Roosevelt became the first First Lady to take on responsibilities beyond merely hosting and entertaining in the White House. Before her tenure as First Lady, she was already outspoken and involved with women's issues, working with the Women's Trade Union League and the International Congress of Working Women. After her time as First Lady, she became the first US delegate to the United Nations, served as first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights and also chaired JFK's President's Commission on the Status of Women to promote equality and advise on women's issues.
Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t consider herself a suffragist until 1911, when her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt, then a state assemblyman in New York, came out for women’s right to vote. However, what she did following this realisation truly proved her commitment to the cause.
By the 1920s, Eleanor Roosevelt became fully involved in the women’s rights movement. Soon after moving back to New York City after the 1920 presidential election, Roosevelt became a board member of the New York State League of Women Voters and began to direct the League of Women Voters’ national-legislation committee. By mid-decade Roosevelt played a central role in a network of women who led New York’s most influential organizations; including the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee, and the Women’s City Club. She was particularly drawn to the social feminists of the League of Women Voters and the labour feminism of the Women’s Trade Union League. These alliances led to Roosevelt's interest in the poor and working class women, and legislation designed specifically to protect women in the workplace.
As a social feminist and supporter of legislative protections for women, Roosevelt did not endorse the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was an amendment that if ratified would “erase all the laws that discriminated against women.” Roosevelt and her allies believed that an amendment that got rid of all of the protective legislation for women in the workplace would do more harm than good. The ERA, she argued, was impractical and ignored political and social realities of sexism and, particularly, the everyday experience of working women.
With her move to the White House as first lady in 1932, Roosevelt found that she had new power that she could use to push for improvements for women’s rights. She worked tirelessly to improve the access women had to New Deal legislation, notably by creating what were known as “she-she-she camps,” or women's organizations of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Eleanor also held press conferences in which only female journalists could attend—a way she could subtly encourage women to maintain prominent careers.
From 1935 to 1962, Roosevelt wrote "My Day," a newspaper column that addressed women's work, equality and rights before there was even a word for "feminism"—as the social issues at the time were considered "controversial," especially for that of a First Lady to speak about.
In the post-war years, Roosevelt continued her advocacy for women’s rights at home and abroad. She continued to support the advancement of women in professional and political positions, and supported the rights of working-class women, through labour unions and other organizations. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked Eleanor Roosevelt to chair his Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Eleanor was able to secure the appointment of Pauli Murray, a seasoned activist in the movements for both women’s and African-American rights, to draft the report. Unfortunately, Roosevelt died before the committee’s findings could be reported.