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From The CriticsNow that Elizabeth Dole is running for President and Hillary Clinton might run for the Senate, it is fitting that the second volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook's biography of Eleanor Roosevelt should appear. In examining and celebrating her subject's life, Cook never strays far from the topic of women in politics.
Cook devoted her first volume of Eleanor Roosevelt's life to the time before FDR was elected President. As has been well documented, ER (as Cook refers to her) grew up in a family plagued by privilege and power and witnessed abuse and alcoholism throughout her childhood. Cook examines how these experiences shaped ER into a woman who not only fought desperately for her own autonomy but who also relished in the struggle. Despite ER's record as a fierce advocate for liberalism and feminist causes, and despite the hints and rumors that she pursued at least two romantic affairs while married to FDR, there remains on her portrait a patina of demure martyrdom to the demands of a public life and to an unfaithful husband. In her own memoirs, ER maintains a self-effacing tone and refuses to elaborate about her own beliefs and ambitions.
In this volume, which covers the years from 1933-1938, Cook reveals not only how ER took control of her own destiny and identity, but also the destiny of the country. Before she came to the White House, ER had developed a clear political vision, shaped in part by her many friendships with politically minded women such as Elizabeth Read, an attorney, and Narcissa Cox, the chair of the New York State League of Women Voters. ER came to eschew the small aristocratic circle in which she had grown up in favor of political activism.Her work as a member of the League of Women Voters and the Women's City Club drew her into the progressive struggle, helping to shape her views as a social feminist.
While in her first volume, Cook focused on the development of ER's character and her views, in the second she analyzes how she pursued her political agenda. Before FDR's election, ER served primarily as a social reform advocate. But, once she took up residence in the White House, she tacitly assumed the role of policy adviser, not simply receding into the background like the First Ladies who preceded her. Instead, she took advantage of the inherent limitations of her position—because she didn't hold a formal title and was not directly responsible to the constituency, she could speak honestly about issues such as women's rights and racial justice. In effect, she ran an administration parallel to FDR's. And although much of her policy-making and political maneuvering necessarily took place behind the scenes, it nonetheless helped both to bring into being and to shape the New Deal era.
Though their intimate relationship had become increasingly passionless, ER and her husband worked together to bring about social reform. As FDR spent the first hundred days of his term working on legislation that would become the basis for the New Deal, ER drew on a tight network of social feminists to secure an improved life for women. Realizing that her only hope of achieving her goals was to broaden her audience, she changed her regular column of personal reflections in Woman's Home Companion into a "correspondence with the American people,' which served as a conduit between the public and the President. It was popular democracy in its purest sense and it was the technique ER used often to pursue her goals, from the "crusade to end lynching' to ending fascism abroad.
This second volume deals exclusively with the White House years, offering less of the glamour and tumult of ER's early life covered in the first volume. Romantic intrigue is less prominent in the narrative as Cook devotes herself to careful analysis of the genesis and development of ER's social and political consciousness. But what always remains clear is how ER acted on her personal convictions and turned them into political action. —Charles Davis