Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the World

“No matter how plain a woman may be; if truth and honesty are written across her face, she will be beautiful”. Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady and American politician

She was moved by his peaceful face, his wrinkled hands, the tension that had disappeared from his shoulders. She had always been fond of his hands, so firm yet tender. Hands that would never hold hers again.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her fifth cousin, husband, father of her children, lay lifeless on his deathbed. She had just spoken with the new president, Harry Truman, to tell him the news, and only after fulfilling that duty could she go back to the room to be alone with him, holding vigil over his body.

Now she could stop holding back the memories, which were flowing forcefully to the surface. The dance where they met, the jokes about their distant kinship; the kindness of their uncle, President Teddy Roosevelt, for whom Eleanor was forever the apple of his eye, and who accompanied the bride as a witness; the involuntary protagonist in a wedding that delighted the press.

“It’s good to keep the name in the family,” the president deadpanned in response to the insistent question about the marriage between Roosevelts…

Everything was full of promise for them: a bright future in politics for Franklin, alongside a woman who, while not exactly beautiful, created a mysterious magnetism in those around her… An ugly duckling who became a swan, one that was beautiful in its own way.

An ugly duckling that could have withered very early in life, having become an orphan at 10. The year was 1894, and Eleanor already welcomed sadness into her life as a frequent companion. Only those truly close to her would have known that, because she was so jovial and cheerful, always attentive and involved in everything, a whirlwind of activity. Yet she never turned away from reality, no matter how harsh it was at times.

Like the day Franklin was diagnosed with polio, confining him to a wheelchair for the rest of his days. His political career, so full of promise, appeared to be cut short. That’s how everyone saw it… everyone but her. She would never forget the pain of struggling with her mother-in-law to convince Franklin not to throw in the towel. He would be an ugly duckling of politics, crippled in his wheelchair, unable to show off his stately demeanor in the campaign… waiting for the moment to showcase his full potential in a public office where he could do so much good.

Few people understood how she could so dearly love a man who had cheated on her. She herself could not fully explain why she had decided to stay with him after his affair with Lucy Mercer, his own secretary. She could not explain in words that, despite the depth of the wound inflicted, she could not reduce her husband to this affront. She could not bring herself to throw away what had brought them together—their desire to do good in the world. That’s why Franklin could not leave politics. Now everyone was giving their unanimous approval.

Eleanor was getting ready to appear before the press. She had found a special place in the hearts of the American people, and many would want to hear the first lady of the world one last time. It was then that she recalled her teacher back in England. The woman who had left the biggest imprint on her, of whom she always carried a portrait wherever she went: Marie Souvestre. Most of all, she remembered her words as she said goodbye: “Be all you can be.” And she wondered if being the first lady of one of the most important presidents in history was, in fact, all that she could be.

She would recall those words at least once more: Three years later, at the United Nations headquarters, after the approval of a charter prepared by the UN Commission that she chaired. A charter that few would have believed possible three years before: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Of the many things we could highlight from the biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, we point to these:

  • Few things in the universe are stronger than a determined, intelligent and brilliant woman.
  • Forgiveness always changes a person, and always for the better. Power frees up positive energies that allow us to be unshackled from the past and welcome the future with open arms.
  • A life behind the scenes, in the background, can be the ideal scenario for a career of true service.
  • A life in the background is what so often affords a person the humility and wisdom necessary to undertake a great cause.