Eleanor Roosevelt is commonly held as an example of a highly successful person you would never guess to be an introvert. Many biographers (including herself) describe a severely shy and withdrawn young person who “came out of her shell” in her twenties to become a monumental public figure.
And yet, this was a woman who gave 348 press conferences as First Lady, was a United Nations delegate, a human rights activist, a teacher, and a lecturer who averaged 150 speaking engagements a year throughout the 1950s.
As a public figure with a history of shyness and reclusiveness, Eleanor Roosevelt has a story that complicates the idea that introversion and extroversion are dichotomous or the ends of a continuum between which we can locate our true personalities. Her life and career show, rather, how elements of introversion and extroversion can wax, wane, and intermingle over time and depending on environmental circumstances.
Evidence of introversion
In her autobiography, Eleanor Roosevelt describes her shyness as nearly pathological and depicts a home life that discouraged her from being outgoing and confident. She refers to herself as an “ugly duckling” and a “shy, solemn child.”
Her own mother, a famous beauty, called young Eleanor “Granny” due to her dour disposition and plainness, which made Eleanor want to “sink into the floor with shame.” Her mother clearly preferred Eleanor’s two younger brothers; the neglected child perceived, not surprisingly, “a curious barrier between these three and me.”
After the death of their mother, Eleanor and her brothers were sent to live with their grim, beautiful grandmother (their fun, charming father was shunned for his alcoholism and died in familial exile a few years later), whose lack of compassion furthered Eleanor’s withdrawal.
When she married her distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor found herself once again under the thumb of a domineering matriarch. FDR’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, ran the household, oversaw the upbringing of Franklin and Eleanor’s children by English governesses, and strongly discouraged Eleanor from speaking up about anything, ever.
Throughout her Victorian, aristocratic childhood, Eleanor’s lack of beauty, mirth, and loquacity was seen as a liability; the shame she felt at her family’s disappointment only exacerbated what they perceived as her “problem.”
Whether she was constitutionally introverted or traumatized into silence, however, once she found her political and social calling, it must have appeared to her that remaining “quiet” was not an option.
Coming out of the shell
If it seems that Eleanor Roosevelt’s introvert tendencies are cast in a negative light, it’s partially because she herself described her “withdrawal” as a problem to be overcome. In an era when women were expected to be primarily helpmates and mothers and, in the upper castes, expert small-talkers and hostesses, a quiet, thoughtful woman would not have wielded much social currency.
Having floundered in her prescribed roles, Eleanor Roosevelt seemed to have made a decision as her husband’s political star ascended: she would reinvent herself as a public crusader for a multitude of causes, regardless of her introversion.
She once said about confronting one’s fears: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
For introverts, it’s easy to imagine that embarking on the kind of public life Eleanor Roosevelt pursued in the next stage of her life was indeed a true horror.
Once she started speaking out about social issues, she threw herself into public life with an enthusiasm that bordered on compulsion. In addition to working for groups like The League of Women Voters, she campaigned tirelessly for her husband’s gubernatorial race in New York and later for his presidential campaigns. When FDR was hobbled by polio, Eleanor travelled and spoke as his proxy.
Throughout FDR’s presidency, and long after his death, her activism knew no bounds. In fact, she was later criticized by her children for giving all her time and attention to causes, no matter how obscure, rather than to her personal relationships.
Biographers have found in her story fertile ground for speculation about how she sublimated the angst of her unhappy childhood, troubled marriage, and difficulties in connecting with her own children to become a world-wide heroine of progressive causes.
She did leave clues, however, that at least part of her personality craved quiet and reflection, even in the midst of the frenetic life she had created for herself. In a 1936 installment of My Day, her daily syndicated newspaper column, she wrote, “I wonder if any one else glories in cold and snow without, an open fire within, and the luxury of a tray of food all by one’s self in one’s own room? I realize it sounds extremely selfish and a little odd to look upon this as a festive occasion. Nevertheless, last night was a festive occasion for I spent it in this way!”
It is unlikely that Eleanor Roosevelt hated every minute of her life as a public figure. But her deep appreciation for the rare moment of seclusion implies that engaging with others took its toll on her, whereas a quiet evening alone provided psychic nourishment.