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“First Lady of the World” – How Eleanor Roosevelt Changed The Course of History and Gave Us “Human Rights”

Today we take for granted the principles and practices of “human rights,” but it wasn’t always so. This week we celebrate the birth date of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the world’s most inspired documents which Eleanor Roosevelt co-authored in the aftermath of the mass murder and persecutions of the Second World War.

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Eleanor Roosevelt holds up a copy of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in December 1948.
Eleanor Roosevelt holds up a copy of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in December 1948.

She was a shy, awkward little girl mocked by her New York socialite mother for her homeliness. She was orphaned by the age of ten after her mother died of diphtheria and father died from alcoholism, jumping out a sanitarium window during  unsuccessful therapy. She was kept as a ward of other relatives who discovered her lack of formal education and sent her abroad for schooling. In later life she faced the betrayal of her husband, then President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt and struggled to raise their six children.

It was time for the once orphaned, once betrayed First Lady to make her mark on history.

During the Depression, Eleanor Roosevelt had already begun her trajectory towards greatness by crisscrossing the country, sometimes alone, to meet with the dispossessed and hungry, reporting on their conditions and advocating on their behalf. Her road trips totaled 160,000 miles. During World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt then transformed herself into a one-woman global ambassador, visiting war-torn countries and giving support to wounded and maimed soldiers. When the globe-straddling war finally ended, Eleanor Roosevelt was poised to put her stamp on history in other ways. She would soon become “First Lady of the World.”

The world war that erupted in 1939 and lasted six years had just caused the greatest carnage in human history. The fight against totalitarianism had been won but at immense immeasurable cost. The world had just lost over 70 million people. More than half of these deaths, roughly 40 million, were civilians. Something had gone terribly wrong.

In the dawn of this new and uncertain post-war world, Eleanor Roosevelt channeled her own lifetime of adversity to confront the oppressive circumstances of individuals in radically different settings: victims of warfare, violence, and persecution. In the aftermath of the war, millions had been left homeless in Europe, Asia and Africa.

In 1945, after she was appointed a delegate to the newly created United Nations, Eleanor packed her bags and boarded a ship to London to attend its first meeting there. Over its next three annual sessions, she would astonish its assembled leaders with her instinctive leadership, unifying the voices of conflicting interest groups, and spearheading the effort to produce what came to be called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Once finished, the Declaration would become the first internationally recognized statement of fundamental rights for every person on earth. Its language was terse. Its simplicity was eloquent. Its list of thirty rights were meant to enshrine the most common norms we recognize today as the basis for a dignified and prosperous life. Some have called the Declaration the greatest secular document created in human history.

Years ago I heard Eleanor Roosevelt’s scratchy unadorned voice on newsreels as she spoke alike to the marginalized and the powerful. I had seen news clips of her clutching the hands of citizens in liberated countries and leaning into soldiers’ beds around the world to wish them well. But only recently did I grasp the personal meaning for us all of the world-transforming Declaration that she would later call her “greatest achievement.” It was a labor of love and relentless diplomacy as she presided over the often divisive effort to articulate and enumerate the human rights which we simply take for granted now to protect our own fundamental rights and freedoms.

In my own life and work I had met many individuals who shared their remarkable stories of persecution and violation of their human rights – a young Huang couple fleeing from the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in Cambodia, a linguist from Beijing whose mother was punished as a “criminal” for being a teacher during China’s Cultural Revolution and paraded through the streets with half her hair shaved off, a woman from Colombia who escaped the drug cartels that kidnapped her father for ransom and then killed him, an educator from Hungary whose family could not advance in Soviet-era Hungary because they professed their religious faith, a German doctor whose father worked for the Nazis’ radar program because his family would otherwise be killed, a lawyer defending an asylum seeker from Togo who had refused female genital mutilation, a friend from Armenia whose family had been slaughtered in the Armenian genocide, an art gallery owner from Iran who left the religiously fundamentalist country and immigrated to America only to be shouted at by neighbors to “go back where you came from,” a nurse whose direct ancestors included slaves on the Carter plantations of Virginia.

During work-related trips to eastern Europe I had crossed zones where priests had been crucified on prison walls, where protesters and journalists had disappeared, where “minders” – spies — watched your conversations in restaurants.  In Austria, I stopped in the town where Hitler spent his childhood before his rise to Fuhrer of the Third Reich.

The issue of human rights has touched us all in personal ways. The language we use to express our intolerance for the indignities of these personal experiences comes from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

When Roosevelt entered the United Nations chamber for the first time in January 1946, she accompanied the U.S. team of delegates, and was its only woman. The 58-nation assembly would bring together heads of states and influential leaders to debate how the new world could be shaped, and how to keep the peace. Could they advance the values of egalitarianism and democracy, and thwart authoritarianism and tyranny? Here the voices of advocates for minorities, political dissidents, and representatives for the disabled, for children and for civilian populations everywhere were raised up. All took up the urgent task of reconsidering what it meant to be a citizen, what it meant to live a dignified and prosperous life, and how to ensure inalienable human rights for everyone. Attention now focused on the still unfolding project of creating a bill of rights not just for nations or certain sectors of society, but for all persons, for every single human being on earth.

This seemed a wildly idealistic enterprise. In some ways it was. But the war’s unimaginable cruelties called for a new social contract for humanity, however foolhardy that might seem to the cynical. The contract would bind the world’s community of nations together to see with greater clarity where gross violations of human rights had occurred, and to spur it to not allow those to happen again. 

Rights and liberties had been codified at times before the war, as far back as antiquity, but always with specific nations, classes, and offenses in mind.

The goal now was a declaration of independence for the world’s citizens, appealing to governments to refrain from indiscriminate wartime destruction, from practices of persecution and torture, from regimes of forced labor and death camps.  On the positive side, the declaration would ensure the rights of freedom of expression and assembly, the right to work, to family life, to equal pay, and more.

Three years later, at 3 a.m. on December 10, 1948, after working steadily to find common ground in the final days, Eleanor Roosevelt announced its approval by the full assembly of the United Nations, with eight abstentions and no nations dissenting. It was a landmark document that until our own day would be printed more than any document in the world and translated in more of its languages than any other (over 370 to date).

For her work, President Truman would call Roosevelt “First Lady of the World.”

The Declaration begins, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”  

The Declaration goes on to affirm that we each have the right to life, liberty and security, that we should not be enslaved or tortured or inhumanly treated, that we should have fair access to the law and courts, that we should not be unfairly detained. It adds that we should be entitled to asylum and to a national identity, that we should be presumed innocent before guilty in trial, that we should be entitled to privacy within our homes and our families with no government interference, as well as allowed freedom of movement and choice of residence. It affirms that we are free to have a family and to marry without government interference, and that we are free to own property. Finally it guarantees freedom of thought, assembly, and religion,  our right to democratic rule and participation, and our right to work, to rest from work, to guaranteed social protections, and to a free education.

The Declaration concludes that we are also duty bound to be subject to laws that reflect these norms, and that no state, group or person may take them away from us.

After presenting the Declaration to the assembled representatives, the delegates then gave Eleanor Roosevelt something that had never been given before and would never be given again in the United Nations – an ovation for a single delegate by all nations. She had become the world’s preeminent champion of human rights. 

For the rest of her life until she died in 1962 at the age of 78, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to preach these — our — inalienable rights, and hold them up as a shield for citizens everywhere in the face of tyrants or autocratic regimes that might attempt to rescind them. As one biographer later wrote, “the world was her neighborhood.” While nations today continue to debate and fight over their meaning, and how and whether to protect them, the First Lady insisted on their eternal merit, assuring all citizens that these inviolable norms must be defended in our most humble but sacred spheres of life.

 “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?” Roosevelt later wrote. “In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they ARE the world of the individual person: the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.’”

Each one of us is mirrored in her abiding message. 

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