Closer Readings Commentary

Five Essential Resources for Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt

“One of the things people don’t understand about Eleanor Roosevelt, because she seemed so ladylike, and she has that aristocratic voice and that manner: she was tough as nails. In fact she was one of the best politicians of the 20th century.” — Geoffrey Ward, Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt was a key figure in some of the most important social reform movements of the twentieth century, including the progressive movement, the New Deal, the women's movement, the struggle for racial justice, and the founding of the United Nations.

A longtime political partner of her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor (ER) also developed her own political network and continued her political activities after his death in 1945. President Truman appointed ER to the first U.S. delegation to the United Nations, where she served as chair of the Commission on Human Rights, and in this capacity helped fashion the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Later in her life, John F. Kennedy sought and received ER’s support, which was critical for his successful run for the presidency.

Over the years, NEH has supported many high-quality publications, archives, and television and radio projects about ER. For Women’s History Month, here are five free digital resources from this collection that you can’t do without. [Note: Students should also mine these sites for their 2017 National History Day “Taking a Stand in History” projects.]

1. Eleanor Roosevelt

For over a decade, the American Experience companion website to their film on Eleanor Roosevelt has been one of the best overviews of her life and career. It contains the complete film transcript, which can serve as a useful short biography for students. The distinguished historian Blanche Wiesen Cooke, who wrote ER's definitive biography, was the film’s consultant, so the transcript should be searched for revealing character nuggets. By the way, Cooke’s commentary is so compelling that Ken Burns later incorporated chunks of it in his own film on the Roosevelts. 

2. Eleanor Roosevelt and the Rise of Social Reform

This EDSITEment lesson helps students explore the various important public roles that Eleanor Roosevelt took on. During the New Deal, she became a key voice inside the White House for appointing women to positions in the administration (such as Frances Perkins, the first woman cabinet officer); improving the plight of the unemployed, and addressing the concerns of youth. She championed the organization of the National Youth Administration, which provided education and work for youths from 16 to 25 and the Public Works Arts Project, which found employment for artists.

Students read and analyze materials written by and about Eleanor Roosevelt to understand the changing roles of women in politics. They will look at Eleanor Roosevelt's role during and after the New Deal as well as examine the lives and works of influential women who were part of her political network. They will also examine the contributions of women in Roosevelt's network who played critical roles in shaping and administering New Deal policies.

3. Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project

So where does one go on the Web to find the best collection of the authentic primary sources from Eleanor Roosevelt's hand? The ER Papers Project brings together most of her magazine and newspaper articles from the 1930s on, excerpts from her books, transcripts of important speeches and addresses, radio broadcasts; a limited number of important letters; and some diary entries that could be very useful for anyone who wishes to understand her voice. ER’s monthly columns for Woman's Home Companion and other mass circulation magazines beginning in the 1930s led to an unprecedented conversation with the American people. During World War II, she took an active role in programs for European refugees and those building support for women working on the home front. In the 1950s she continued to write a column that reached millions of Americans with her views on social and political issues, current and historical events; and her private and public life. 

 4. Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In this lesson from the recent Ken Burns series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, students learn how ER championed the cause of human rights worldwide. As head of the Human Rights Commission, she was in effect the “project manager” for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was approved unanimously by the UN in late 1948. Students analyze the impact of the Declaration and Eleanor Roosevelt's influence through video clips and online resources. They then develop technology-rich persuasive presentations in an effort to create a Universal Declaration of Student Human Rights.

5.  Annotations: The NEH Preservation Project

Deep in the WYNC radio archives, one can find fascinating ER episodes featuring primary source audio and accompanying written background. The two we picked show both her continuing support for civil rights and the tributes to her life and career by prominent women after her death.

Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt interviews her friend Mary McLeod Bethune in a 1949 radio broadcast in support of "interracial understanding." 

This 1962 tribute to the former first lady features eight women, including Frances Perkins, reminiscing about their friend and illuminating the many different areas of Eleanor Roosevelt's wide-ranging political life.