14 Binder of a Torn World

Steven Niepa

Speech given December 9th, 1948 by Eleanor Roosevelt.

Roosevelt, Eleanor. “Adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights.” Speech at United Nations Assembly, Paris, France, December 9, 1948.

“We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This Universal Declaration of Human Rights may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere. We hope its proclamation by the General Assembly will be an event comparable to the proclamation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man by the French people in 1789, the adoption of the Bill of Rights by the people of the United States, and the adoption of comparable declarations at different times in other countries.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights[1] is included in its entirety in Appendix 1.

Before the creation of the United Nations, the world just underwent one of the largest wars ever fought in human history. The second World War stretched across continents around the world and resulted in millions of deaths [2]. The world looked for new ways to heal and looked for sustainable ways to universally usher in peace. At the end of the first world war, the Allied powers created the predecessor to the United Nations, The League of Nations. At the time President Woodrow Wilson was an advocate for the U.S. to be active participants in the organization. Republican Senators such as William Borah and Henry Cabot Lodge rebuffed the idea of joining such an organization out of disdain for article X [3]. The article stated that if a member nation were in distress the other member nations had to come to their aid. The Senators realized that there was a great benefit to joining such an organization but not at the expense of America’s ability to be impartial. In the years following it proved to be a bad idea for the U.S. to not be involved in international affairs as European Axis powers, Germany and Italy, gained immense power and served as catalysts for the second World War. After World War II there was a great demand across the world to get back to a sense of normalcy and to prevent future catastrophic events. In 1941 FDR came up with the idea of the “Four Powers”, United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and China, as a group of allied nations [4]. Up until FDR’s death in 1945, he worked to try to put an organization in place to prevent another worldwide atrocity. After his death, President Truman thought that the organization was a much-needed addition and tabbed beloved former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt with the job of continuing her late husband’s legacy [5]

When first approached about taking an active role in the United Nations, Roosevelt was reluctant out of fear of not having the qualifications in international affairs [6] Little did she know that her life experiences and previous leadership roles prepared her for this moment. Truman entrusted Roosevelt to shape the United Nations as an organization that creates “conditions of mutual trust and economic and social wellbeing among all peoples of the world.” [7] One of the reasons why Truman thought Roosevelt would be up to the job was her informal foreign diplomatic relations experience. Roosevelt spent a significant amount of her teen’s and 20’s immersed in European culture and learning French. She went to a feminist all-girls school that urged the students to challenge social and economic issues and to become more independent.

As a first lady Roosevelt went to England in 1942, in the throes of the second world war to visit troops and hear their experiences [8] She was taken aback by the will of the English people saying it was “is something to bow down to” [9]. What made Roosevelt revered in the international community was her willingness to travel to other countries and learn their culture and everyday struggles. On the Homefront Roosevelt was no different. Not only did Roosevelt represent the American people abroad but also in America with the women’s suffrage movement. In the mid 1920’s Roosevelt became actively involved in the women’s rights movement. She sat on the boards of the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Trade Union League [10], the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee, and the Women’s City Club [11]. When FDR was elected president, she lobbied to get women more access to the benefits of the New Deal [12]. Her passion for women’s rights showed that she could push an agenda forward when things looked bleak. Later, she visited Asian countries such as India and Japan to learn more about women’s rights across the world. Roosevelt’s work in the international community and America showed that she knew that the world was bigger than just the United States, she was willing to go across the world and listen to others and had a willingness to go to “main street” and lead by example. It is easier to be an effective and respected leader if others see you on the frontlines which is exactly what Roosevelt did. Through Roosevelt’s efforts, she became the “First lady of the World” and beloved across the world. That international respect made it a smoother switch from being the first lady to a leader of nations.

Due to Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership experience and public standing president, Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the first delegates for the United States to the United Nations. Even though she was bestowed such a great honor the other American representatives felt that a woman should not have been appointed due to the possibility of her being “overemotional” [13]. Given the skepticism, Roosevelt was placed in committee 3, which dealt with humanitarian, economic, and cultural issues. Through her diligence in advocating for the rights of the millions of newly made refugees within committee 3 she quickly proved her naysayers wrong and was unanimously chosen as chair of the UN human rights commission [14].

Over the next two years, it was the commission’s job to craft a declaration of rights that all people living within the borders of member nations were granted [15]. Initially, there were only three members assigned in the creation of the document, and quickly the Soviet Union and France shared their displeasures. To have a more well-rounded and inclusive document Roosevelt expanded the group from 3 to 8 members [16]. Roosevelt faced an arduous task of coming up with a way to satisfy the definition of human rights across over 50 countries. The diplomatic and leadership skills alluded to earlier helped Roosevelt craft a document that would satisfy the majority of the countries in hopes of creating a more unified world. When crafting the document Roosevelt sought the advice of not only her other council members but the opinions of other women as well. Women such as Hansa Mehta suggested that Roosevelt change article one of the Declaration of Human Rights from “All men are born free and equal” to “All human beings are born free and equal.” Throughout the remainder of the declaration Roosevelt uses language such as “equal rights of men and women” and begins each line of different articles with “Everyone” instead of all men. The slight changes made a world of difference. By making the adjustment Roosevelt signaled that men were not the only axis in which the world rotates around and that women deserve to have the same rights as a man. When giving a speech about the adoption of the declaration of human rights on December 9th, 1948 she made another subtle yet important organizational restructuring. Midway through the speech, Roosevelt likens the Declaration of Human Rights to the Magna Carta, Declaration of the Rights of Man then, lastly the Bill of Rights [17]). By alluding to other countries’ important documents before referencing the Bill of Rights the speech does not come across as ‘America is the model of success so you should listen to me.’ The adjustment makes the speech more welcoming and more relatable to the international community. Roosevelt’s work garnered the respect of all member nations. When the declaration was a finished product and presented to the entire United Nations, Roosevelt received a standing ovation for her work. Not only did she receive a standing ovation, but 48 nations voted to ratify the Declaration of Human rights [18]. 8 nations decided to abstain and the most notable, the Soviet Union led by Joseph Stalin, decided to abstain rather than simply vote no out of respect for what Roosevelt was trying to accomplish [19].

Through her years of being an informal diplomat for underprivileged Americans and the country as a whole Roosevelt gained crucial leadership skills and unquestionable respect from people across the world and socioeconomic groups. She leveraged those skills learned to transcend the idea of what a first lady is supposed to do while in and outside of the White House. After her Husband’s death, she continued the legacy of the Roosevelt name by attempting to successfully heal a broken and battered world that yearned for peace and prosperity. By not conforming to societal norms Roosevelt was able to act as a catalyst for the mission of the United Nations and provide a set of rights that every human no matter what part of the world was guaranteed. It takes a special kind of person to balance the egos of domestic and foreign leaders to achieve a common good and that person’s name is Eleanor Roosevelt.


Steven is a Sophomore at Wake Forest University Majoring in Finance and Minoring in Sociology

  1. United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 1948. https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights
  2. The National WWII Museum | New Orleans. “Research Starters: Worldwide Deaths in World War II”
  3. Lodge, Henry Cabot, "League of Nations," 1919. Courtesy of Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2004650542
  4. United Nations. “United Nations | Peace, Dignity and Equality on a Healthy Planet.” United Nations. https://www.un.org/en.
  5. Young-Brown, Fiona. Eleanor Roosevelt : First Lady, Cavendish Square Publishing LLC, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central, 107.
  6. Young-Brown, Fiona. Eleanor Roosevelt : First Lady, Cavendish Square Publishing LLC, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central,  108
  7. Google Arts & Culture. “Eleanor Roosevelt and the United Nations - U.S. National Archives.”
  8. Young-Brown, Fiona. Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady, Cavendish Square Publishing LLC, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central, 67
  9. “Touring the British Homefront (1942) | Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project | The George Washington University.”
  10. WTUL
  11. “Eleanor Roosevelt and Women’s Rights (U.S. National Park Service).”
  12. “Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady, League Leader, Pioneer | League of Women Voters.”
  13. Young-Brown, Fiona. Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady, Cavendish Square Publishing LLC, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central, 108
  14. FDRlibrary.org. n.d. Eleanor Roosevelt and the Declaration of Human Rights
  15. “Beacon of Hope - Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - YouTube.” 
  16. FDRlibrary.org. n.d. Eleanor Roosevelt and the Declaration of Human Rights
  17. Roosevelt, Eleanor. “Adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights.” Speech at United Nations Assembly, Paris, France, December 9, 1948
  18. Google Arts & Culture. “Eleanor Roosevelt and the United Nations - U.S. National Archives.”
  19. Great Speeches, Volume 6: Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, George H. W. Bush, Richard Nixon, and Edward Kennedy. Films On Demand. 2005.


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Gender and Sexuality Throughout World History Copyright © 2020 by Steven Niepa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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