Eleanor Roosevelt

She was born in New York City on October 11, 1884, daughter of lovely Anna Hall and Elliott Roosevelt, younger brother of Theodore.  When her mother died in 1892, the children went to live with Grandmother Hall; her adored father died only two years later.  Attending a distinguished school in England gave her, at 15, her first chance to develop self-confidence among other girls.

Tall, slender, graceful of figure but apprehensive at the thought of being a wallflower, she returned for a debut that she dreaded.  In her circle of friends was a distant cousin, handsome young Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  They became engaged in 1903 and were married in 1905, with her uncle the President giving the bride away.  Within eleven years Eleanor bore six children; one son died in infancy.  "I suppose I was fitting pretty well into the pattern of a fairly conventional, quiet, young society matron," she wrote later in her autobiography.

In Albany, where Franklin served in the state Senate from 1910 to 1913, Eleanor started her long career as political helpmate. She gained a knowledge of Washington and its ways while he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  When he was stricken with poliomyelitis in 1921, she tended him devotedly.  She became active in the women's division of the State Democratic Committee to keep his interest in politics alive. From his successful campaign for governor in 1928 to the day of his death, she dedicated her life to his purposes.  She became eyes and ears for him, a trusted and tireless reporter.

When Mrs. Roosevelt came to the White House in 1933, she understood social conditions better than any of her predecessors and she transformed the role of First Lady accordingly.  She never shirked official entertaining; she greeted thousands with charming friendliness.  She also broke precedent to hold press conferences, travel to all parts of the country, give lectures and radio broadcasts, and express her opinions candidly in a daily syndicated newspaper column, "My Day."

Eleanor Roosevelt This made her a tempting target for political enemies but her integrity, her graciousness, and her sincerity of purpose endeared her personally to many--from heads of state to servicemen she visited abroad during World War II.  As she had written wistfully at 14: "...no matter how plain a woman may be if truth & loyalty are stamped upon her face all will be attracted to her...." Another famous quote: "Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent."

But was she, or wasn't she? In both her first and second volumes Eleanor Roosevelt's biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, assumes a lesbian relationship between Roosevelt and her close friend, Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok.

The speculation about Eleanor Roosevelt's sexuality has been a factor in discussions of her life for the past 20 years, ever since the release in 1978 of the letters Roosevelt and Hickok exchanged, which suggest a kind of intimacy that goes beyond the current definition of female friendship.

However, the case for Roosevelt's lesbianism is one of inference and is not a view universally shared. Among experts who take an opposing view are historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.; Lorena Hickok's biographer, Doris Faber; and Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of "No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II."

To make sense of the debate, it is important to understand the political and cultural context in which Eleanor Roosevelt grew up and spent her adult years. In her book "Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America" historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg describes the high degree of physicality, even eroticism, that marked female friendships during the sex-segregated Victorian age of the 19th century.

In her book, Smith-Rosenberg also examines what she calls the "New Woman," an emerging model of the first half of the 20th century that fits Eleanor Roosevelt like a glove.  These were women who, in the company of other women, worked for social justice and in the settlement house movement.  Often they never married and found their emotional and even sensual needs met in female-to-female relationships.

Smith-Rosenberg said during a telephone interview from Ann Arbor, Mich., that Eleanor Roosevelt found her emotional sustenance with women contemporaries; after all, her husband was unfaithful, her mother-in-law difficult, and her children the challenge that all children can be.  A friend of Cook's, Smith-Rosenberg finds the possibility of a relationship between ER and Hickok plausible.

Roosevelt died in New York City in November, 1945, and was buried at Hyde Park beside her husband.

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