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Week 5 Letter Essay

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Post a letter at least 300 words DO NOT RESEARCH ON THE INTERNET

Thousands and thousands of African Americans wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt for help. See this site   https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/lesson-plans/notes-er-and-civil-rights.cfm for more information on these letters. Research this in the library or from the course bibliography. Do not research on the Internet for this exercise. Assume an African American character and write from the perspective of the character. In other words, take on the role of someone during the Roosevelt administrations writing to the First Lady. Write the letter and post it. Then, in a separate paragraph, explain why you chose to write what you did. The total number of words should be no less than 300.

 Take the role of a government official. Grading will be with the grading rubric for essays. Therefore, you cannot use the textbook or encyclopedias. You must cite and use at least one academic source from the library.

Here are some websites to help you.



Eleanore Roosevelt and Civil Rights, George Washington University


“Please Help US Mr. President”: Black Americans Write to FDR

Also, google: Black Americans write Eleanor Roosevelt. You will see multiple images of actual letters written to the First Lady.

Do not use any other Internet sources without specific permission from your instructor.


“Please Help Us Mr. President”: Black Americans Write to FDR

Although Franklin D. Roosevelt never endorsed anti-lynching legislation and condoned discrimination against blacks in federally funded relief programs, he still won the hearts and the votes of many African. Yet this support and even veneration for Roosevelt did not blind black Americans to the continuing discrimination that they faced. Indeed, the two views were often combined when they wrote letters to the president asking him to do something about discrimination that they confronted in their daily lives. Three letters are included here from the thousands that poured in to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt from black Americans during the 1930s.

[Note: These letters are rendered as in originals without corrections of spelling errors]

Reidsville. Ga Oct 19th 1935

Hon. Franklin D. Roosevelt.

President of U. S.

Washington D. C.

Dear Mr. President

Would you please direct the people in charge of the releaf work in Georgia to issue the provisions + other supplies to our suffering colored people. I am sorry to worrie you with this Mr. President but hard as it is to believe the releaf officials here are using up most every thing that you send for them self + their friends. they give out the releaf supplies here on Wednesday of this week and give us black folks, each one, nothing but a few cans of pickle meet and to white folks they give blankets, bolts of cloth and things like that. I dont want to take to mutch of your time Mr president but will give you just one example of how the releaf is work down here the witto Nancy Hendrics own lands, stock holder in the Bank in this town and she is being supplied with Blankets cloth and gets a supply of cans goods regular this is only one case but I could tell you many.

Please help us mr President because we cant help our self and we know you is the president and a good Christian man we is praying for you. Yours truly cant sign my name Mr President they will beat me up and run me away from here and this is my home


May 1936

Hattiesburg Miss

Mr Presedent Sir We are starving in Hattiesburg we poor White’s + Negros too i wish you could See the poor hungry an naket half clad’s at the relief office an is turned away With tears in their eysw Mississippi is made her own laws an dont treat her destuted as her Pres. has laid the plans for us to live if the legislators would do as our good Pres. has Said What few days we have here we could be happy in our last old days both old white + Colard

Cencerely looking for our old age pension’s an will thank you they has made us Sighn for $ 3 00 [three dollars] a Month Cant live at that


Vicksburg Miss


President Theo. D. Rosevelt. U.S.A.

Gentlemen: I think you Should [sic] invistigate this matter your Self. The way they are treating the Darkies here is A Shame. They wont give them food nor Cloths nor Work to do When they Ask for Any thing they drive them away as they were dogs. They wont even let them talk to the head man here. you Aught to See that Some men get this job that will give this Relief to whom it was Sent here for. you can prevent all brutle treatment of the Darkies here if you will. And its more than 200 Darkies in groups Standing on the Road each day. begging for food and Cloths. And the Relief working women. They tell them there is no job for them to hunt. And the Head men of the Office will help them to drive the Poor darkies as they were dogs. And I gets in My care and Rides from one end of the County to the other to See how the Darkies are treated. All of the Darkies in the Flooded District are in a Suffering condition I know Personally. And please Invistigate The Matter at once. The Darkies in Flooded District are not able to pay they Taxes and they wont let them make enough to pay them. And I Judge the Relief Workers are taking all of the Poor Darkies Money and buying fine Cars.


Source: Federal Emergency Relief Administration Central Files and New Subject Files, National Archives, as published in Robert S. McElvaine (ed.)Down and Out in the Great Depression. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983): 83. 88, 90.

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Queering Eleanor Roosevelt

Reed, JenniferThe Journal of American Culture; Malden39.1 (Mar 2016): 9-19.

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In her lifetime she was both deeply admired and highly controversial. Since her death her heroic status has been solidified: she is less controversial and continues to be held up as a model of extraordinary citizenship. A woman cannot claim the level of agency she did without disrupting gender norms. […]Roosevelt actively worked for women’s rights throughout her lifetime, but she is not generally put in the feminist canon by feminist scholars.

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Americans love Eleanor Roosevelt. One of the most widely respected American public figures of the twentieth century, she maintains to this day an influential place in the public imagination. In August 2015, The New York Times reported that she was the top choice for the new face of the $10 bill (Rogers). In February 2014, she was yet again voted the most respected First Lady in US history by a poll taken of American historians (Kopan). In September 2014, she, along with her famous male relatives (Theodore and Franklin), was the subject of a widely seen and critically praised fourteen-hour Ken Burns/PBS miniseries, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. In her lifetime she was both deeply admired and highly controversial. Since her death her heroic status has been solidified: she is less controversial and continues to be held up as a model of extraordinary citizenship.

The Many Loves of Eleanor Roosevelt

It is now well-accepted, although not universally celebrated, that Roosevelt was queer. Blanche Wiesen Cook was the first of her many biographers to document her long-term love affair with Lorena Hickok and to put it into a meaningful context; however, that is certainly not the only thing that makes her queer. Cook describes, along with the relationship with Hick (as Hickok was called), the very intense and romantic relationship between Roosevelt and her bodyguard Earl Miller, as well as the unorthodox and close relationships with lesbian and heterosexual friends throughout her adult life.

At the end of her life, beginning shortly after FDR died in 1945, Roosevelt began an intense companionship with her doctor, David Gurewitsch, who was eighteen years younger than her. In the 2014 Ken Bums documentary, Gurewitsch’s widow, Edna Gurewitsch, tells the story of the trio they created together. By the time David was engaged to Edna he was Roosevelt’s constant companion and confidante, and that was not going to change. The documentary quotes a letter Roosevelt wrote to Dr. Gurewitsch that said, ?T love you as I love and have never loved anyone else.” Mrs. Gurewitsch explains that she knew that she had to make room for Roosevelt as an intimate in their lives and did so, seemingly with great love. The three of them bought a house together in New York, and Roosevelt spent her final years with them. Dr. Gurewitsch is the person who accompanied Roosevelt’s casket to Hyde Park after she died.

The point is this: Roosevelt created unconventional intimacies throughout her adult life, while she lived out the public persona of FDR’s wife, First Lady, mother of five. All of these identities were true as well. They just were not the whole truth of her life, and heteronormative ideology would suggest that they were. One of the primary ways that heteronormativity secures its dominance is by insisting that it is the only legitimate set of relationships that structure our lives. It erases other truths happening parallel to it, underneath it, outside of it. It is an enveloping force that shapes the story of a people in a predictable narrative. But, Queer?

As Leila Rupp agues in her book Sapphistries, the story told of history is always imagined, always a creation made through interpretation. She writes that she is “inspired by Monique Wittig, who wrote in Les Guérillères, ‘Make an effort to remember. Or failing that, invent'”(5). If one takes the intimacies of Roosevelt’s’s life as seriously as the public persona, one gets a different picture seen through a different prism. What does it mean to read Roosevelt’s biography queerly? How can readers make the connections between her queer affections and her incredible impact on the national and international scene of her time? And further, how might this reading be related to the enduring respect she continues to command ?

As the first historian to make the public claim that Roosevelt had a love affair with Lorena Hickok, Blanche Wiesen Cook laid the ground for the next iteration of meaning we can make with that information. In the preface to the first volume on Roosevelt, Cook makes the point explicitly that she fully expects “successive generations will find additional questions to ask, different issues to explore, new interpretations to forge” (xii). This essay is an attempt to forge a new interpretation. The facts here are not new, but queer theory, developed since the publication of Cook’s groundbreaking work, suggests new questions and creates different meanings.

Roosevelt was a public figure who enacted a version of a queer feminism as the term is understood today. Of course it is far from a straightforward version of queerness or feminism, and that is part of the point. Queer challenges the terms of heteronormativity, which in its very essence defines what passes as normal in dominant culture, as Michael Warner famously argues in The Trouble with Normal, Roosevelt personified paradoxes in most areas of her life, disrupting categories of “normal” as she went, often without calling attention to the fact that she was upsetting what passed as normal. Her queer subjectivity, along with the influence it wielded, is inseparable from the fact that she embraced it as one of the most admired women in the country during her lifetime, for decades after (Beasley and Beasley 529), and into the present time. Feminism is integral to Roosevelt’s version of queer subjectivity because to disrupt heteronormativity is already to disrupt gender rules and relations. A woman cannot claim the level of agency she did without disrupting gender norms. Moreover, Roosevelt actively worked for women’s rights throughout her lifetime, but she is not generally put in the feminist canon by feminist scholars.

Roosevelt broke the bounds of respectable femininity by her very physicality. She was tall, seen by many as unattractive, had a shrill voice that she used without apology to say controversial things that even contradicted her president-husband on occasion. At the same time she was the daughter of wealth and old American aristocracy. The niece of one president and the wife of another, she was shaped entirely in that rarefied culture in a way she could never escape, yet she was an unyielding advocate for those people the American aristocracy needed to define itself against in order to maintain its own privilege. That is, she worked explicitly on behalf of those defined as Others, in a culture that naturalized white, middle-class, male, heterosexual supremacy. She nurtured women’s contributions to public life, while she spoke to the American public mostly from the position of wife and mother. She created a life of significance both because of and in spite of being married to the president of the United States.

The way Roosevelt created her life, the methodology behind the subjectivity she created, was queer, not only operating in between the categorical lines, although that is part of it. Her expansive affectional capacity, her ability to love intensely outside of heteronormativity, and her positioning as a woman outside the norms of femininity make her queer. And that queerness-that queer energy-shaped the incredible contributions she made to American culture.

The visibility of queer is not at issue here. Of course, Roosevelt was not known as a queer person during her life, and the claim that she was remains controversial in many circles. This argument is not about “coming out” or the public acknowledgement of lesbian desire that makes Roosevelt’s life as a public person significant. Cook made this public acknowledgement in the 1990s. In fact, Roosevelt’s queer desire is itself invisible in at least two ways. First, Roosevelt’s intimate relationships were unknown to the public. And more to the point, the meanings of these intimacies were unclear even to those living them at the time.

The claim is that queemess opens up-makes possible-a larger, deeper presence at both a personal and cultural level, potentially. Queer theorist Jose Esteban Muñoz developed pivotal ideas in this regard in his 2009 book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. He writes first of the difference between possibility and potentiality, differentiating them thusly:

Possibilities exist within a logical real, the possible, which is within the present and is linked to presence. Potentialities are different in that although they are present, they do not exist in present things. Thus, potentialities have a temporality that is not in the present but, more nearly, on the horizon, which we understand as futurity. (99)

Potentiality can be understood as a presence or an energy that has not been articulated culturally. It is a feeling more than an empirical fact, or “logical real” (99) possibility as Muñoz writes. The potentiality is the energy that is not yet quite defined. Further, Muñoz’s use of “futurity” can be seen also as the ability to look back on what was and see now what was there. He writes of the performance of queemess in other eras:

Unlike a possibility, a potentiality is a certain mode of nonbeing that is eminent, a thing that is present but not actually existing in the present tense. Looking at a poem written in the 1960s, I see a certain potentiality, which at that point had not been fully manifested, a relational field where men could love each other outside of the institutions of heterosexuality.. .the ways it might represent a mode of being and feeling that was then not quite there but nonetheless an opening. (9)

In this context then, Roosevelt’s queemess is not so much something we need to prove empirically for visibility’s sake, as much as it is something we need to understand as a catalytic energy that moved her. Her queemess was a presence not known. It was “nonbeing that is eminent, a thing that is present but not actually existing in the present tense” (Muñoz 9). “Nonbeingness” means that it was not defined or even known by Roosevelt herself. It was not a hiding of an identity, but an unfolding of a way of being, an orientation to the world, not quite articulated. Moreover, it represented “a mode of being and feeling that was then not quite there but nonetheless an opening” (Muñoz 9). Finally, this not-quite-articulated queer energy was and is life-giving and perspective-shaping.

The Unfolding

On one level the break with heteronormativity in Roosevelt’s life story seems to have been precipitated by finding out about FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918. Her biographers note that, although she agreed to stay married to him, loved him, and continued a meaningful partnership that was an extraordinary force in American politics, her heart at least enlarged and went elsewhere. Of course, this was true for FDR as well. The Roosevelts created an intimate relationship that tolerated their romantic love for others. They created a sort of queer marriage. Geoffrey C. Ward’s characterization is typical:

By the 1920s, the Roosevelts’ relationship was more merger than marriage, an affectionate and hugely effective partnership based on a shared past and mutual interests, but without passion or intimacy. Mrs. Roosevelt’s discovery of her husband’s romance with her social secretary has seen to that. (5)

Cook describes Eleanor Roosevelt’s first extramarital romantic connection with Earl Miller, whom FDR had assigned as her bodyguard. Roosevelt was forty-four years old when she met Miller, thirty-two, in 1929. They had a mutually powerful connection that was read by many around her as romantic. Like her relationship with Hickok, it was more passionate for some periods than others, but it lasted until Roosevelt’s death in 1962. Cook writes that “ER’s friendship with Earl Miller has been and remains an amazing study of denial and lost documents. No other friendship has been so well covered up” (Vol. 1, 435).

In this case, letters that were known to exist between Roosevelt and Miller disappeared after her death. Most of the correspondence between Roosevelt and her other lesbian friends has also disappeared. Although Hickok destroyed much of the correspondence between her and Roosevelt upon Roosevelt’s death, hundreds of pages of letters remain and were unsealed by the FDR library in 1978. They are detailed in Rodger Streitmatter’s 1998 edited collection, Empty Without You.

Roosevelt’s relationship with Hickok has been written about by many (although Cook was the first to acknowledge its significance). It started in 1932 when Hickok was assigned by the Associate Press to cover Roosevelt during FDR’s first presidential campaign. Biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin acknowledges that Hickok “fell madly in love with Eleanor” (221) and that the relationship was deeply important and impactful for both women. She writes,

It was Hick who suggested that Eleanor consider holding her own press conferences, restricted to female reporters so as to encourage the papers to employ more women. It was Hick who suggested that Eleanor publish a running account of her daily experiences in the form of a column, “My Day.” It was Hick who encouraged Eleanor to write frequent magazine pieces and spent hours editing her early drafts. (221)

Goodwin continues,

Secure in the knowledge that she was loved by the most important woman in her life, Eleanor was able to create a public persona that was to earn the love of millions. “You taught me more than you know & it brought me happiness…” Eleanor later told Hick. “You’ve made of me so much more of a person just to be worthy of you.” (222)

As noted above by Goodwin, and corroborated by other major biographers such as Cook and Streitmatter, the relationship with Hickok directly shaped Roosevelt’s style of being First Lady in innumerable ways. Some are tangible, like the idea of holding all-women press conferences and writing “My Day,” but others are less tangible, like developing the confidence to become the person she became.

Still Goodwin seems reluctant to call the Roosevelt-Hickok relationship a romantic one explicitly. As she and others make the point, it is impossible to know what goes on privately between two people. On one hand, it is disrespectful, and an act of domination to characterize anyone’s relationship with words or labels they do not use; on the other hand, to skirt the issue of sexuality here is to participate in a heteronormative narrative that has for so long skewed understanding of human relationships. Certainly Cook posits a romantic relationship. But the implications of it are more clearly elaborated with the concept of queer. One does not have to “know” what physically happens between people to know that they are creating intimacies that matter, outside of the terms of heteronormativity. The queerness is the creation of the “opening,” to go back to Muñoz; the opening is a way out of heteronormativity.

The relationship between Roosevelt and Hickok was intimate, contentious, romantic, and queer. By the time of FDR’s inauguration Hickok was clearly Roosevelt’s intimate partner. Roosevelt told everyone that she had planned to drive her own car to Washington with her dogs. She did not mention that Hickok was also going to be with her. In one of the rare times FDR insisted that she be with him, on the trip to his inauguration, she agreed. However, the morning of the inauguration she managed to slip away with Hickok for private time, which Cook describes, at

the famous statue Henry Adams had erected to the memory of his wife Clover. There, during ER’s earlier years of solitude and sadness, she found strength in that holly grove while Washington gossiped about her gamboling husband and his well-known affair. Now she decided to begin her tenure as First Lady by meditating with her First Friend in the holly grove of Rock Creek Cemetery. (Cook Vol. 2,13)

The legendary correspondence from 1932 until Roosevelt’s death shows a deep, committed relationship. But the letters from 1933 to 1935 are the most ardent and show the arc of the couple’s romantic relationship. Streitmatter reports that when the surviving letters were revealed by FDR Library, the evidence of the romance was clear to anyone willing to see it. According to Cook, Roosevelt and Hickok both wrote 10-15 page letters to each other every day. An excerpt from one in Roosevelt’s first week in the White House reads as follows:

My pictures are all nearly up & I have you in my sitting room where I can look at you most of my waking hours! I can’t kiss you so I kiss your picture goodnight and good-morning. Don’t laugh! (Vol. 2,42)

Another from Roosevelt early in her White House tenure says,

One more day marked off my dear. My dear if you meet me [in public] may I forget there are other reporters present or must I behave? I shall want to hug you to death. I can hardly wait. (Streitmatter 22)

On March 16, 1933, Roosevelt writes,

Hick Darling, I’ve just said “goodnight” & you are right we should not do it [talk on the telephone] every night. So I’ll put a “special” on this [letter] & not call you to-morrow in the hope that I won’t mind not hearing your voice when I know I’m going to hear it on Saturday. Oh! Dear, I can hardly wait! (Streitmatter 26)

This very small sampling of Roosevelt’s language makes clear that she loved Hickok passionately. What is also clear is that Roosevelt loved many people of both genders in deep, intense, devoted ways. These people were not part of her nuclear family, but they were primary attachments. These intimate connections were outside the institutions of heteronormativity, while Roosevelt was ensconced in a nuclear family. In fact, her entire public presence is derived from her position in a family. It is not that she is living a “lie,” but that she is living multiple and contradictory realities. As Cook puts it:

From 1920 to the end of her life, ER lived in two worlds: the world she made for herself, and the social world into which she was born. ER never abandoned that familial world. But she did redefine her place in it. She had the courage to speak, and to act, to bear witness, to disrupt and change it profoundly. (VoL 1, 301)

The shifting, the occupying simultaneous social and emotional spaces itself is queer, potentially providing the emotional and conceptual opening for all kinds of crossings. Eve Sedgwick’s classic take on queer is quite helpful here. She writes in the introduction to Tendencies that hers is

a claim that something about queer is inextinguishable. Queer is continuing moment, movement, motive- recurrent, eddying, troublant. The word ‘queer’ itself means across-it comes from the Indo-European root -twerkw, which also yields the German quer (transverse), Latin torquere (to twist), English athwart… . across genders, across sexualities, across genres, across ‘perversions. ‘ The immemorial current that queer represents is as antiseparatist as it is antiassimilationist. Keenly, it is relational and strange, (xii)

Indeed, Roosevelt’s crossings and blurring of lines are many and productive, and troubling to dominant norms. Since volumes have been written about her, and by her, here are highlighted just a few of the queerest of crossings. One of the most interesting are her relationships to prominent lesbians of the time, if that is not an oxymoron. As Streitmatter makes the point, “Most Americans living in the early years of [the twentieth] century considered lesbians-or women living in ‘Boston marriages,’ as they were called then-to be loathsome creatures; Eleanor and Lorena did not. … There is no question that they both spent enormous amounts of time with women who loved women” (xviii). The women Roosevelt befriended were highly accomplished, educated, ambitious women, but not prominent as lesbians, of course.

Cook describes in great detail how Roosevelt’s relationship with the couple Elizabeth Read and Esther Lape, radical scholars and activists in Greenwich Village, shaped the skills, knowledge, and confidence that Roosevelt needed to become the political person she became in the 1920s. This pivotal shift in her life was made not long after she found out about FDR’s affair, and she had at the very least internal permission to create a life she wanted for herself. Roosevelt spent several evenings a week with the couple at their Greenwich Village apartment in the early 1920s, and it was through them that she joined the ranks of the feminist activism in that period, often called the “New Women,” through discussion, strategizing, and creative imagining (Cook Vol. 1, 294). As Cook observes,

In the early 1920s, ER spent as much time as possible with Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read. During the White House years, Lape suggested she rent a floor on 11th street. It became ER’s sanctuary, a hiding house from the press and rituals of First-Ladyhood. (297)

In this circle Roosevelt met several other lesbian couples who became lifetime friends and associates and who provided much of the intellectual, political, and emotional support for her development as the unique leader she became. While Lape and Read were the center for a time, Roosevelt created important relationships with the couple Polly Porter and Molly Dewson. It would be Dewson who became Eleanor Roosevelt’s partner in staffing the first FDR administration with women. Frances M. Seeber describes the way Dewson came to wield serious power in the Democratic Party in the 1930s, with an eye particularly to getting women in positions of power. Seeber writes,

Molly Dewson and Eleanor Roosevelt shared common views on the potential of women to raise the level of politics and to strengthen the Democratic Party, but Dewson became an especially close friend as well. Mrs. Roosevelt once wrote to her: “The nicest thing about politics is lunching with you on Mondays.” (708-09)

Perhaps one of Roosevelt’s most significant relationships was with Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman. In the 1920s Roosevelt became best friends with the couple, who were both very involved in Democratic Party activities. They became a very tight trio, and Cook writes that since most of their correspondence has been lost, it is “impossible to recapture either the tone or the precise geometry of their friendship” (Vol. 1, 322). What is known is that Roosevelt rarely traveled without one or both of them in the 1920s and that they were her most intimate companions at this point. It is also noteworthy that in discussions of this intense relationship, Cook is the only biographer to make the point that Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman were a couple.


An obvious sign of the importance of Roosevelt’s relationship with Nancy Cook and Dickerman was the creation in 1925 of Val-Kill, named for “Val from the valley location and Kill from Fall Kill, the name of the stream on the property” (Freeman 45). Reportedly the idea of FDR, the Stone Cottage first built on the Roosevelt property in Hyde Park was so that the three of them could have a place to be together when Eleanor Roosevelt’s schedule permitted. Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman would live there full-time. Although FDR supervised the construction, the three women paid $12,000 for it, according to Lindsay Moreau. The Stone Cottage proved to be a sanctuary for Roosevelt right away, and as she wrote her husband, “The peace of it is divine” (Ward 64). As Ward observes of Roosevelt,

The first summer she spent there she and her two friends all slept for a time in the same dormitory-like bedroom upstairs, in a proximity some visitors found startling; even their towels were embroidered with their intertwined initials. (64)

Moreau reports that during the construction of the Stone Cottage, the three women met with Caroline O’Day, a progressive New York Congressperson, and developed what became Val-Kill enterprises-a seemingly disparate collection of projects that included the publication the Women s Democratic News, the Todhunter School, and the Val-Kill furniture factory. In fact, what all of those projects had in common was a commitment to social progress. Nancy Cook was in charge of the furniture factory on the grounds of Val-Kill, and Roosevelt was the major marketer of the furniture. The purpose for the factory was to provide work for local farmers, especially during the winters. O’Day ran the Womens Democratic News, and Roosevelt wrote for it as well. Dickerman ran the Todhunter School, where Roosevelt taught also. Roosevelt’s commitment to teaching kept her there even after her husband became Governor of New York in 1928 and her duties became ever more fragmented as New York’s First Lady.

The meanings of the home, the industry, and the life these women created together are impossible to parse to any satisfactory degree. One cannot measure the levels of confidence, connections, and ideas generated here for Roosevelt. Certainly it was more than what was possible in her traditional setting as wife and mother and dutiful daughter-in-law. Again, Roosevelt did not aban- don those traditional roles, but she layered onto them experiences outside the terms of heteronormativity. One thing that is known is that it is during this period, through the work Roosevelt did here, especially the teaching and writing, that Eleanor became financially independent from Franklin Roosevelt.

The Val-Kill furniture factory never made much money, and it finally was closed in 1936. By that point,

Eleanor’s friendship with Cook and Dickerman had cooled, and she needed a retreat on her own… Leaving Stone Cottage to Dickerman and Cook, Mrs. Roosevelt had the two factory buildings joined into one, shaped as an L, the interior spaces portioned with pine paneling. The larger apartment was for her and guests, and the smaller one was for Thompson [her secretary]. Eleanor began calling the place Val-Kill Cottage. (Freeman 45)

Val-Kill Cottage became the place that Roosevelt went for respite for the rest of her life.

Working for Women

Part of the reason that Roosevelt is not much associated with feminism is that her most important public work occurred during the years 19201960, the years between what is often characterized as the first and second waves of American feminism. One problem with periodizing feminist history this way is that we lose sight of the work done by those who were working diligently on behalf of women, like Eleanor Roosevelt, during this period. But her feminism also does not fit into easily recognizable feminist packages. She did not favor the vote for women before 1920, and she actively worked against the ERA. She favored protective legislation and unionization for women workers and feared that the ERA would harm women workers.

Susan Abrams Beck makes an important point: “She thought that women were not like men, and therefore they needed to be treated for what life had handed them, not for what life handed men” (543). Roosevelt was ever a practical political thinker, and she also saw her stance as more radical than a demand for the ERA, because she felt it was much more in line with leftist critiques of class oppression. Still, Beck writes that “it was to marriage and home that she saw as the arc of a woman’s life,” at the same time that she understood that “women in politics would bring a different perspective to the public space” (Beck 537). Roosevelt fit into what was called “reform feminism” of the time, which emphasized women’s differences from men. It is a bit ironic that her political ideas were hooked on a commitment to domesticity for women when her own relationship with it was so ambivalent. However, this irony speaks to her deeply practical approach.

There is no question that Roosevelt worked diligently for the rights of women at all levels of power, cognizant of the realities of the women she was addressing in the American public. Hickok is credited with many of the ideas Roosevelt implemented as First Lady. Hickok advised her to hold press conferences for women journalists only. According to Betty Houchin Winfield, Eleanor Roosevelt held 348 press conferences, with the first one held the first week of FDR’s presidency and the last one held on the day he died. Roosevelt’s aims were at least two: she wanted to craft a message specifically to American women, and she wanted to help employ women reporters during the Depression. Even though there was pressure to include male reporters, she never relented (Beasley).

Similarly, she instituted an annual “Gridiron Widows” party for women only as “her indignant response to the fact that FDR and the men of the cabinet went off to the sacred and exclusive male journalists’ annual Gridiron Club dinner, still closed to all women. Cook writes,

It became the highlight of her social season. For years the Gridiron Widows dinner was an occasion for unbridled merriment, political satire, serious costumes. All the women associated with the Roosevelt administration were invited: journalists and their guests, and “women distinguished in the arts and sciences.” (Cook VoL 2,475

Roosevelt’s own writing throughout her public life reflected her commitment to women as social subjects. Her syndicated column “My Day” ran from 1936 until 1962, the year she died. It was one of the many ways she used her position as First Lady to connect with women all over the country in her own writing. She published It’s Up to the Women in November 1933 in a conscious effort to reach American women beyond the activist and intellectual circles that she was a part of. One of the more controversial chapters in the book, “Women and Jobs,” was a direct contradiction of FDR’s administration’s policy during the Depression, which was to fire married women first when shrinking the federal workforce. Roosevelt was outraged by that and made it clear in her book and elsewhere, as she did with other of FDR’s policies that she disagreed with. In one of her more controversial stands, Roosevelt took much criticism for defending not only married women’s right to earn money during the Depression but specifically her own. Beasley cites a 19 December 1938 press conference when Roosevelt asked

whether the country wants “women who give up everything” in the White House and insisting “you don’t elect the woman or the family when you elect a man president.” (277)

This was a radical idea in the 1930s, as it in fact is today. It absolutely takes women seriously as individual subjects. At the same time, however, most of what Roosevelt wrote, including books and columns, was pitched to moderate, married wives and mothers, not the lesbian intellectuals that sustained her behind the scenes. The address to so many women from her location as First Lady, with often subversive underpinnings, is indicative of her queer position. She is operating in between the lines demarcated for First Lady and radical activist. She consistently moves out of bounds unto unmarked territory, and thereby creates something new. Victor Turner says that living in the gaps in between categories, in the liminal, is the place of creativity. New possibilities, or shall we say potentialities, are created in the gaps. Liminal time is transition time, in between, movement from one to another state. Turner writes, “In liminality people play with the elements of the familiar and defamiliarize them. Novelty emerges from unprecedented combinations of familiar elements” (27).

Racial Justice

Roosevelt’s racial politics illustrate a similar crossing of lines. Again, the examples are many and varied and, like her feminism, predate the time in dominant culture that is most associated with the social movements for racial and gender justice. Early in FDR’s first term, Roosevelt made racial justice and ending segregation priorities, often in direct conflict with FDR’s policies. She was well aware that New Deal programs were discriminating against African Americans, and she became a force in the White House to change that. As part of her concerted effort to develop a comprehensive antiracist movement, Roosevelt fought both publicly and behind the scenes for the Costigan-Wagner Bill to make lynching a federal crime -efforts resisted by her husband (Black).

Allida M. Black details many of the ways that Roosevelt used her status as First Lady to set a new tone in the country by inviting AfricanAmerican leaders to the White House for strategy sessions, to meet her husband, holding receptions for black civil rights leaders, making sure her pictures were taken at these events, and inviting black entertainers to the White House for public consumption-something never done before. Black writes, “Mrs. Roosevelt sent a clear message to the American public. It was her home now and entry would not be restricted along the lines of race” (720).

Roosevelt developed a long and fruitful friendship with Mary McLeod Bethune, and both Roosevelt and Bethune employed their friendship in public ways to serve their mutual goal to promote “interracial understanding” (Quarles). Bethune also served in a variety of capacities throughout FDR’s administration.

In the most well-known example of Roosevelt’s careful and conscious use of her position as First Lady to promote racial justice, she resigned from the Daughter of the American Revolution when the organization refused to allow black contralto Marion Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall in 1939. Black describes the pains Roosevelt went to so that the issue would be seen as an important national issue of racial discrimination and the “masterful political strategy” she used to both “support Anderson without upstaging the local community or further angering the powerful Southern Democrats” (724). Ultimately, Roosevelt used her influence to secure the Lincoln Memorial for the performance.

Just as is true for her work on gender equity, in her efforts for racial equality Roosevelt was not riding the wave of popular social movements. She was laying the foundations for them. And it did not make her popular with everyone. By the early WWII years she heard about “Eleanor Clubs” forming in the South that supposedly consisted of black maids and housekeepers rebelling by not doing their work and claiming a place at the table with their white employers. When Roosevelt had the FBI investigate whether they actually existed, they reported that the clubs were rumors based on white women having a hard time holding onto black employees because of the better jobs available in factories. The report went to say that Roosevelt was a logical target of blame since she was “considered by many Southerners ‘the most dangerous individual in the United States today'” (Goodwin 371). Similarly “Eleanor Tuesdays” were rumored to be the day of the week that black women went onto Southern streets with the goal of knocking down white women, also baseless, and telling (Goodwin 522).

Just as is true for the rest of Roosevelt’s work, her contributions to intervening in a highly imbalanced distribution of resources took many forms, depended on all of the connections and different levels of influence she had, required her ability to negotiate competing constituencies, and are far too numerous to begin to do justice to here. One example, a planned community for the most impoverished during the Depression was called Arthurdale.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Finally, Roosevelt’s work on international human rights needs to be noted. As with all of her other work, the details are many, varied, and complex-covered well in many of the biographical works on her. Mary Ann Glendon’s widely hailed 2001 book, A World Made New is an excellent source for a detailed account. Ken Burns’ PBS documentary is also a wonderful source for Roosevelt’s work at the UN, beginning in 1945, as it includes pictures and even video of her. There is perhaps no better example of the significance of a queer perspective than the effort to create a universal set of rights built on consensus-and no more important legacy to leave. Thalia M. Mulvihill cites women’s historian Mary Beard who “described Eleanor Roosevelt as ‘reaching to the borderlands of political, social and cultural change'” (55) with this work.

President Truman asked Roosevelt to be a delegate to the first UN meeting. She served as chair of the committee to draft the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The committee was composed of “Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, representatives of democracies and dictatorships, colonial powers and once colonized peoples,” the voice of Peter Coyote intones in Ken Burns’ documentary, making the point that Roosevelt had to negotiate daunting differences. In 1948 the Declaration was adopted with unanimous consent. Roosevelt served as the US representative to the UN Commission on Human Rights until 1953.

The ability to engage real difference-keeping discrete elements in continual play-is the power and promise of a queer sensibility. The fact that Roosevelt was able to successfully chair a committee tasked with the first attempt ever to set universal standards for human rights, taking into account seemingly insurmountable differences, illustrates another way in which her consciousness was not only quite ahead of its time, but informed by that quintessentially queer quality of at least trying to operate outside of hierarchical binary categorization. This is a move away from heteronormative thinking, structured as it is by hierarchies of all kinds. At its best, a queer way of seeing provides a way out of those strictures of heteronormativity that naturalize the relations of dominance made to seem “normal” through the institutions it works through like the family, the legal system, and global economic systems, to name a few of the obvious dominant institutions that structure “normal.” A queer perspective destabilizes the normalizing force of them, and Roosevelt did that in her way.

Roosevelt’s threat to dominance, based on gender, race, and class or nationalism, was made accessible to her through her queer orientation that allowed her to look outside of the privilege that might have swallowed her up. She did not forsake her privilege, but she did use it in destabilizing ways. The view from queer is a view from the gaps, and that is where new meaning emerges. Again, in Victor Turner’s terms of liminality, it is the place of potentiality, the place of creativity, the place where new culture develops. Roosevelt did her most significant work from the gaps: in between being an insider in most ways, and feeling like an outsider. Conducting her own life from gaps that most could not see, while the whole world was looking, gave her a queer perspective, one that allowed her to entertain multiple realities and move between those realities in productive ways.

In the dislodging of some of the stultifying requirements of heteronormativity, Roosevelt developed a unique self and made a particularly queer contribution to American life. One could say that Roosevelt was living the potentiality of a queer life before it could be seen as such, but more to the point for American culture is that when seen from a queer perspective, the story of American culture is enlarged and elaborated. Queerness has been a productive and creative force in dominant culture for a long time. Roosevelt was one early manifestation, if one sees it that way. Her influence on American culture is, then, inseparable from her queer take on things.


Works Cited

Beasley, Maurine H., and Henry R. Beasley. “Eleanor Roosevelt as an Entrepreneur.” White House Studies 4.4 (2004): 517-29. Print.

Beasley, Maurine. “Eleanor Roosevelt’s Press Conferences: Symbolic Importance of a Pseudo-Event.” Journalism Quarterly 612 (1984): 274-338. Print.

Beck, Susan Abrams. “Eleanor Roosevelt: The Path to Equality.” White House Studies 44 (2004): 531-44. Print.

Black, Allida M. “Championing a Champion: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Marian Anderson ‘Freedom Concert.'” Presidential Studies Quarterly 20.4. (Fall 1990): 719-36. Print.


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