Remembering Eleanor Roosevelt–When America Led the World

You may have been as disgusted as I was this week when the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the United Nations treaty that would urge all countries to follow America’s lead in providing services to people with disabilities. To many of us who have been proud of our country’s role in ensuring equal treatment for all people, it was hard to believe that our current leaders are turning their backs on that tradition. It make me long for the days when American leaders were acknowledged around the world for being at the forefront of human rights, and one of the people I think of most often is Eleanor Roosevelt.

Like many women around the world today who grew up in the 20thth century but have nonetheless adapted to the changes of the 21stst, Eleanor Eleanor_RooseveltRoosevelt had a foot in each of two centuries. She was a daughter of genteel 19th century New York who was able to become a valued world citizen of the 20th century.

Like other wealthy young women of her time, Eleanor married young and accepted the domestic duties that went with the job of being a political wife. December was one of her favorite months because it gave her a chance to pick out gifts for family and friends.  Choosing gifts for her five children was the most fun of all, but her gifts were not just for her family; she never because an entirely home-centered wife and mother.  As first lady during the Depression, she recognized that a lot of Americans needed more than gifts; they needed education, jobs and the right to vote. She traveled around the country, acting often as the eyes and ears of her husband, Franklin Roosevelt. She told him in no uncertain terms what he should be doing for Americans who were reeling from the Great Depression. Sometimes her domestic chores took second or third place, but she tried to meet the standards she had learned from her family and to meet the needs of her husband as well as her own individuality. It wasn’t easy.

After Franklin Roosevelt died, Eleanor’s life changed dramatically. She wasn’t ready to move into quiet retirement, so she decided to expand her efforts to serve the world instead of limiting herself to national politics. President Harry Truman appointed her as the United States’ first delegate to the newly-formed United Nations. Eleanor was soon off and running with that job.

The United Nations was formed in 1945 to prevent another war. World War II had left Europe devastated and much of the rest of the world unsettled. People feared another war would destroy civilization and many of them believed that countries could work together to prevent that happening.  Many people, including Eleanor Roosevelt, also believed the UN should protect not only the freedom of countries but the freedom of individuals everywhere.

In 1946, she became a member of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights and was elected chair of the group. For two years, the Commission worked to decide which basic rights are important for everyone in the world. They argued over which rights should be included and how to express the rights in a way that every country and every religious group could accept. Finally they came up with a document that every country represented could sign. It’s not perfect and it leaves room for arguments and differences of interpretations, but at least it has given the world something to work with. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed on December 11, 1948. Among other things it was Eleanor Roosevelt’s greatest gift to the people of the world.

What have been some of the effects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? It has

  • Led to a declaration of the rights of children around the world.
  • Led to an agreement on the rights of women in every country
  • Helped to persuade South Africa to end its system of apartheid
  • Led to world agreement in condemning the use of child soldiers.

The Declaration of Human Rights is the most translated document in the world. It is now available in more than 300 languages.

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