Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume One, 1884-1933

by Blanche Wiesen Cook

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Introduction In her introduction to Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume One, Cook explains that many years after Eleanor Roosevelt’s death, she remains a controversial figure. People disagree about whether she was a paragon of goodness or foolishly naïve. In addition, stereotypical ideas of what kind of life a woman should lead have obscured the full measure of Roosevelt’s achievements. For Cook, Roosevelt’s life was a personal and political journey that re- flected all the complex issues at work in the twentieth century. It was a life of noble ideals and practical achievement.

Chapters 1–3: Ancestry and Early Childhood Eleanor Roosevelt was born into an aristocratic family in 1884. Her mother was Anna Livingston Ludlow Hall, who married Elliot Roosevelt in 1883. Elliot was the older brother of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who would later become president of the United States. When the boys were young, Elliott was the more accomplished of the two, but he did not live up to his promise. He was often unhealthy, and by adulthood he was drinking to excess.

Eleanor’s mother was aloof and made Eleanor feel unloved and unattractive. But Eleanor felt understood by her father, who encouraged her to excel. Elliot, however, had become an alcoholic. Although he could be charming, he was also given to moods of anger and self-pity.

Eleanor’s early childhood was not happy. Her father’s alcoholism worsened, and fearing public scandal, Theodore Roosevelt tried to persuade Anna to leave her husband. Eleanor was sent to a convent school, where she was lonely. Theodore demanded that Elliott be put in an asylum and declared insane, a proposal that divided the family. Elliott entered an asylum near Paris.

Eventually Elliott returned to the United States, where he entered a treatment center. He regained his health and left the center in the spring of 1892, but his wife did not want to see him. Tragedy struck when Anna contracted diphtheria and died at the age of twenty-nine.

Chapters 4–6: Death of Father, School, and Courtship Shattered by his wife’s death, Elliott started drinking again, but he continued to write warm letters to Eleanor. She treasured these letters and worshiped her father. Elliott died suddenly on August 14, 1893.

Eleanor was now living with her maternal grandmother, Mary Livingston Ludlow Hall, and her aunts Maude and Pussie. Eleanor enjoyed this sixyear period in her life, acquiring a sense of belonging that she had never felt in the turbulent home of her parents.

When she was fifteen, Eleanor was sent to Allenswood School in England, where she spent three happy years. Allenswood catered to the daughters of wealthy European aristocrats and America’s leading families. It was run by a Frenchwoman, Marie Souvestre, an earnest teacher with a feminist outlook. Eleanor became Souvestre’s favorite student; Eleanor’s confidence grew and her personality flourished.

Returning to the United States, Eleanor felt out of place in the world of New York dances and parties. She knew that she was not the belle her mother had been. By 1903, she had met her distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and in November they became engaged. The engagement was kept secret for a year at the request of Sara Delano Roosevelt, Franklin’s mother.

Chapters 7–9: Marriage and Politics Franklin and Eleanor were married on March 17, 1905. For the first few years of her married life, Eleanor was dominated by her strong-willed motherin- law, whose imperious running of the house left Eleanor feeling inadequate. Sara arranged everything for Franklin’s benefit, and Eleanor submerged her own needs. Her first child, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, was born in 1906; James followed in 1907. In 1909, an...

(This entire section contains 1292 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

infant son, Franklin, died at age seven months. Another son, Elliott, was born in 1910.

In 1913, FDR became Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The Roosevelts moved to Washington. Eleanor gave birth to two more children, but she and her husband began to spend more time apart, and FDR had an affair with a secretary, Lucy Mercer. When Eleanor discovered this in 1918, she offered FDR a divorce, but FDR turned down her offer. As Eleanor struggled with her feelings of betrayal, she resolved to build an independent life for herself.

Chapters 10–12: More Political Activities In 1919 and 1920, Eleanor became involved in a number of political organizations, including the League of Women Voters and the Women’s Trade Union League. She was convinced that progressive change was the answer to the social disruptions, such as strikes, that followed World War I. When FDR ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket in 1920, he and Eleanor formed an effective political partnership. The Democrats lost, but Eleanor was ready to begin her own political career.

The Roosevelts returned to New York, and Eleanor became more involved in feminist causes. In 1921, she attended the annual convention of the New York League of Women Voters and the national League convention in Cleveland. She became involved in all aspects of the women’s political movement, befriending such prominent figures as Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read. Roosevelt worked for social reform, including issues such as protective labor legislation for women and children, and equal pay for equal work.

Chapters 13–16: 1920s, Teacher and Political Activist In 1921, FDR contracted polio and was paralyzed. Eleanor nursed him and encouraged him to remain in public life. After 1923, however, the Roosevelts spent less and less time together. Eleanor developed different interests and moved in different circles than her husband. But their relationship remained warm, and they kept few secrets from each other. To the outer world, they appeared a devoted couple. Eleanor began to earn money from lectures and magazine articles, and she became financially independent. She also continued to develop her circle of politically active women friends, such as Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman. Eleanor raised all the funds to start up the Women’s Democratic News, a monthly publication that first appeared in 1925. Eleanor was also the editor. During this period, she taught at the Todhunter School in New York City, which she partially owned.

By the mid-1920s, Eleanor was heavily involved in women’s political organizations in New York state, including the League of Women Voters and the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee. She raised funds, edited newsletters, and took part in debates. She toured the state on behalf of candidates and social reform causes, such as the forty-eight hour work week and other measures that increased government protection for women and children. She also worked on behalf of international peace, launching a women’s peace movement in 1927. Eleanor became a nationally known figure.

By 1928, when FDR became governor of New York, Eleanor had become a major political force in her own right, one of the best known Democrats in the nation. She also had a large influence on FDR’s daily activities, political policies, and selection of advisers. During the years of FDR’s governorship, from 1929 to 1933, one of her main interests was teaching at the Todhunter School. She was a successful teacher, much admired by her students.

Chapters 17–20: The Great Depression; New Friendships With the coming of the Great Depression in 1929, Eleanor continued to advocate a woman’s right to work. She argued that the idea that a woman’s place was in the home was out of date. As the depression worsened, she called for imaginative ways of ending unemployment and considered unionization a key to economic security for working women.

In 1929, FDR appointed Earl Miller, a state trooper, as Eleanor’s bodyguard. Over the next few years, they developed a warm friendship. In 1932, FDR was elected president, and Eleanor became First Lady. At about this time, she began to develop what Cook describes as a ‘‘romantic and passionate’’ friendship with a reporter, Lorena Hickok, who was assigned by the Associated Press to cover the First Lady.