Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 5: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Rise of Social Reform in the 1930s

A Created Equal Resource


The Lesson


Eleanor Roosevelt in Arthurdale, West Virginia, 1933.

Eleanor Roosevelt in Arthurdale, West Virginia, 1933.

Credit: Image courtesy of The Franklin Roosevelt Library.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a key figure in several of the most important social reform movements of the twentieth century: the Progressive movement, the New Deal, the Women's Movement, the struggle for racial justice, and the United Nations. A long time political partner of her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt also developed her own political network and her own liberal ideology. During the New Deal, Eleanor Roosevelt became a key voice inside the White House for appointing women to positions in the administration, improving the plight of the unemployed, and addressing the concerns of youth; she championed the organization of the National Youth Administration and the Public Works Arts Project. Her monthly columns for Woman's Home Companion led to an unprecedented conversation with the American people. During World War II, she took an active role in programs for European refugees and building support for women working on the home front. She continued her political activities after the death of FDR in 1945 in such areas as the new United Nations and the civil rights movement.

This lesson asks students to explore the various roles that Eleanor Roosevelt took on, among them: First Lady, political activist for civil rights, newspaper columnist and author, and representative to the United Nations. Students will 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.

Guiding Questions

  • What were Eleanor Roosevelt's views about the role of government in solving social problems?
  • To what extent and in what ways did Eleanor Roosevelt and her network of women reformers advance the position of women in politics and government?

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students should be able to

  • Describe the role Eleanor Roosevelt carved out for herself as a social reformer.
  • Analyze and discuss the views that Eleanor Roosevelt held as an advocate for social justice.
  • Describe and explain the changing roles of women in politics in the 1930s and 1940s.
  • Explain and evaluate Eleanor Roosevelt's contributions to this new political role for women.


Eleanor Roosevelt's life spanned many of the critical events of the twentieth century: two World Wars, the founding of the United Nations, the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the resurgence of the women's movement, and the Cold War. She was born on October 11, 1884, in New York City. After her education in a forward-looking school in Great Britain, she returned to New York and became involved in social service work. She married Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her fifth cousin, in 1905; after he was stricken with polio in 1921, she became increasingly involved in politics. She was active in the League of Women Voters and the Women's Trade Union League and chaired the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee.

A detailed biography of Eleanor Roosevelt by Alida Black is available at the Eleanor Roosevelt papers, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed National Park Service: Links to the Past. A shorter biography is at the FDR Library, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed New Deal Network.

Eleanor Roosevelt had little desire to be First Lady and entered the White House without a clear role. She moved from promoting her husband's politics to an expanded advocacy of social policy closer to her own goals, such as the Arthurdale, West Virginia Subsistence Homestead Project.

There are a series of transcribed interviews with Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook, a link on the EDSITEment's Learner.Org. One of the interviews (a short one) is on Eleanor as First Lady, and another is on her role at Arthurdale.

Eleanor Roosevelt pressured her husband's administration to expand its commitments to minorities, women and youth. She also took on a highly visible role as monthly columnist for Woman's Home Companion and asked readers to write to her; three hundred thousand Americans had done so by January 1934.

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers have a large online archive of documents including articles, speeches, and book excerpts over the entire course of her career. The PBS site American Experience also has a Timeline of Eleanor Roosevelt's Life and twenty-eight of Eleanor Roosevelt's My Day columns from 1935 to 1962, linked from EDSITEment's Learner.Org. The EDSITEment-reviewed New Deal Network has her important essay Women in Politics that appeared in Good Housekeeping in 1940. That site also has a series of letters to Eleanor.

Eleanor Roosevelt was also at the center of a network of professional women who occupied important roles in the New Deal. While scholars today debate the progress of women's rights in the 1930s, there is no doubt that women made strides in occupying high administrative posts. Besides Eleanor Roosevelt, other influential women in national politics included Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor, and Molly Dewson, who took over the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee. Outside this personal circle but equally important was Mary McLeod Bethune, head of the Office of Minority Affairs in the National Youth Administration.

Other political women: There are biographies of Molly (Mary Williams) Dewson, Mary McLeod Bethune, Lorena Hickok, and Frances Perkins on the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers site. For Florence Kelley, there is a biography and a selection from her 1898 speech on "Women, Labor, and the Power of the Ballot" on the the EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters. Mary McLeod Bethune's 1939 speech "What Does American Democracy Mean to Me?" is also a link on History Matters.

Finally, the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site (from the National Park Service) has lesson plans and several good background essays on Eleanor Roosevelt and Progressivism, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement, and the Cold War.

Preparation Instructions

To prepare to teach this lesson, download or bookmark the following EDSITEment websites. All websites are from EDSITEment-reviewed New Deal Network unless otherwise noted in the lesson:

Activity One

Activity Two

If you are going to use audio or have your students use the audio versions of the Bethune speeches, make sure that you have Real Audio and a media player (WAV files) installed.

Note: Student LaunchPads divided by group accompany activities one and two.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Eleanor Roosevelt and her Circle of Women Activists

Student can access this activity through a group-specific Launchpad.

This activity focuses on Eleanor Roosevelt's circle and the changing role of women in politics from the1920s to 1940s. Students will be reading and researching several of the women activists who worked with Eleanor Roosevelt in various political activities in the 1930s, such as Molly Dewson, Mary McLeod Bethune, Lorena Hickok, and Frances Perkins.

  • This activity should be done as homework. Students should read Eleanor Roosevelt's Women in Politics, originally published in Good Housekeeping 110 (January 1940): 8–9, 150; (March 1940): 45, 68; (April 1940): 201–203. (read paragraphs 1–10, 19–21, 25–27,43-53, 58–64). They should also read for background Eleanor Roosevelt and the Women's Movement.
  • Working in groups in class, students should study one of the following individuals: Molly Dewson, Mary McLeod Bethune, Lorena Hickok or Frances Perkins. They will read a biography and one or more of their writings available online. They should read their individual's materials and take notes with the following questions in mind:
    • What is the role of government in the lives of its citizens, according to your readings?
    • What are some of the social problems facing the United States and its citizens in the 1930s?
    • What is the role of the individual?
Molly Dewson


Mary McLeod Bethune


Lorena Alice Hickok


Frances Perkins


Once the students have completed the readings and made their notes, have a class discussion or debate that compares and contrasts the life, ideology, and political methods of each figure. Do these powerful women, though different from one another, make similar arguments about gender and politics through their speeches, writings, or social activism?

Finally, the class should consider Eleanor Roosevelt's influence on the careers and the ideas of these other women in her circle. Overall, what did Eleanor Roosevelt do to expand and further the role of women in American politics?

Activity 2. Eleanor Roosevelt and Social Reform in the New Deal

Student can access this activity through a group-specific LaunchPad.

Students will examine Eleanor Roosevelt's work in the struggle for racial justice and gender equality in the New Deal and during World War II through their reading, analyzing, and annotating of several documents.

  • Ask students to read a short biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. They should focus on the New Deal years (paragraphs 13-18).
  • The teacher should model the reading and annotation of one document: Eleanor Roosevelt, Abolish Jim Crow! (1943). The annotated version of this document is available in a PDF.

Questions to focus on:

  • What are the four basic rights for citizens described here?
  • What problems did African Americans face?
  • How did fighting World War II relate to the fight for racial justice?

Students should be assigned to one of the following four groups, focusing on issues of: Youth and Education, Civil Rights, Unemployment and Relief, and Women in Politics. Each group will focus on one document that Eleanor Roosevelt wrote on that topic. Each student should also read a background essay.

Ask the students to mark their copies of the assigned documents when they provide evidence such as phrases, words, and concepts that help them to answer the following questions:

  • What reform ideas does Eleanor Roosevelt propose?
  • What is an example of a responsive government policy in the document?
  • What is the role of education in a democracy? (Group A)
  • What was Eleanor Roosevelt's civil rights agenda? (Group B)
  • How should the economic crisis be addressed? (Group C)
  • What should be the role of women in public life? (Group D)
Group A. Youth and Education


Students will read:

Group B. Civil Rights


Students will read:

Group C. Unemployment and Economic Reorganization


Students will read:

Group D. Women in Politics


Students will read:

Making Social Policy. Based on Eleanor Roosevelt's arguments, each group should present a proposal for a changed social policy on their topic to the entire class: Why is their problem such a pressing one for the nation? What do they propose should be done? Why? How will it alleviate the social problems that the United States faces in the 1930s and 40s? Why should their policy or legislation come first?


Students should write a newspaper editorial either supporting or criticizing Eleanor Roosevelt's political work. What do they find admirable or troubling about her entry into politics? Is this the right role for a First Lady or ex-First Lady? They could choose either her New Deal work or her post-1945 work and use some of the documents from the activities to support their arguments.

Students should be assigned a date (i.e. 1934, 1938, 1944, or 1950, this last when Eleanor was a former First Lady) for the editorial that they are writing. Students should be instructed to mention the specific evidence that they have examined; their arguments should be based on contemporary positions suited to the year they are assigned. They will need to cite specific actions taken by Eleanor Roosevelt, and possibly those of other women in the Roosevelt administration. They may choose to discuss the role of women in politics more generally.

When the editorials have been turned in, students could share their views in chronological order and discuss why these views might or might not have changed over time.

Extending The Lesson

Another activity could be to compare Eleanor Roosevelt's political work as First Lady and her post-1945 career. Students could read some of her "My Day" columns in each era. They could also watch her TV interview program "Prospects of Mankind with Eleanor Roosevelt" about the Peace Corps, learn about her work on the UN's Human Rights Commission, or read about her negotiations with John F. Kennedy about the campaign of 1960 from her My Day columns and the JFK–ER correspondence in the "Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy" lesson at the National Parks Service. The key topics would include the New Deal, Cold War, and Women in Politics.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • David Jaffee, City College of New York, CUNY (New York, NY)
  • David Gerwin, Queens College, CUNY (New York, NY)


Student Resources