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First Lady of the World

A Review of Tamara K. Hareven’s Eleanor Roosevelt: An American Conscience

Tamara K. Hareven, a native of Czernautz, Rumania graduated from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1976, she became a professor of history at Clark University. Later in life she became a visiting professor and scholar in many countries, receiving an honorary doctorate from Linkoping University in Sweden in 1998.


Exploring the life and accomplishments of Eleanor Roosevelt, Tamara K. Hareven focuses on the public life of the First Lady in Eleanor Roosevelt: An American Conscience. Hareven admires the social reform accomplishments and details organizations she helped develop such as the “Civil Works Administration in November 1933.”1 In her book, Hareven analyzes the many roles Eleanor Roosevelt takes on throughout her life and career ranging from teacher, wife, and humanitarian to writer, public speaker, and First Lady.

The first portion of Hareven’s biography outlines the life of Eleanor Roosevelt before she became the First Lady of the United States. Hareven begins by describing the lonely and rejected upbringing Eleanor was subjected to at the hands of her mother, who believed raising a child in the Victorian style was best. Due to the harsh treatment, Eleanor, as Hareven stated, “was afraid of the water, the dark, high mountains, and, most of all, authority.”2 However, this treatment was exactly what led to her empathetic involvement in volunteer work and various charities. After being resented by her mother, Ana, until her death, Eleanor faced further hatred from Sarah, the mother of her cousin Franklin. Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, married Eleanor in 1905, ending Eleanor’s perpetual loneliness. Despite the fact the two were not very close, Eleanor proved to be a loyal and supportive politician’s wife to the newly elected senator of New York. Initially, she was preoccupied with taking care of their family, but during the early 1920s, she began “training” under various reform organizations. 1920 was a difficult year for Eleanor Roosevelt when her husband was struck with polio. From this point onward, Eleanor became not just a wife, but a nurse. In their despair, however, Franklin and his wife became closer, bonding as she cared for him. Mrs. Roosevelt, being introduced to politics, began to read and critique her husband’s speeches. This behavior stemmed from the encouragement of Louis Howe--a reporter who became her only comfort--to participate in FDR’s campaign. Reluctantly, Eleanor filled the role, despite the fact that she wanted her husband to exit the political scene. As a result of her expanded role in her husband’s political affairs, Eleanor began to advocate suffrage for her fellow women in the 1920s; she worked to educate women about their new roles and how to garner respect by teaching at the Todhunter School in New York City. Although Eleanor was contributing to the Democratic Party during this time, she refrained from publicly working on her husband’s presidential campaign. Her reservations about living a public life were tested on November 9, 1932, the night Eleanor knew she was to be First Lady.

After FDR became the 32nd president of the United States, as Hareven stated, “the role of First Lady did not eclipse Eleanor Roosevelt” as she maintained her own agenda.3 This “agenda” consisted of holding her own press conference and writing a daily column to communicate with the public. The flexibility of her role allowed Eleanor to pick and chose which reform movements she would become involved in. This became a real asset to the patron of the New Deal as she became a semi-official link between the public and the president. In her communications with the community through the columns she wrote and the letters she received in response, Eleanor was able to ensure that the individual was not being overlooked in a massive reform effort. In an attempt to keep the agencies as honest and productive as possible, Mrs. Roosevelt followed up on any complaints she received about an organization. Often times the complaints the First Lady received were fraudulent ploys by the “forgotten women” to gain benefits at no charge.4 Although it bothered Eleanor to see the system being abused, she continued to help many of those who wrote to her. Soon, it became clear to her that “of all New Deal Projects, those designed for unemployed youth lay closest to Mrs. Roosevelt’s heart,” since she focused on creating jobs for them.5 On June 26, 1935, Mrs. Roosevelt acted on this passion by helping to establish the National Youth Association. Having said that, in the early 1930s, Mrs. Roosevelt did more than help the young and the unemployed; she endeavored to create a utopian community centered on education. Strongly believing that the government should guarantee equality, Eleanor used her resources to create balance among the citizens. Unfortunately, the trial community known as Arthurdale was a failure. The shortcomings of this project, however, did not discourage the First Lady from attempting further improvements to society. Eleanor went on to champion other causes based on humanistic democracy and social justice. Looking at the problems spawned during the Great Depression from a moralistic perspective, Eleanor showed her ability to engage in “practical politics,” even as the nation edged closer to entering a world war.

As the possibility of the United States entering World War II increased, so did the involvement of the First Lady in international affairs. In 1935, Mrs. Roosevelt continuously appealed to the United States to enter the World Court, calling it the duty of the United States to settle the disputes of the world in order to maintain peace. Despite the fact that Eleanor campaigned for peace and control of armaments, she recognized the possibility of going to war but wanted to ensure that the nation as a whole would support the actions of their troops. To do so, Eleanor made speeches combating the principle of isolationism; she even followed Wheeler and Lindbergh, who were touring the United States campaigning against involvement, to counter their arguments. When the United States entered the war, the First Lady paid many visits to the troops and the Red Cross clubs, writing of the experiences in her columns. Her descriptions of the war experience were attempts to bring the public “closer to the actual conditions,” and “drive home the interrelationship between national defense and domestic reform,” a strategy that would garner greater support for troops and restructuring legislation.6 Furthermore, Mrs. Roosevelt viewed the war as a test of the democratic system of the United States and an opportunity to continue New Deal legislation. The solutions Eleanor presented to problems, such as hiring “negroes” to increase production for the war, served to have more than one beneficiary. Another example of Mrs. Roosevelt attempting to further New Deal policies lies in her calls for an idealistic postwar society only shortly after the war had begun. Eleanor however, during the war, refrained from becoming directly involved in politics.

In the last section of the biography, Hareven details Eleanor’s reaction to and life after the death of FDR on April 12, 1945. Even though Eleanor lacked experience in politics, a few short months after her husband’s death, Truman asked her to be a U.S. delegate for the United Nations; reluctantly, she accepted the position. Eleanor used the greater freedom to voice her opinions she possessed -- a result of not being censored by the president -- to express her views on the actions of the government and the members of Congress. An example of such expressions can be seen, as Hareven observed, in Eleanor’s view of Joseph McCarthy as the “epitome of the threat to American Liberties.”7 Even after the loss of the influential position she once held, Mrs. Roosevelt still desired to defend the rights of her fellow Americans. Additionally, Mrs. Roosevelt saw her involvement with the U.N. as an opportunity to spread the ideals of the New Deal at a global level. Some of the organizations that she helped to found that reflect those principles include UNRRA and UNICEF. Involvement in these types of humanitarian organizations earned her a spot on “Committee 3” under the United Nations; specifically, it would deal with social, humanitarian, and cultural questions.8 Originally, the former First Lady was put on the committee because of her lack of political experience, but Eleanor’s participation led to the formulating of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and her earning of the title of “First Lady of the World.”9 The positive responses Mrs. Roosevelt received globally also led to her appointment as an ambassador for the U.S. by the mid-1950s. Highlighting the trips Eleanor made to various countries around the world, Hareven described the constructively active approach the former First Lady took in the last years of her life. Hareven goes on to describe the stereotypes Eleanor defied as a woman breaking out of her husband’s shadow to become a leader in her own right. By expressing her broad vision of the world until her death in 1962, Eleanor became one of the most awarded and honored women in the world.

Clearly stated from the beginning, Hareven’s intent with this particular biography of Eleanor Roosevelt was to portray the greatly admired leader’s public life and to analyze the extent of her humanitarianism. Without going into depth and detail of Eleanor’s private life, Hareven successfully sheds light on the endeavors of the woman she views as “a humanitarian reformer and tireless fighter who blended conflicting forces into unassuming, simple humanness.”10 As the story of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life is unfolded, Hareven presents the ideals Eleanor developed and how, without a directed plan, the First Lady integrated them into society. Hareven, due to her particular interest in the social causes and effects of history, does limit her study to the effect Eleanor had on society and vice-versa, making the biography less than comprehensive of her whole life. Despite the fact the biography is lacking a complete picture of the reformers life, the reader is still able to get a rather complete sense of the personality and motivation Eleanor Roosevelt possessed during her championing of various reform measures. Although Hareven claims to have no personal attachment to the first lady prior to writing this account of her life, it is clear that she views Mrs. Roosevelt as a model reformist and heroine. This can partially be attributed to Hareven’s subscription to the Progressive school of historiography. It is this school of thought under which the idea of competing social forces portrays the American society in its entirety and perfectly characterizes Eleanor’s struggle with isolationists and opponents to the New Deal.

In an article published by The American Historical Review, Rutgers University’s James N. Rosenau criticizes this biography for taking the approach appearing to be the “easiest and … the least interesting.”11 Rosenau goes on to admonish Hareven for not exploring further the influence of Eleanor beyond reform measures. Essentially, Rosenau is disappointed that such a great leader is not given more credit for all she did during the trying time in which she lived. Although he respects the factual representations of the accomplishments in the traditional sense of the biography, Rosenau resents the lack of analysis of actions that would have made the biography a more interesting read. Also, in the review, Rosenau also compares Eleanor Roosevelt: An American Conscience to a similar biography by James R. Kearney entitled Ana Eleanor Roosevelt: The Evolution of a Reformer. Rosenau finds the books to be parallel in structure and in the evidence they choose to cite; leading him to believe the biographies were to carefully structured and traditional in nature.

Another, much more approving perspective of the biography, is related in a review by Bernard Sternsher of Seton Hall University. The only critique Sternsher has of Hareven’s edition is the over quotation of “hackneyed statements.”12 That criticism aside, Sternsher commends Hareven’s relation of the contributions made by Eleanor Roosevelt. Sternsher’s article cites Hareven’s work as an accurate and modern source of information on a woman whose personal life is not entirely accessible to the public. Sternsher, does however, find the judgment Hareven displays toward the writings and quotes of Eleanor to offset the use of the cliché statements.

Although Hareven’s relation of the life of one of the most influential women during the twentieth century effectively described Eleanor’s life, it merely listed most of the accomplishments. It was easy to get a sense of the type of person who would enact so many reform measures without holding any particular office in government, but Hareven failed to display the true Eleanor. Obviously Mrs. Roosevelt had a passion for humanitarian causes, but it was hidden behind the lists of her involvements. Had less attention been paid to sharing the enormity of Mrs. Roosevelt’s accomplishments and focusing on the consequences to the public and Eleanor herself, a more complete character could be formed in the minds of the reader. Additionally, Hareven fails to acknowledge the shortcomings of the heroic First Lady. For a biography of a woman described as highly relatable to the public, the reader does not at any point receive an explanation for this reaction on the part of the public. Letters written to the first lady from the public are mentioned numerous times throughout the biography, but no further explanation is given. For example, Hareven states Eleanor, “from the inauguration in March 1933 until the end of the year, she received 301,000 pieces of mail,” but there is no written reason as to why this occurred.13 Another area in which the biography lacks is explaining her relationships with those closest to her. Some of this information is not accessible to the public, but often times people are mentioned by name sporadically throughout the book and no real explanation is given as to who they are. Other than the lack of analysis of Mrs. Roosevelt’s character, Hareven’s biography of the First Lady gives a comprehensive overview of her accomplishments.

Based on Hareven’s emphasis on the reform measures enacted by the First Lady during the 1930s, it is clear that she believes Eleanor Roosevelt had a large impact on American society. Hareven initially started research by looking at the implications of American Reform, and began to see the impact Eleanor Roosevelt had on the New Deal policies during this time and changed her focus to just the First Lady. To Hareven, the time when Eleanor Roosevelt was alive was a time where the stereotypes for women were being eliminated. The generalizations were dissolved at the hands of a first lady with zero political experience, who gained enormous influence and numerous followers in the United States. According to Hareven, in a time where Eleanor Roosevelt’s own country was not always accepting of her ideas, the First Lady stood her ground and forever changed the diplomacy of not only the U.S. but also the world. Reflected in the title of the work Hareven chose, Eleanor Roosevelt played upon the emotions of empathy and sympathy of the American public to garner support for the causes she championed, a tactic frequently used today. Hareven stated that she thinks Mrs. Roosevelt became “the very embodiment of American ideals;” further evidence of the influence a woman could have,14 despite the controversy between Democrats and Republicans during this time, over how to handle a national crisis.

Only a short time after women were granted the right to vote, Eleanor Roosevelt came into the public eye and changed the way many Americans viewed welfare and social justice. From organizations that are still in place today, such as UNICEF, to the existence of policies such as Social Security, Eleanor Roosevelt has had a profound impact on the policies of the world. Eleanor Roosevelt worked tirelessly to champion humanitarian causes, such as social equality, most Americans today do not even think twice about accepting. Without her strong voice and campaigning behind these organizations and principles, attention might never have reached the people. As a nation that prides itself on the equality of its citizens under the law and constant efforts to help the “common” man, the United States would be nothing without humanitarian leaders. An example of such a social reformist is the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who paved the way for many influential women politicians to come. Conservative and isolationist ideas were challenged as Eleanor Roosevelt was given the opportunity to voice her opinions. Although the First Lady recognized that the future generations could carry out the policies she outlined, as they eventually would, she also believed that action needed to be taken immediately. In fact, Eleanor said it the best herself when she explained the urgent need to reform during her time; Eleanor Roosevelt stated flatly that, “We cannot wait until tomorrow. Tomorrow is now.”15 He sense of urgency is yet another exemplification of the mark that can still be seen on society today. This desire to create a more socially equal world has carried over to the generations today. This can be seen in the desire to make all different types of people equal under the law.

In general, Tamara K. Hareven’s biography of the life and accomplishments of Eleanor Roosevelt effectively articulates the importance of her leadership. The study provides an interesting focus on “Eleanor Roosevelt as a public figure.”16 In conclusion, Eleanor Roosevelt: An American Conscience explains the many successes Eleanor had not just as the wife of one of the greatest presidents of our time, but as a leader and proponent of New Deal reforms on her own.



1: Hareven, Tamara K. Eleanor Roosevelt: An American Conscience. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968. 80.
2: Hareven, Tamara K. 4.
3: Hareven, Tamara K. 41.
4: Hareven, Tamara K. 68.
5: Hareven, Tamara K. 144.
6: Hareven, Tamara K. 160-161.
7: Hareven, Tamara K. 203.
8: Hareven, Tamara K. 231.
9: Hareven, Tamara K. 232.
10: Hareven, Tamara K. xii.
11: Rosenau, James N. New Brunswick, Rutgers University: American Historical Review Vol. 74 No. 2, 1968.
12: Sternsher, Bernard. Seton Hall University: Organization of American Historians, 1968.
13: Hareven, Tamara K. 40.
14: Hareven, Tamara K. xi.
15: Hareven, Tamara K. xv.
16: Hareven, Tamara K. 281.

Student Bio

Allison Cukrov, 16, is a junior at Irvine High and an active participant in athletics, including softball and volleyball. She plans to continue playing softball at a four-year university in the near future and pursue her other interest in science and major in environmental science.


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