October 11 marks the anniversary of the birth of one of the most important women in our shared international history. The pioneering First Lady was an incredible force for human rights and progress for women.
To celebrate, here is a brief history of her life and extraordinary legacy.
The First Lady
The Statue of Liberty is a Symbol of Freedom in America. Image Credit: Pixabay
Anna Roosevelt, who preferred her middle name Eleanor, was born on 11 October 1884. The wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, she redefined the position of First Lady at a time when not many married women worked. Eleanor Roosevelt held press conferences, wrote for magazines, hosted a radio show and gave lectures. She even donated most of her income to charity.
She redefined the position of First Lady
Roosevelt was also the eyes and ears of the New Deal, a series of federal programs in response to the Great Depression. She worked to help women get better wages and was active in the civil rights movement during segregation. After Pearl Harbour, she warned against the “great hysteria against minority groups” and opposed her husband’s executive order establishing internment camps for Japanese-Americans. Her other wartime work concerned the immigration of European refugee children and those persecuted by the Nazis.
After the war, Eleanor Roosevelt carried on her work as a politician, diplomat, and activist. Her efforts would help secure some of the greatest human rights victories in history.
The United Nations
The United Nations Building in the USA. Image Credit: Pixabay
Eleanor Roosevelt spent much of her career working at the United Nations. Her husband’s successor, President Truman, included Roosevelt in the American delegation to the UN, the only woman in the group of six.
Roosevelt resigned after the election of President Eisenhower and instead volunteered for the American Association for the United Nations. She also represented the World Federation of the United Nations. In 1961, President Kennedy reappointed her to the US delegation, as well as other posts. After her death, the UN awarded her one of its first Human Rights Prizes.
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights
Eleanor Roosevelt photo: US National Archives and Records Administration, (Access / Use Restriction(s): Unrestricted).
It was as chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights that Roosevelt made her greatest impact. She recognised that various governments held different conceptions of human rights. “Democracy” and the “right to work” meant one thing to the Soviet Union and another to the US.
In response, Roosevelt helped create the United Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Made up of thirty articles, the UDHR defines fundamental human rights like dignity, equality, and the right to life.
At 3am on 10 December 1948, the UN General Assembly voted upon and approved the UDHR. Roosevelt earned a standing ovation for her leadership in the gruelling task. She stated that “this Universal Declaration of Human Rights may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.”
Image Credit: Unsplash.
Roosevelt’s legacy to subsequent generations is the UDHR. Today, it’s considered to be the foundation of international human rights law.
Some participants, like the British representatives, were frustrated that the UDHR was not legally binding. However, many international lawyers believe certain provisions are now part of customary international law. This means that the principles are so widely practiced that they are accepted as law.
In any event, many of the UDHR’s provisions are now contained in legally enforceable agreements like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Human Rights Convention. It has also influenced many domestic constitutions and statutes as well as more than 20 legally-binding human rights treaties.
As Roosevelt herself said, the real challenge remains “actually living and working in our countries for freedom and justice for each human being.”