Historical Context

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Feminism Cook began her research for Eleanor Roosevelt in the early 1980s. By that time, the modern women’s movement was entering its third decade. It had begun in the early 1960s, with the publication of Betty Friedan’s best-selling book, The Feminine Mystique in 1963, and gathered strength from the formation...

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Cook began her research for Eleanor Roosevelt in the early 1980s. By that time, the modern women’s movement was entering its third decade. It had begun in the early 1960s, with the publication of Betty Friedan’s best-selling book, The Feminine Mystique in 1963, and gathered strength from the formation of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. One of the goals of NOW was to end sex discrimination. The time was right since a 1964 report of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) documented pervasive discrimination against women. (The original chair of the PCSW, which was set up in 1961, was Eleanor Roosevelt.) Even though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned sex discrimination there was still much work to be done in that area.

During the 1970s, NOW began to pursue a more radical agenda, advocating not only equal pay, equal rights, abortion rights, and child care but also lesbian and gay rights. It also made passage of the Equal Rights Amendment a priority. Membership of NOW soared to 210,000 in 1982, but the failure of the ERA to win ratification by the states in that year was a setback to the feminist movement as a whole.

However, throughout the 1980s, women made gains in political representation. Although the number of women holding national office increased only slowly, at state level the number of female legisla tors tripled between 1973 and 1987. Similar progress was made in education and the professions. In the late 1980s, 25 percent of all new graduates of law, medical, and business schools were women, compared to only 5 percent twenty years earlier.

Nevertheless, during this time, there was also a countermovement in American culture. The conservative administrations of President Ronald Reagan and George Bush (1981–1992), were not supportive of feminist causes such as abortion rights or gay rights.

The conflict between conservative and feminist attitudes to the role of women was thrown into sharp relief in the presidential campaign of 1992. Marilyn Quayle, wife of Vice President Dan Quayle, made a point of emphasizing that she had stayed at home and raised their children rather than pursue an independent career of her own. She expected her position to win support from conservative voters. And Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of then-candidate Bill Clinton, found herself in hot water with some voters for saying that she had preferred to pursue her own career rather than stay at home ‘‘baking cookies.’’

When her book was published in 1992, Cook was surprised at how much animosity and antifeminist sentiment it stirred up. ‘‘I had hate calls on every single radio talk show I did,’’ she said in an interview with The Progressive.

Feminist Biography
The burgeoning feminist movement resulted in an increase in the study of women’s lives. During the 1970s and 1980s, universities developed women’s studies programs, which trained a generation of feminist scholars who have since reexamined the lives of many women, both past and present. The advent of a new kind of biography of women, according to feminist scholar Carolyn G. Heilbrun, came in 1970, with the publication of Zelda, by Nancy Milford, about the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Up to that point, it had not been permissible, according to Heilbrun, in either biography or autobiography, for women to acknowledge ‘‘unfeminine’’ emotions such as anger. Nor had it been acceptable to admit that a woman may, like a man, have a desire for power and control over her life and that she may not define her life in the way that the male-dominated culture has always sought to define her role as a woman.

Since 1970, hundreds of biographies of women have been written that have sought to bring out the different and varied ways in which notable women have lived and sought fulfillment. Cook pays tribute to this work of the 1970s and 1980s, noting that it helped to make her own work possible. Like other feminist biographers, she examines how the private life of her subject connects to her public one. Cook sought to penetrate beyond the sanitized versions of Roosevelt’s life, which emphasized her devotion to duty and service to her husband and family, and to emphasize her passionate quest for new experiences. As such, Cook’s book is a major contribution to the genre of feminist biography.

Literary Style

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In telling Eleanor’s story, Cook follows the chronological order of events, but like a good novelist she also turns one incident into a central motif of the biography, carrying both structural and symbolic significance.

In 1919, when suffering from the shock of her husband’s infidelity, Eleanor made numerous visits to Rock Creek Cemetery, outside the center of Washington, D.C. There she would contemplate in solitude the statue of Marion Hooper Adams (known as Clover). Clover was a woman who in 1885 committed suicide when she learned that her hus band, Henry Adams, was having an affair with another woman. Adams commissioned the statue in his wife’s memory. The statue had no name to identify it but was often known simply as Grief.

Eleanor felt a kinship with Clover. Both women were betrayed by men; both sought to expand the roles that women could play in life. Clover was a highly educated woman who as researcher and translator contributed to her husband’s work as a historian, and who also attained distinction as a photographer.

Cook paints a picture of Eleanor sitting in quietness, drawing sustenance from the statue: ‘‘ER found comfort in that sheltered green holly grove, with its curved stone benches facing a hooded, robed figure of timeless beauty and endurance.’’

The incident is presented as a pivotal moment, the turning point in Eleanor’s life. Structurally, the incident is placed at the center of the book and acts as the fulcrum of the narrative. The calm stillness of the statue becomes a symbol of strength; it is the springboard for Eleanor’s own years of transformation.

There is an implied contrast too. Clover was a woman who was defeated by the weight of life. Eleanor, at this fork in her own road, chooses another path. One woman was beaten down by her circumstances; the other makes a conscious choice to rise above them.

Cook uses another literary device, foreshadowing, to prepare the reader for her conclusions about the nature of some of Eleanor’s friendships in midlife. (Foreshadowing is a device used to create expectation or to set up an explanation of later developments.)

Cook devotes several pages in her chapter on Eleanor’s schooling in England to a novel published in 1948 entitled Olivia. The novel was written by Dorothy Strachey Bussy, who was a student at Allenswood at the same time as Eleanor. The novel is relevant because in Olivia there is a character named Laura who is based on Eleanor. But Cook goes on to provide details about the theme of the novel. It is about romantic passion between women; it is a ‘‘lesbian romance’’ (although the romance does not involve the character based on Eleanor). Since one theme of the biography is that of friendships, in some cases passionate ones, between women, Cook takes pains to point out that Eleanor, in spite of the denials of other biographers, fully understood the meaning of Olivia.

By dwelling (at what might otherwise seem unnecessary length) on Olivia, Cook manages to prepare the reader not only for the lesbian couples encountered later in the biography—friends of Eleanor such as Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman— but for the author’s controversial interpretation of Eleanor’s relationship with Lorena Hickok.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Antler, Joyce, Review in the Nation, Vol. 255, No. 2, July 13, 1992, p. 58(3).

Dreifus, Claudia, ‘‘Blanche Wiesen Cook,’’ in the Progressive, Vol. 64, No. 1, January, 2000, p. 30.

Faber, Doris, The Life of Lorena Hickok: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Friend, William Morrow, 1980.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G., Writing a Woman’s Life, Ballantine, 1988, pp. 12–13, 76–108.

Kennedy, David M., ‘‘Up From Hyde Park,’’ in New York Times, April 19, 1992.

King, Florence, Review in National Review, Vol. 44, No. 12, June 22, 1992, p. 51(3).

Rubin, Merle, Review in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 84, May 19, 1992, p. 13.

Stansell, Christine, Review in New Republic, Vol. 206, No. 21, May 25, 1992, p. 36(4).

Ward, Geoffrey C., ‘‘Outing Eleanor Roosevelt,’’ in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIX, No. 15, September 24, 1992, pp. 49–56.

Further Reading
Hoff-Wilson, Joan, and Marjorie Lightman, eds., The Life and Career of Eleanor Roosevelt, Indiana University Press, 1984. This collection of twelve essays examines the many different aspects of Roosevelt’s personal and public life.

Lash, Joseph P., Eleanor and Franklin, W. W. Norton, 1971. Lash was a close friend of Eleanor for over twenty years, and this biography focuses on her relationship with her husband. The author is sympathetic to Eleanor but remains objective.

———, Love, Eleanor: Eleanor Roosevelt and Her Friends, Doubleday, 1982. In this biography, Lash uses hundreds of Eleanor’s letters to illumine many aspects of her life and relationships. Many of the conclusions that he draws are different from those reached by Cook.

Roosevelt, Eleanor, The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt, reprint ed., Da Capo Press, 2000. Eleanor’s own memoirs make interesting reading both for what they reveal (the details of her busy life and activities) and what they do not reveal (her deeper feelings about her relationships).

Streitmatter, Roger, ed., Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, Da Capo Press, 2000. These are the letters that have caused so much controversy concerning the relationship between these two women.

Compare and Contrast

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1920: Women are allowed to vote for the first time; politicians, especially Republicans, court the women’s vote. A National Women’s Party exists as an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. Many feminists, not including Eleanor Roosevelt, believe the two major parties will betray their interests.

Today: The targeting of female voters by political parties becomes very sophisticated. In the presidential election of 1996, both parties seek to win over the ‘‘soccer moms’’; in 2000, women independent voters are considered one of the key groups. There is a ‘‘gender gap’’ among voters: women are more likely to be Democrats than men are.

1920s: In a period of social change following World War I, the percentage of women in the workforce rises above the turn of the century figure of 20 percent.

Today: More than 75 percent of women age 25– 44 are in the workforce. However, women’s earnings still lag behind those of men. In 1999, women earn only 72 percent of what men earn. Two-thirds of the differential is accounted for by differences in skills and experience and the fact that men and women tend to work in different industries. The cause of the other one-third of the differential is not known.

1920s: Women are frozen out of positions of political power. In 1928, there are only three female members of Congress.

Today: In November 1998, fifty-six women are elected to Congress (12.9 percent of the total); nine women are elected to the Senate (9 percent of the total). But the United States ranks only forty-eighth in the world in terms of percentage of female national legislators. The highest is Sweden; 42.7 percent of its parliamentarians are women.

1920s: Many occupations and professions are considered unsuitable for women. There is ‘‘men’s work’’ (science, engineering, politics, law, etc.) and ‘‘women’s work’’ (teaching, nursing, etc.).

Today: An increasing number of women are entering traditionally male fields. In 1997, onethird of all science and engineering doctoral degrees are awarded to women. Fifty-one percent of economists are women; 16 percent of architects are women, up from 4 percent in 1950.

Media Adaptations

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Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume One, 1884–1933 was recorded on audiocassette, published in 1994 by Books on Tape, Inc.

Although it is not based on Cook’s biography, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) offers a two and a half hour videocassette, Eleanor Roosevelt, which explores Roosevelt’s ‘‘incredible public achievements’’ and her ‘‘surprisingly secret life.’’

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