It’s Complicated: Resisting the Urge to Define Eleanor Roosevelt

Thursday, January 6, 2022: 2:10 PM
Rhythms Ballroom 2 (Sheraton New Orleans)
Allida Black, Miller Center, University of Virginia
Eleanor Roosevelt is a complicated woman, shrouded in stereotypes – both of her own making and imposed on her by politics and culture.

Even though she embraced the role of his “eyes and ears,” she took pains to deny, if not conceal, her influence on FDR’s decisions as president – even though her influence on his gubernatorial policies was well known at the time. While she embraced the role of ombudswoman, she refused to disclose the actions she took to address the concerns people trusted her to address. Only after FDR’s death and the resurrection of her independence did she speak unabashedly – and with her own voice.

In short, as Blanche Wiesen Cook and I have documented, this most public woman struggled to find a private life that brought her safety, comfort, and confidence.

Now biographers and filmmakers unfamiliar with nuance, the scope of ER’s heart, and her most private hopes cram her into neatly defined boxes. A scorned, insecure wife. A lesbian. A lonely woman who sought public adoration to fill her aching heart.

Thirty years of reading ER-related material and conducting dozens of interviews has taught me one thing: That ER’s heart is infinite and, once she found her independence, she did not want to be “owned.”

This presentation will use documents from the papers of Eleanor Roosevelt, Lorena Hickok, Marion Dickerman, Nancy Cook, Joe and Trude Lash, Lillian Smith, Mary McLeod Bethune, Sumner Welles, the United Nations, the National Association of Colored People, and others to assess the boxes used to define ER.

It will present a more nuanced, layered, and encompassing portrait of ER’s heart. It will challenge historians, especially lesbian ones, to look at intimacy in new ways.