Surprising Facts about Eleanor Roosevelt

Official White House Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt

Official White House Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt

  • She was very shy. Though she did a lot of public speaking as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was a shy child. Even as a teenager, she worried that she would not attract a husband. Despite her worries, Eleanor became the first wife of a U.S. president to hold press conferences, speak at a national party convention, and write her own newspaper column. As she looked back on her life, Eleanor hoped others would see that “in spite of timidity and fear, in spite of a lack of special talents, one can find a way to live widely and fully.”
  • First wife of a president to drive a car by herself. As First Lady, Eleanor insisted on driving her own car, and wanted to go for drives without the Secret Service. President Franklin Roosevelt’s concern for her safety caused Eleanor to make some compromises. She sometimes traveled with a private bodyguard, and she also learned how to shoot a small gun. She admitted to the readers of her newspaper column that she was not an expert, but “if the necessity arose, I do know how to use a pistol.”
  • Loved to fly in airplanes and wanted flying lessons. Eleanor was the first president’s wife to ride in an airplane, and she told her friend Amelia Earhart that she hoped FDR would let her take flying lessons. FDR said no to the lessons, but that didn’t stop Eleanor from traveling by plane. Most Americans thought flying was dangerous in the 1930s, so Eleanor’s frequent plane rides helped airlines change some people’s minds.
  • Helped African Americans serve as pilots in World War II. In 1941, Eleanor traveled to the Tuskegee Institute, which provided education and job skills for African Americans. The Institute had an aviation program so students could learn to fly. Many hoped to be included in the air force in World War II, but the public doubted if blacks could really be good pilots. When Eleanor visited the program, she asked to fly with one of the Tuskegee pilots. He flew her over Alabama for an hour. After the flight, the pilot and Eleanor had their picture taken in the plane. The photo of the smiling First Lady sitting next to a black pilot made people think that African Americans might be competent airmen. With a little help from Eleanor, President Roosevelt decided to use Tuskegee pilots in combat.

The Childhood of Female Aviator Amelia Earhart

As a young girl, Amelia Earhart, or Meelie as her family called her, lived with her grandparents most of the year in Atchison, Kansas. Her father worked as a claims agent for the railroads, and her mother traveled with him often. Amelia and her younger sister Muriel spent the summers with their parents. In her autobiography, Amelia looked back on her early childhood as a very happy time because family members who loved her and cousins who served as playmates always surrounded her. One of Amelia’s favorite games, called bogie, involved crouching in an old carriage in her grandparents’ barn while pretending to travel to foreign countries.

Though she didn’t travel to other continents until she started flying, she did travel a lot as she grew up. Amelia said, “Because I selected a father who was a railroad man it has been my fortune to roll.” When Amelia and her sister were old enough to go to school, their parents took them on their dad’s business trips. As a result, Amelia traveled throughout the country, visiting states as far away as California. The Earharts thought traveling to new places taught Amelia and Muriel more than they learned sitting in school, though the girls still got good grades despite missing classes.

The family’s trip to the fair in St. Louis sparked Amelia’s interest in new inventions. She was so thrilled by the roller coaster at the fair that she built her own back in Atchison. Meelie and her cousins constructed a track from the roof of the woodshed down to the ground. The “car” was a board placed on roller skates. Amelia went down in the car, which flipped over as it hit the ground. She was less concerned about falling than on fixing her invention, but she had to give up because her mother and grandmother thought it was too dangerous. As one of Amelia’s childhood friends recalled, Meelie was the “the instigator” who would “dare anything; we would all follow along.”

Being the daughter of a railroad man, especially one who was careless with money and soon started drinking, meant that Amelia didn’t live in one place for very long. In 1906, when Amelia was eleven, the family moved to Des Moines, Iowa. At the Iowa State fair the following year, Amelia saw her first airplane. She described it as “a thing of rusty wire and wood.” The plane didn’t impress her at the time, but she had yet to see one in motion. Other moves throughout the Midwest followed, challenging Amelia’s spirit and giving her a reputation as “the girl in brown who walks alone.”

Amelia escaped her family’s problems somewhat by attending a boarding school near Philadelphia. There she made new friends and started to enjoy her classes. Though she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do with her life, Amelia kept a scrapbook of accomplished women who were the first or only women in their fields. Later as she embarked on her aviation career, other girls would admire Amelia Earhart as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.