What Eleanor Roosevelt's Life Shows About the Nature of Morality

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  • Topic: Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Roosevelt family
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  • Published : December 12, 2010
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Eleanor Roosevelt accomplished a great many things in her lifetime for the good of the “underdogs” in society. The pinnacle of her accomplishment lies in her notoriety as being extremely influential in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. However, there are many questions relating to her morality in other areas and other times in her life. I would like to pose Eleanor Roosevelt as a moral exemplar, and I think the only way to view moral exemplars is through a wide lens that can capture the entirety of their lives. I believe a great deal about the nature of morality can be learned from posing Eleanor Roosevelt as a moral exemplar. However, a biographical background of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, of anyone’s life, is necessity in evaluating the holistic moral example, which can only be examined in the span of a lifetime. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884 into a prominent and wealthy New York family to Elliot Roosevelt and Anna Hall Roosevelt (Hoff and Lightman, 3). In 1892, the death of her mother had a profound effect upon the course the life of eight-year-old Eleanor would take. Her father and mother had been separated while her father strived to prove to her mother that he had conquered his alcoholism. After his wife’s death, he no longer had the desire to cure his disease, and most of the family agreed that it was in the best interest of Eleanor to go and live with her maternal grandmother, Mary Livingston Ludlow Hall, with her two younger brothers, Elliot and Hall. Then, her little brother Elliot contracted scarlet fever and diphtheria and died in 1893. When her father, who she infrequently saw in the ensuing years, died in 1894 as a direct result of his increasing alcoholism, a ten-year-old Eleanor became an orphan cared for primarily by her grandmother (Cook, 75-89).

Eleanor’s Aunt “Bye”, Anna Cowles, persuaded her grandmother that Eleanor, in 1901, at the age of 15, needed to be educated in Europe under the supervision of Marie Souvestre. Aunt Bye’s education had also been supervised by Marie Souvestre at her school near Paris called Les Ruches. After she had to close Les Ruches when the Germans invaded Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, Marie Souvestre opened Allenswood in London (Cook, 100-3).

Allenswood was a school for girls that was feminist and progressive. The education girls received under the supervision of Marie Souvestre was thought very highly of in liberal intellectual circles throughout Europe. Eleanor made a great impression with Marie Souvestre, who was in her late sixties and known to be partial to favoritism, right from the start. At her first dinner in school, Eleanor chatted away with Mlle` Souvestre in French. At the entirely French-speaking school, Mlle Souvestre had ruled that girls that spoke any English during the day had to confess to her at dinner. Eleanor, already fluent in French, was very comfortable and at an advantage. She quickly became one of Marie Souvestre’s favorites. What she admired in her favorites was their ability to think for themselves, to question authority (even her own), and to be politically engaged. Mlle Souvestre insisted that Eleanor sit next to her at dinner. She was always prominent when Mlle Souvestre invited her group of favorites to her classroom for poetry readings and the like. During school breaks, Eleanor and Mlle Souvestre travelled extensively throughout Europe—France, Italy, Belgium, Germany. Eleanor, a young woman becoming confident in her abilities to think, write, and speak, the latter two in several languages, was given the responsibility of packing and planning for the both of them. She studied train schedules, bought tickets, and experienced cities like Paris and Florence on her own. When Eleanor’s education was completed in 1903, she returned to America, but she and Marie Souvestre regularly corresponded with one another (Cook, 103-24).

Shortly after her return, Eleanor turned 18 and was...
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