Barbara Kerley is the author of Eleanor Makes Her Mark: How Eleanor Roosevelt Reached Out, Spoke Up, and Changed the World, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. In honor of Eleanor Roosevelt’s birthday on October 11, Barbara shares advice—and inspiration—from this remarkable first lady. Learn more at Barbarakerley.com.
Eleanor Roosevelt served as first lady of the United States during a time of tremendous hardship: the Great Depression and World War Two.
For over twelve years, she crisscrossed the country, offering empathy and support to Americans most in need. And she spoke out—in speeches, radio addresses, and a daily newspaper column—to right wrongs and remind us to look out for one another.
Though she began her life a timid child who was orphaned at ten years old, she grew into an independent young woman determined to follow her passion for helping others.
Luckily for us, near the end of her life, she summed up what she’d learned in her book, You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life.
So, what can we learn from Eleanor?
“All you need to do is to be curious, receptive, eager for experience.”
After a sheltered childhood, Eleanor was sent to boarding school in England, where she was encouraged to think for herself. Traveling with the school’s headmistress, Eleanor was inspired to embrace other cultures and ways of living.
She’d grab her guide book and set off, unaccompanied and eager to explore—building her sense of independence along the way.
“We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time...”
Eleanor was born into a life a privilege. She could have grown up to be the comfortable matriarch of an upper crust family. Instead, step-by-step, she gained the skills, confidence, and experience to create a life spent helping others.
When she returned home from boarding school, her grandmother wanted her to find a nice husband and settle down. But that wasn’t enough for Eleanor.
To please her grandmother, she went to the fancy debutante balls. But she also joined a group investigating the working conditions of women in garment factories, and she taught calisthenics to girls in a settlement house.
Later, when her husband Franklin’s political career brought her more into the public eye, she worked on her public speaking skills until she was comfortable sharing her views with a big audience.
And Eleanor’s efforts to help others didn’t end when she left the White House. She became a delegate to the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly and chaired the committee that created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“We are the sum total of all the choices we have made.”
The beauty of this advice is that it puts us in the driver’s seat (in Eleanor’s case, a blue Buick convertible).
It reminds me that we all have the power to make choices that bring us closer to our goals and values—and that every day we get fresh chance to do so.
Go for it!
More About Eleanor Makes Her Mark:
All her life, Eleanor Roosevelt hoped to "leave some mark upon the world." She was a shy child who found joy in helping others. A passionate young adult who longed for adventure. An independent young woman who formed her own opinions. A trustworthy partner who worked tirelessly for change. So when her husband became president and she became first lady, Eleanor was ready to make her mark. With characteristic candor, compassion, and courage, she traversed the country and trotted the globe, championing the value and dignity of every human being and transforming the role of first lady. This graceful portrait of a vivacious American icon radiates the essence of Eleanor, a model for kindness and purpose, in her time and in ours. How will you leave your mark upon the world?