Although she held no official role, she was, among women, this century's most influential political figure. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was born 100 years ago today, would disprove the maxim that puts a premium on the good looks of political leaders. Family members called her the ''ugly duckling,'' and her sheltered childhood emphasized a life style that might have led to the serene obscurity that wealth can buy.
But Eleanor Roosevelt was no usual rich kid. As a young woman, she shunned the world of a debutante for work in a settlement house on New York's East Side. To be sure, Eleanor married well in 1905 - a distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt - but she got more than she bargained for in a mother-in-law who required attention well beyond a prudent boundary. Then there were the responsibilities of six children born in ten years, of a husband who loved politics and for a time another woman, and of a wife whose spouse was laid low by polio. All these experiences moved Mrs. Roosevelt to develop abilities from driving to typing to public speaking and, most of all, to championing causes that were important but unpopular.
That Mrs. Roosevelt befriended blacks at a time when the civil rights movement was yet unborn is well known. What is not is that she aided the disabled and unemployed in the 1920s through a nonprofit furniture store she set up, taught school several days a week, and still managed to assist her husband as he achieved the New York governorship in 1928. More significant, Mrs. Roosevelt refined her own abilities as a public figure. In fact, when she became the nation's First Lady in 1933, she broke new ground for the position she occupied: columnist, lecturer, and holder of regular press conferences. By 1937 she was to write that ''no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.'' And she could tangle with the best of her critics, including Francis Cardinal Spellman, who denounced her stands on birth control and opposition to federal aid to parochial schools. ''The final judgment, my dear Cardinal Spellman,'' she wrote in reply, ''of the worthiness of all human beings is in the hands of God.''
On the matter of human rights in a world context, Mrs. Roosevelt was deeply concerned, perhaps as a result of her travels or as a logical extension of the New Deal's focus on the economic and political rights of Americans. After the death of her husband in 1945, she was one of the first delegates appointed to the initial United Nations General Assembly and later to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which she headed. Mrs. Roosevelt played a prominent role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1948.
Of course, much of Mrs. Roosevelt's work drew critical reaction from a nation and world used to male leadership, and her courage had to be mustered up each and every day. In ''You Learn by Living'' (1960), Mrs. Roosevelt wrote about fear. ''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 lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along....' You must do the thing you think you cannot do.''