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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Eleanor Roosevelt: A First Lady on the Move

A First Lady on the Move

Eleanor Roosevelt stands in front of an American Airways plane in 1933

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Eleanor Roosevelt served as First Lady of the United States from 1933-1945, profoundly changing the role for the women who followed her. Immediately after the Inauguration, the Roosevelt administration set out to combat the Great Depression. Both the president and the first lady were eager to help the people of the United States in different ways. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set out to implement his New Deal, a series of social and economic programs, projects, and reforms designed to help the country recover from the Depression.

While this legislation was unprecedented, it was also imperfect. Mrs. Roosevelt, an advocate for equal rights regardless of race, gender, or religion, argued that the earliest iteration of the New Deal notably excluded specific communities such as women or people of color.1 So, she continually advocated for all people affected by the Depression by traveling throughout the country and visiting their communities. The first lady often reported on her travels to the president, acting as his eyes and ears while he worked from the White House.2 She also voiced her opinions publicly, even if they contradicted President Roosevelt’s. In speeches, television broadcasts, and publications such as her “My Day” column, which ran six days a week beginning in 1935 and detailed the people and places she visited through 1962, she shared her insights and vision for America.3 Between 1935 and 1940, Eleanor Roosevelt visited more than 150 U.S. cities and wrote about these stops in her column. While the map below shows only nine of those cities, they represent her efforts to reach different communities across the country, as well as her honest opinions and observations about the world around her during the Great Depression.

Eleanor Roosevelt cared deeply about people, and her travels, speeches, and writings illuminated how widespread and transformative New Deal projects were during the Great Depression. She ardently supported human rights causes and believed it was important to garner the public’s support for issues such as women’s rights, civil rights, education, unemployment, healthcare, and more. Every city in the country was affected by the Depression differently, some more than others, and her visits to places like Youngstown, Flint, Pawhuska, and more brought visibility to their most pressing issues. Roosevelt’s travels, especially those undertaken without her husband, were unprecedented, and they set an example of political activism for the first ladies who followed her.