The Junior League Asks: How Did Eleanor Roosevelt Get Her Start in Public Service?

The activities of the early days of The Junior League were carried out by a remarkable group of young New York women - including Eleanor Roosevelt

New York, February 15, 2011– While credit for the founding of The Junior League rightly belongs to Mary Harriman, she was supported in its early days by a remarkable group of young New York women – all from prominent local families, who shared her ideals of civic leadership.  And one of those women was Eleanor Roosevelt.

Says Delly Beekman, President of The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc., “Long before she came to the nation’s attention as a First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt joined the Junior League of the City of New York and began to find her voice as a leader.  For Eleanor Roosevelt, The Junior League was the start of an illustrious - and well known - career that extended well beyond her White House years.”

But the New York Junior League website tells the story that most people don’t know:

In 1903, a shy young friend of Mary Harriman's joined the New York Junior League.  Eleanor Roosevelt first entered public life when she became involved in settlement work in New York City with the Junior League.

In her 1947 autobiography, This is My Story, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote, "I had grown up considerably during the past year and had come to the conclusion that I would not spend another year just doing the social rounds . . . I began to work in the Junior League. It was in its early stages. Mary Harriman, afterwards Mrs. Charles Cary Rumsey, was the moving spirit. There was no clubhouse; we were just a group of girls anxious to do something helpful in the city in which we lived."

Eleanor Roosevelt and her friend Jean Reid worked with youngsters at the Rivington Street Settlement House on New York's Lower East Side. Jean played the piano, and Eleanor kept the children entertained by teaching calisthenics and dancing.

Twenty-two Junior League volunteers were teaching art, calisthenics, dancing and singing to children in the settlements. Within a few years their efforts expanded to other settlement houses including Greenwich House and Hartley House.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt reminisced that when he first began to court Eleanor, she surprised him with an invitation to visit the settlement house where she worked as a Junior League volunteer. She showed young Franklin a side of New York he had never seen before, and he credited Eleanor's activism as the inspiration that awakened his social consciousness and led to their lifelong partnership and commitment to social change.

Franklin Roosevelt rewarded Mary Harriman later in life with a prestigious appointment as one of the highest-ranking women in his Administration.

Ms. Beekman added, “Eleanor Roosevelt shares the honor of her First Lady status with these other current or past League members: Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush.  Like more than 155,000 Junior Leaguers in four countries, they share a remarkable legacy of community leadership that’s now celebrating its 110th anniversary.”

About The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc.
Founded in 1901 by New Yorker and social activism pioneer, Mary Harriman, the Junior Leagues are charitable nonprofit organizations of women, developed as civic leaders, creating demonstrable community impact.

Today, The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. (AJLI) is comprised of more than 155,000 women in 292 Junior Leagues throughout Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States.  Together, they constitute one of the largest, most effective volunteer organizations in the world.  

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