"The best of the New Deal was because of Eleanor Roosevelt's activities. She always said, `Government exists for one purpose: to make things better for all people.'"
When Blanche Wiesen Cook published her 1992 biography, Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume I, 1884-1933 (Viking), she was accused of transforming an icon of American liberalism into something in her own image. Members of the Roosevelt family were outraged; other Eleanor Roosevelt biographers screamed. The controversy was something akin to the current row over the Ronald Reagan biography Dutch (Random House, 1999), by Edmund Morris--with one big difference: Cook hadn't made anything up.
During her research, Cook discovered evidence of a passionate friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and a woman journalist named Lorena Hickok--and she wrote about it. Suddenly, the biography was a scandal. But what Cook really did was perform an act of feminist historiography. She looked at Eleanor Roosevelt as a political figure but also examined her personal life, taking seriously the feminist adage "the personal is political." She showed how this woman took the unhappiness of a lonely marriage and transformed it into a passion for social justice. As a reviewer in The Washington Post wrote, "Cook has resurrected a woman who changed the lives of millions."
Cook, an out lesbian and a professor of History and Women's Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University in New York, created a template of how a woman's life should be studied. Now Viking Penguin has just published Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume II: 1933-1938, to much friendlier comment. At a recent book party in Cook's honor, several members of the Roosevelt family were even seen in attendance.
Cook's other works include editing the book Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution (Oxford, 1978), and writing The Declassified Eisenhower (Doubleday, 1981).
Cook and I are old friends, and we talked recently over lunch at an Italian restaurant near John Jay College.
Q: When did the life of Eleanor Roosevelt first become a passion for you?
Blanche Wiesen Cook: It was shortly after I finished my Eisenhower book in 1981. There was, at that moment, a very meanspirited book about Lorena Hickok that had just come out. This book said something like, "These two ugly, bucktoothed women were so homely they became friends." And that: was all! It really trivialized the relationship--and, indeed, the lives--of two women.
So I reviewed the book, and people said, "Why don't you write more about it?" And I told them, "I don't do that. I do military history and what we used to call foreign economic policy--international economics. That's my field. That's what I like to write about." Peace history is what I was doing.
But then I went to the FDR library, and I found an article Eleanor had written in the beginning of the 1920s that nobody had ever really dealt with or even referred to. She was a very important feminist who wrote incredibly popular articles for publications like Redbook, and she had her own magazine called the Women's Democratic News. She became part of an organization to get the United States into the World Court. She worked with a woman named Esther Lape, who was her best friend and adviser on political issues. There was a whole world of activism that folks really had not paused to deal with. And I thought, "Yes, OK, this is a subject."
Q: Did you immediately feel that, as with so many women, the real substance of Eleanor Roosevelt's life had been erased?
Cook: She had been presented to us as a devoted wife, as a helpmate, and not as an independent person. And what I discovered, which excited me, was that she was a real force early in the 1920s. She had become the leading woman politician in the Democratic Party. But more than that, she was a great bridge from the 1880s social-reform feminists--Florence Kelly, Jane …