Journal of Policy History 12.4 (2000) 531-534
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Eleanor Roosevelt: Compassion Set the Agenda
Stacy A. Cordery
Blanche Wiesen Cook. Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume I: 1884-1933. (New York: Viking Press, 1992. Pp. xviii + 587 pages.)
Blanche Wiesen Cook. Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume II: 1933-1938. (New York: Viking Press, 1999. Pp. xvi + 686 pages.)
Blanche Wiesen Cook, professor of History at CUNY's John Jay College, has completed the first two volumes of what promises to be the definitive biographical study of Eleanor Roosevelt. The work cements Roosevelt's reputation as one of the key political players of the twentieth century, and Cook's as ER's foremost biographer. These volumes present a compelling portrait. The Introduction to Volume I is particularly trenchant, an excellent summary of ER in a broader context. What Cook does best throughout is draw a picture of the entire woman in all of her roles: daughter, student, wife, mother, friend, political activist, feminist, first lady. This is not a narrow view of a political wife, as previous biographies have been, nor is it a story dripping with pathos that provokes more pity than wonder. Cook is careful and compassionate in her conclusions about controversial topics and judicious in her analysis of ER's failings.
Volume I traces Eleanor Roosevelt's inauspicious ascent to influence. Despite material plenty, ER suffered emotional deprivation. Orphaned at age ten, shunted from relative to relative, ER was sent to Allenswood School in England, where "she was finally given permission to be herself, to act in behalf of her own needs and wants" (I:107) under the wise guidance of Marie Souvestre, the academy's left-leaning founder. Her three years there solidified the social conscience earlier instilled by her father, Elliott. Returning [End Page 531] unwillingly to the United States at age eighteen, ER made the obligatory debut, but took seriously her Junior League charity work with the Rivington Street Settlement House and the Consumers' League. Those early activist steps, uncharacteristic among Roosevelt women, led to even more unconventional ties. Eleanor shared her sense of duty with her cousin Franklin, who returned from his first trip to Rivington shaken, professing he had never seen such poverty. From this beginning grew one of the most powerful political partnerships in U.S. history. The two married in 1905, and "[t]heir affinity was chemical, intellectual, total" (I:154).
But it was as a politician in her own right that Eleanor Roosevelt had her greatest influence on public policy. The sheer breadth of her interests, as skillfully traversed by Cook, astonishes again, even those readers familiar with Roosevelt's life. ER and her friends gained pivotal positions in their own, increasingly visible organizations--such as the Women's Trade Union League--and as they did so, their influence spread. In the 1920s, ER's circle widened, and she became a signal figure in the Democratic party. Working with women like Molly Dewson, Marion Dickerman, Isabella Greenway, and lesser-known power brokers like Texas's Anna Pennybacker, ER increased the number of women who had a real say in the framing of public issues. Some had their roots in the women's club movement, many came from privileged backgrounds and shared ER's sense of duty, while yet others were drawn in by life circumstances, as was Rose Schneidermann. ER's co-workers shared her belief that "every life was sacred and worthy, to be improved by education, employment, health care, affordable housing. [ER's] goal was simple, a life of dignity and decency for all. She was uninterested in complex theories, and demanded action for betterment" (II:4).
Cook makes clear that ER did not simply step into the White House as First Lady searching for a campaign. She brought lifelong crusades with her, and she uniquely added other, more controversial causes, some of which the President did not always or fully share. Controversy, however, did not slow her. As Volume II displays, ER used the wider stage of the White House to shape the public policy agenda. The Great Depression magnified...