A Feminist Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt

Article excerpt

FRANKLIN and Eleanor Roosevelt, among the best-loved and most admired people in American politics, were also among the most viciously detested.

Shocked political and social conservatives - and snobs of every stripe - referred to FDR as "that man in the White House": a rich, well-favored aristocrat whose liberalism made him seem a traitor to his class. What was said against Eleanor was usually less printable.

But to her many friends, associates, students, and other admirers, including the great majority of Americans and people of all nationalities around the world, Eleanor Roosevelt was a courageous and compassionate woman, a tireless worker for world peace, a champion of poor and working people, a friend to refugees, a foe of racism and bigotry, and a spokesman for the rights of women and children.

"To this day," declares her latest biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, "there is no agreement as to who Eleanor Roosevelt was, what she represented, or how she lived her life. Her friends and her detractors have made extravagant claims of goodness and mercy, foolishness and naivete. She has acquired sainthood and been consigned to sinner status."

Cook, an academic historian, syndicated columnist, and radio commentator, credits the women's movement with providing her with an approach to biography that would replace the hagiographical icons of a noble-spirited, high-minded, sexless great lady with a more down-to-earth portrait of a brave, life-affirming woman - still noble-spirited, but not without political savvy; still high-minded, but not without physical and spiritual passion.

Cook's emphasis is on the ways in which Eleanor Roosevelt made a life for herself - never at the expense of her husband and his political career, but still a life in which her own interests, political beliefs, activities, friendships, and loves took on an importance independent of her role as wife to Franklin and mother to their children.

In this, the first of a projected two-volume biography, Cook takes us from Eleanor's birth in 1884 to her husband's inauguration in 1933 as the nation's 32nd president.

Eleanor was the daughter of a beautiful but vapid mother and a charming, affectionate, but alcoholic and increasingly absent father, both of whom died before she was 10. Subsequently, she was brought up in the household of her maternal grandmother.

This biography devotes a substantial amount of space to examining Eleanor's family background. Her ancestors on both sides were socially prominent old New York families with checkered histories of distinguished accomplishment on the one hand (Theodore Roosevelt was Eleanor's uncle) and alcoholic excess on the other.

Although Eleanor's mother, Anna Livingston Hall Roosevelt, has generally been viewed as a cold, superficial beauty who ridiculed the little girl for being solemn and unattractive, Cook feels she deserves some credit for not destroying the child's glowing image of her errant father, Elliott, even while she, as his wife, was facing the unpleasant consequences of his increasingly irresponsible behavior. (Blustery, rough-riding Teddy Roosevelt, exasperated by the decline in his once-loved brother's self-control, spent a good deal of time and energy trying to have him committed.)

Cook's account of Eleanor tackles the question of how this shy child from a troubled family background learned to make herself into a wise and compassionate woman, capable of fulfilling her own needs and goals, while working to make life better for others. Cook stresses the strong influence of female role models, like Eleanor's impressive paternal aunt, Anna Roosevelt Cowles, and her teacher, Marie Souvestre, who ran a progressive girls' school in England, where young Eleanor blossomed and excelled.

Eleanor also learned by counter-example, Cook points out. Where her mother's disillusionment with marriage turned her cold and withdrawn, Eleanor transformed her own shock over Franklin's affair with Lucy Mercer into an impetus for renewing and expanding her interest in politics and people. …