In this lesson, students will explore Eleanor Roosevelt’s many national and international contributions by watching a short video and engaging in a class discussion. Afterward, they will read a letter written during her time as First Lady expressing her opinion on racial issues and examine a 1957 photograph of Roosevelt during her tenure at the United Nations. The lesson culminates with students designing a mural to summarize the life of this forward-thinking woman who was born into privilege yet spent decades doing public service.
20 - 40 minutes
- First Lady - the President’s wife
- Confront - face head on
- Prominent - well-known or easily noticed
- Marginalized - in a powerless position
The United Nations is an intergovernmental body founded after the end of the Second World War to try to prevent international conflict. The United Nations is made up of several divisions including the General Assembly, which includes representation by each member nation, and the Security Council, comprised of five permanent members (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China) and ten rotating members.
For further information on the founding of the United Nations:
- United Nations Charter (1945) and Resource Materials, PBS LearningMedia
For further general information on the United Nations:
- The United Nations Lesson Plan, PBS LearningMedia
Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and is a list of rights that all people are entitled to no matter where they live in the world.
The full document can be downloaded from the United Nations website at:
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations
To learn more about the Declaration and Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in its formation:
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights | The Roosevelts, PBS LearningMedia
Background on Eleanor Roosevelt | First Lady, Diplomat, and Activist
Anna “Eleanor” Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884, into a wealthy New York family. Her uncle was Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States. Wealthy Victorian girls like her were to be educated and married to a suitable high society husband and raise children to perpetuate the family’s status.
But early tragedy reshaped Roosevelt’s life. Both her mother and her father died by the time she was ten years old. Her grandmother sent her to boarding school in England, where Roosevelt learned many progressive ideals from the school’s Headmaster. She returned to the United States in 1902 more informed, desiring social justice particularly for the impoverished and downtrodden.
Shortly after the New York Junior League, a women’s organization dedicated to community improvement through education and charity, was established in 1901, Roosevelt joined and helped women living in immigrant settlements. She saw, firsthand, the extreme poverty that so many Americans struggled with. As an educated and wealthy woman, Roosevelt knew that she could share her knowledge and resources with the poor to help them break out of poverty.
In 1905, she married Franklin Delano Roosevelt, future U.S. President. Although she had six children, and was busy running a household while her husband worked in prestigious political positions, she insisted on working for the Red Cross during WWI, aiding soldiers both stateside and abroad.
In 1921, Franklin Roosevelt was stricken with a bout of polio and lost use of his legs. Eleanor so strongly encouraged him to remain in politics that she often made speeches and appearances on his behalf. While he was governor of New York, she traveled around the state for him, inspecting state facilities and reporting her findings back to him.
Roosevelt balanced her duties helping her husband with her own professional life; one that was very independent of her husband’s career. Throughout the 1920s, she was a member of Women’s Trade Union League; Roosevelt was pivotal in advocating for the abolition of child labor, as well as a 48-hour workweek and a minimum wage for women. In 1927, she began teaching American literature and history at the Todhunter School for Girls, cultivating in her students social engagement and an understanding of current events.
When Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, the nation was deep in the Great Depression, an economic crisis that included high unemployment and an increase in poverty. As he worked to ease the nation out of the Depression, Eleanor became a trusted political partner. She was the “eyes and ears” of the New Deal, a series of government programs enacted to mitigate the Great Depression, traveling around the country to ensure his programs were being properly administered in the various states. In doing so, she realized that the programs as implemented in the South discriminated against African Americans, and she fought to end this inequity. This stance made her a very controversial figure.
After Franklin died in 1945, the 61-year old Eleanor assumed she’d retire from politics. Instead, her new career as an international diplomat began. President Truman selected her as the first U.S. delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. In 1946, she became Chair of United Nations Human Rights Commission, and drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She continued working as an advocate of universal human rights until her death on November 7, 1962.
- Ask students: If you could speak out about a topic of importance to you and know that the whole nation and much of the world would be listening, what would you talk about?
- Introduce Eleanor Roosevelt:
As First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt had a platform to be heard on issues such as racism, poverty, and women’s rights. After leaving the White House, she continued as an advocate for international peace and human rights.
Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)
Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Download the Graphic Organizer [PDF]
Discussion questions after viewing:
1. Eleanor Roosevelt was born into great wealth, privilege, and social status. What influenced her dedication to helping the poor and oppressed?
2. Of all the many actions taken by Eleanor Roosevelt to stand up for justice and equality, why do you think her decision to leave the Daughters of the American Revolution and invite Marian Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial is considered particularly significant? (NOTE: The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) is a women’s service club whose members can document that their ancestors participated in the struggle for American independence.)
3. As First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt devoted most of her time and energy to national issues such as racial inequality, poverty, and women’s rights. Why do you think President Truman thought she would be a good representative of the United States in an international body like the United Nations?
Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)
Project or make copies of the image to the right. This image accompanied Eleanor Roosevelt’s October 31, 1957, entry of My Day, a syndicated column that Mrs. Roosevelt wrote six days a week from 1935 through 1962. The column was so popular that it was eventually published in ninety newspapers across the country and reached millions of readers. Roosevelt frequently wrote about issues of race, women’s rights, and current events. In this column, she explains “Trick or Treat for UNICEF,” a campaign to have children raise funds for the United Nations International Children’s Fund. UNICEF was originally an “Emergency” fund set up at the end of the Second World War, but by 1957 had become an organization dedicated to improving children’s health and education in poor countries. Roosevelt’s column indicated that just one penny could pay to inoculate a child against tuberculosis or buy five large glasses of milk made from milk powder. The “Trick or Treat for UNICEF” program was initiated in 1950 and continues to this day. For more information: https://www.unicefusa.org/trick-or-treat
Pictured with Mrs. Roosevelt and children in costume is Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo, the host of a popular children’s television show from 1955 to 1984.
- Have you ever participated in “Trick or Treat for UNICEF”? If yes, share your experiences. If no, would you like to try it? Can you think of other ways to raise money for UNICEF that were not available when this photo was taken?
- Notice how Mrs. Roosevelt is dressed. How does this compare to what a woman in her position might wear today? (NOTE: She is in both gloves and a hat, accessories that were seen as essential in the 1950s but were viewed as too formal following the social changes of the 1960s.) Do you know of any women who, like Mrs. Roosevelt, continue to advocate for children in spite of advanced age?
- Compare the 1961 photograph with Eleanor Roosevelt and Captain Kangaroo to this 2011 photograph featuring model Heidi Klum. What do the differences between the two photos indicate about how society changed in those fifty years?
- If you were to choose two adult role models today to encourage children to participate in “Trick or Treat for UNICEF,” who would you choose and why?
Written Primary Source Activity (15 minutes)
Students will read a letter written by Eleanor Roosevelt in response to a woman who had sent a complaint about sharing intimate space with African Americans. Mrs. Roosevelt’s reply reflects both the limitations and the strength of her dedication to social equality regardless of race. The letter comes from the collection of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment, or as a multi-day in-class project.
To be completed using the Graphic Organizer [PDF].
Eleanor Roosevelt had a remarkable career that spanned decades and positively impacted the lives of huge numbers of people in the United States and across the world. Design a mural that could serve as a tribute to her legacy. Students may be required to include:
- A certain number of national and international accomplishments
- A time-line of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life
- Quotations by Eleanor Roosevelt
- Note: Many murals were painted, particularly in post offices, by participants in the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal initiative launched by President Franklin Roosevelt. You may want to show some of these murals to your students and suggest or require that their murals be done in the distinctive WPA style.
For more information about WPA murals, go to