For men and women who reached adulthood during the years following World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt often seemed an indestructible and numinous figure. That she had had a public life before the death of her husband was vaguely known, but often the more naïve students of contemporary history were shocked to learn that only a decade or two earlier, Eleanor Roosevelt had been a figure of violent controversy, the subject of bitter jokes and vicious caricatures, mocked as radical and unfeminine and lampooned on posters and campaign buttons.
It has been the task of Blanche Wiesen Cook, a journalist, editor, and professor of history and women’s studies, to rescue Eleanor Roosevelt—not from oblivion, but from the secondary position that some historians and biographers have assigned to her. Presenting this energetic wife of a powerful president of the United States as a political and intellectual being worthy of scrutiny in her own right, Cook does not pretend to solve the enigma of Roosevelt’s complex personality or to resolve the contradictions that occasionally blur the historical record. Rather, drawing on interviews of those who knew her and previously unavailable papers of several of her friends and associates, Cook successfully and persuasively provides for the contemporary reader a fully rounded figure whose dilemmas and choices are both illuminating and exemplary. “To appreciate the struggles that Eleanor Roosevelt faced,” Cook explains, “enables us to understand the struggles we continue to face, the political alternatives available, and the fact that on the road to political decency and personal dignity there have been no final victories.”
Eleanor Roosevelt is not a polemical biography, but it is certainly a feminist one; it draws heavily and openly on the concerns and energies of the ongoing struggle for the recognition of women’s full humanity in which Eleanor Roosevelt was herself engaged. Roosevelt’s personal bravery, her determination to act on her beliefs, her commitment to causes, and her consciously undertaken course of political education are presented—convincingly—as the stuff of heroism. Her friendships, some of them passionate and intense, are allowed a major role in the drama of her personal and political growth. Even more important, her life work, largely undertaken only after the completion of her fourth decade, is seen as a career, a course of political action that was independent of her role as a politician’s wife and that had a direction and logic of its own.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt—always known by her middle name or its diminutives and referred to as ER throughout this book—was the child of a troubled marriage. Her mother had married the dashing Elliott Roosevelt at the age of nineteen and given birth to her daughter a year later, too early perhaps to continue to enjoy the pleasures of dances and parties that she still craved. Elliott, the younger brother of the future president, Theodore, was handsome, mercurial, and unstable. Although he professed to adore his wife and children, particularly Eleanor, he was a philanderer and a de- structive alcoholic. “Little Nell,” who remembered as an adult feeling increasingly rejected by her unhappy mother, worshiped her father in return for his attentions and his imaginative extravagance but saw him only between the bouts of institutionalization and semi-exile that his family imposed as his behavior deteriorated.
Her mother’s death from diphtheria when Eleanor was ten years old increased the child’s isolation. Sent to live with loving but strict and emotionally distant relatives, she developed a strong fantasy life built around her father’s occasional letters. Within two years, he too died, leaving Eleanor and her much younger brother, Hall, in her maternal grandmother’s care. Privately educated, she spent her time with her mother’s younger siblings rather with than her contemporaries and developed in this company of women an inner reserve and strength that would serve her well later on.
Outside her family, the person who had the greatest impact on Eleanor’s early life was Marie Souvestre, the founder and headmistress of the distinguished British school for girls, Allenswood, where Eleanor was sent as a boarder in 1899 and where she would spend three of her happiest years. A “feminist of bold conviction” whose rigorous scholarship and pedagogical methods had attracted the attention of the most liberal English intellectuals of the period, Mme. Souvestre picked Eleanor as a favorite almost immediately. She trained Eleanor in philosophy and conversational debate, nurtured her capacity for independent thought, and eventually took her on holiday journeys to Italy and France, where the young girl was encouraged to take over travel arrangements and the organization of tours and meetings, tasks generally restricted in that class and period to men. Her death in 1903, shortly after Eleanor’s return to the United States, robbed the young woman of a valuable mentor and guide.
Mme. Souvestre’s influence, however, seemed for a time to be of little value in Eleanor’s life. Lonely and out of place in the world of New York City debutantes that she entered upon her return,...
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