lady in almost every way. She opened the doors of the White House to people of color and worked with civil rights leader and businesswoman Mary McLeod Bethune.
Bethune worked in the Roosevelt administration and was the highest-ranking African American woman in government. What an incredible partnership between these two women.
Bennett: Wow! Eleanor sat right down the middle of the aisle during a civil rights meeting in Alabama; Black attendees on one side, White on the other. Can you imagine the courage it must have taken for her to move her chair and make such a powerful statement?
Brower: It's incredibly moving.
Bennett: The KKK PUT A BOUNTY ON HER HEAD???
Brower: Their price: $25,000 to kill Eleanor Roosevelt.
And then you have J. Edgar Hoover's obsession with her; it's so strange.
Bennett: 😳 Totally obsessed. To keep an FBI file on the first lady of the United States because she was anti-racist -- what a crazy thing to do.
Brower: She is the definition of ballsy. Like when Eleanor wrote to the DAR that she was leaving because of their shameful treatment of Marian Anderson: "You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way," she wrote, "and it seems to me that your organization has failed." Mic drop. 🎤
Bennett: "So she writes a letter" is like the perfect evergreen statement of the Eleanor Roosevelt action plan. I have to learn to write better letters ;)
Not to get too psychological, but I wonder if the fortitude she must have developed from surviving her childhood just surged in these moments of staring down opposition.
Brower: I think that's solid analysis.
Bennett: Eleanor's work to bring everyone together for a concert after the DAR ban -- I honestly wish this is how we could deal with what's going on in our country today. The way she used her influence and power for this beautiful event of solidarity and support. I mean 😭
Brower: It's so authentic. I didn't know that Eleanor didn't go because she didn't want to take any attention away from Anderson.
And then there's this: After Pearl Harbor, Eleanor spoke to the American people before FDR did. Incredible.
7. Code name: 'Rover'
Bennett: I almost wonder if her voice was more impactful than his: "It's as if she is the President speaking."
Brower: The fact that all four of their sons fought in the war made her an important voice.
Bennett: So relatable to the country at such a pivotal time. And her code name, "Rover"! When you think of alllllll the things that happened during her tenure ... it's mind-boggling.
Brower: Segregation and World War II among them. Unbelievable.
Bennett: These floral corsages she always wears are very curious to me. They became her signature accessory.
But I wonder if it's ironic for her in a way, because typically flower corsages in that era signaled the woman was the wife of the honored male guest -- a way to distinguish her at an event or in a crowd. And yet it wasn't like Eleanor Roosevelt would ever be overlooked. She did love a large and in-charge corsage, though. Sometimes they were so big they overtook her entire lapel!
Brower: I've never noticed those before, interesting. She's wearing one here at a UN meeting after World War II.
The declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. Its message that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights" seems obvious, but coming on the heels of the Holocaust it carried real moral weight. And she worked on it during the Cold War, as the country stood at the brink of a conflict that could have been even more devastating than World War II.
Bennett: This quote on why she was so successful: "She figured out decades ago that you can get a tremendous amount done if you don't care about taking credit for it." Humble and determined are the greatest combination of qualities, IMHO. Watching this, I now really get why she is such an enduring icon.
"Eleanor Roosevelt was 'Lady Big Heart.'" What a perfect line to end on.
Bennett: That was great! I feel like I want to go out and do some good now or something, 💪🏻. Also props to the historians in this one; one of my favorites so far.
Brower: These historians are so well-versed in her story. I think she's one of the most well understood first ladies because of their work and their dedication to telling it.
OK, after our break for election coverage we'll come back for Lady Bird. A personal favorite of mine.
Bennett: I too am a big Lady Bird fan. 💫 Talk soon!