The Politics of Care, Love, and Justice
A Review of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2: 1933-1938, The Defining Years
Blanche Wiesen Cook was born on April 20, 1941 in New York, New York. She graduated from Hunter College with a B.A. in 1962; she then received an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University in 1964 and a Ph.D. in history from the same university in 1970. She decided to make her career as a teacher and historian. She is the former vice-president of research for the American Historical Association.
BY KIMBERLY CHOMYN
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “How men hate women in a position of real power!”1 She was a powerful, exciting, and unconventional woman who dedicated her life to better the lives of others. In Blanche Wiesen Cook’s second volume of her two-part biography, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2: 1933-1938, The Defining Years, Cook takes the reader into the first half of Eleanor’s life as First Lady. She analyzes Eleanor’s energetic views on progressive causes of the 1930s era and how they became intertwined in her relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Cook emphasizes how Eleanor’s goals and actions to create equality for all changed America’s future. This new social order Eleanor wanted to create not only affected the American people, but her personal life as well. Eleanor’s relationship with Lorena Hickok became strained as Eleanor’s life became more chaotic. According to Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt contributed many ideas to her husband regarding plans for his New Deal. Eleanor stayed dedicated to her politics of care, love, and justice throughout her life, and Cook focuses on these characteristics of Eleanor that made her accomplish her goals during those first defining years of being First Lady.
Cook begins her second volume in 1933, the year FDR was sworn in as 32nd President of the United States, and the year in which Eleanor Roosevelt set a new standard for being the First Lady. Eleanor became afraid of becoming “prisoner to the presidency,” even after overcoming her insecurities.2 After the Roosevelt family moved into the White House, it became clear that Eleanor had her own ideas of how the White House should be managed. She created the Women’s Democratic News, a monthly newsletter for women that took the average woman’s plights into consideration and established her own liberal goals, casting aside the notion that the First Lady of the United States always agreed to what her husband believed. Eleanor wanted relief policies that would extend to provide work and new training for the unemployed. Attempting to make these policies happen, Eleanor hired many women who worked with her during the 1920s to work in the White House. Eleanor held the first White House press conference before FDR did and showed America that she became a mind of her own. She also separated herself from her husband by openly opposing his isolationist policies. Although she separated herself from FDR in some matters, Eleanor became increasingly closer with her friend, Lorena Hickok. It was through Hickok that Eleanor became closely identified with the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) and the National Consumers League (NCL), where she spoke out about her thoughts on how the federal government had a primary responsibility to confront the basic and social issues affecting American citizens. She and her good friend Florence Kelley crusaded for a National Child Labor Law so the country could not take advantage of children for cheap labor. Eleanor believed that democracy depended on housing, health care, and education and that the FDR’s New Deal plan “virtually…discriminated against women.”2 She became highly involved in the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and championed an Equal Rights Amendment that coincided with her establishment of “Camp Tera,” which gave jobs to some 300,000 women. During the summer of 1933, Eleanor spoke to a correspondent, Alice Hamilton, who had visited Europe and witnessed the rise of the Nazi party. The stories of racial and religious bigotry in Europe made Eleanor shift her attention to racial and religious issues in the United States.
As Eleanor began focusing on new ways to help America recover from the Great Depression, Cook concentrated on Eleanor’s victories in her many progressive causes. Eleanor’s goal to help curb racial and religious bigotry took her to the backwoods of West Virginia, where poor mining families lived. The despicable conditions in which the West Virginian families had to live in every day drove Eleanor to create Arthurdale, a neighborhood that held the “American dream of community and cooperation,” and became one of her top priorities for the next few years. 4 Eleanor, “believed in [Arthurdale] and fought for it, [which] cause[ed] it [to] happen,” making Arthurdale a significant success in Eleanor’s early years as First Lady.5 Arthurdale sent Eleanor on another path towards reforming America, but this time, she considered the issue of race, mixed public education, and racially mixing public communities across the nation. Civil rights had never been given national consideration and Eleanor’s new campaign concerning civil rights upset many traditionalists. The 1930s was a time of regrouping for the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which jumpstarted Eleanor to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She contributed to the NAACP by passing an anti-lynch law and publicly encouraging the group. Along with these achievements, Eleanor developed new enthusiasm for the distribution of federal aid to education and the creation of a national youth program. The beginning of 1934 marked a turning point in Eleanor’s relationship with Lorena Hickok as the two began drifting apart, both physically and mentally. In the autumn of 1934, Eleanor participated in a political campaign for Caroline O’Day, which led O’Day to victory in the 1934 elections. Eleanor became more attracted by causes that most engaged “America’s young radical students,” indicating she believed the best strategy to changing American society was focusing on the next generation of Americans.6 The year of 1935 began as a promising year for Eleanor, one that included a provocative speech called, “Because the War Idea Is Obsolete” which defined war as a lose-lose situation. The summer of 1935 had many victories for Eleanor that included FDR signing the National Labor Relations Act, which led American workers organizing “[like] never before–democratically, militantly, [and] multiracially.”7 The Wagner Act reinforced the women’s movement Eleanor constantly tried to revive and National Youth Administration was created that summer, a personal victory to Eleanor since she had been calling for a similar youth program like this since 1933. Although Eleanor’s successes in America were great, European affairs were problematic as the Nazi party continued to rise as an American threat.
Eleanor became concerned about European affairs that conflicted with America’s depression at home and she made it her goal to create a great interest in world events to the Americans. She was mainly disturbed by America’s inaction concerning Mussolini’s aggression in Italy. In one of her famous columns named, “My Day,” Eleanor talked about her most heartfelt concerns for America. Oddly enough, none of these “concerns” had anything to do with Nazism in Europe nor did they include any ideas on how to help the Jewish persecution even though she had “full and immediate knowledge” of the cruelty against Jews.8 This time of “silence” only leads back to Eleanor simply reflecting her husband’s official noninvolvement policy, which Cook could not understand since it went against everything Eleanor stood for. The election of 1936, along with Eleanor’s silence, eclipsed the topic of Nazi Germany, although Eleanor did try to limit the rise of anti-Semitism and race bigotry in the United States by working more with the NAACP. 1936 brought along the new Red Scare, which left Eleanor increasingly forceful in her defense of every woman’s rights to choose her life’s decisions. All her work came to a standstill, however, when Louis Howe suddenly died. He had been a very important figure to Eleanor; he understood her on a level that her husband could not. Howe’s funeral made Eleanor and FDR realize the balance between them now began falling apart. Howe’s death and the election of 1936 only made Eleanor feel lonely and vulnerable. Eleanor then went on a month-long, cross-country tour where she called for every American citizen, “to demand real social security.”9 After FDR was easily re-elected in the 1936 elections, foreign affairs that specifically dealt with Spain started accumulating and FDR’s policy of non-involvement began falling apart. He went so far as to call for an end to private commerce and airplane sales in Spain, a decision Eleanor highly disagreed with. Eleanor felt it was now up to her to regain power against foreign affairs and to create better lives for the American people. Eleanor began focusing on creating new ideas for the second New Deal as FDR’s reelection winded down and it became clear that the election was more about the “working people of America,” meaning cutting the budget, or downsizing WPA could not achieve FDR’s promises.10 For Eleanor, it meant she was going to need to push for larger goals in housing, work security, and racial justice. Most importantly, Eleanor needed to refine her goals for the anti-lynching issue, which, sadly, was not supported by FDR. Even Eleanor’s relationship with Lorena Hickok became difficult, which left Eleanor feeling isolated. In 1937, Eleanor generated much support for labor unions through her leadership in the American Newspaper Guild. She attended union meetings, participated in union socials, and personally helped mediate various strikes. Her first installment of her memoir in the Ladies’ Home Journal also added to Eleanor’s increased excitement during this time. In July 1937, Eleanor celebrated a great congressional victory for women because Section 213, where federally employed women would be fired because they were married to federally employed men, was abandoned. Conflict still raged on after the abandonment of the rule because women’s needs were still never considered according to Eleanor, as she could not see a “conflict between ‘a woman’s career and a woman’s home.’11 By 1938, times were beginning to change as more of the American public began accepting Eleanor as their First Lady rather than an extremely liberal woman. Even as her relationship with Hickok plummeted to lower levels, she still believed that love was the driving principle in life. In 1938, Eleanor also worked to get women appointed to policy-making decision, insisted on equal opportunity, pay, and treatment for women workers and even began encouraging women to run for office. By 1938, Eleanor had ended her “silence” against the Jewish persecution in Europe and began doing everything in her power to oppose it. She also had a new network of youth and race radicals while her husband began re-arming America for war. “With grit, determination, and a very high heart,” Eleanor helped start America’s movement for freedom in the fascist era. 12
Cook’s thesis in her second volume of her biography on Eleanor Roosevelt spoke of how Eleanor’s life of action and determination resurrected popular movements everywhere. In the first half of the Roosevelt administration, Eleanor both gained and sacrificed precious relationships with her family and friends in order to achieve universal equality. Even though she loved and cared about the people around her deeply, the justice she tried to give to the American people overpowered her personal life. Cook analyzed Eleanor’s first six years as First Lady and concluded that Eleanor’s enthusiasm and energy was the reason why the United States was able to rebound out of its worst economic depression ever. Cook published this biography in the late 1990s, meaning that the fast-paced era leading up to the new millennium must have had a huge impact on Cook’s point of view. Eleanor Roosevelt reminded Cook of a person giving new ideas to America during a time of great change, just as many did in the 1990s. If Eleanor had not gotten over her fears, she would have never been successful in promoting her important progressive causes because according to her, “there is nothing so exciting as creating a new social order.”13
Maureen Dowd, an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, admired the way Cook described how Eleanor Roosevelt strove to be different from her husband. She described Eleanor as being “driven to help the neglected and rejected in society.”14 Dowd explained how Cook described the relationship between Lorena Hickok and Eleanor through old letters and records. She commented on how the first volume of Cook’s series contained more coming-of-age stories while volume two emphasized how Eleanor changed American ideals. T.H.Watkins also reviewed Cook’s biography on Eleanor Roosevelt and exclaimed how Eleanor turned out to become a “viable, social, and political being” to American culture.15 Cook, in Watkins’s perspective, wrote a biography that depicted Eleanor Roosevelt as the selfless and kind woman that she was. Watkins harps on Cook’s sharpness when criticizing Eleanor’s “silence” on the Jewish persecution in Europe, but applauds Cook on making the second volume as interesting as the first one.
This outstanding biography written by Blanche Wiesen Cook illustrates the true Eleanor Roosevelt. Cook found the trivial aspects in ER’s life that have not been seen by many, including personal letters that concern the relationship between Lorena Hickok and Eleanor. Cook goes in depth on the issue of Eleanor’s silence on the persecution of the European Jews during the rise of Nazi Germany. It does not overshadow Eleanor’s many other achievements that Cook explains, but it is one of the many intriguing facts that keep the reader interested. Cook wonderfully describes how Eleanor was such an intelligent and “fascinating…woman of the 20th century.”16
According to Cook’s analysis of Eleanor Roosevelt’s impact on society, Eleanor was a single woman who impacted the New Deal on such a political, economic, and cultural spectrum that the United States would never be the way it is today. Eleanor overcame her own insecurities and faced the public attacks about her personal life. Politically and economically, if it were not for Eleanor, America would not have equal opportunities for women to run for office nor would there be the benefits of health insurance and social security. Eleanor became an icon for women of the 20th century and thrived on that image to help publicize the issue on women becoming more independent and asserting their civil rights. If it had not been for Eleanor’s persistence in guaranteeing civil rights and equality for all, then America would still be segregated today. The 1930s was a decade of change, just how this first decade of the new millennium was also an immense period of change. Eleanor Roosevelt stands as a symbol of “such poignancy and inspiration…” and is still admired by America today. 17
Eleanor Roosevelt marked a watershed in American cultural history because of her willingness to bring equality to all. Her care for the American people eventually changed many practices and values that had been held for many years before the 1930s. For example, before the 1930s, women earned the right to vote, but they were still not seen as equal to men. Eleanor changed how society looked toward women by encouraging women to demand their rights to the same opportunities men received. Her revitalization of the 1930s era paved the way for women today. Eleanor Roosevelt’s dedication to her politics of care, love, and justice helped her accomplish her goals during her first defining years of being First Lady. Her selflessness and effort to always help those less fortunate are just a few of the main reasons why she was so successful in accomplishing her goals. She overcame her own internal barriers to help the lives of others. She became the first image of the “modern” woman, the woman of the 20th century who was considered equal to any man. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.”17 Her words exemplify the way she was able to stand strong when times got tough and pull through to create a new era in American history that will stand as a milestone for future generations to come.
1: Wiesen Cook, Blanche. Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2: The Defining Years 1933-1938. New York, New York: Penguin Putnam
Kimberly Chomyn was born in Orange County, California on May 27, 1993. She is currently a junior at Irvine High School and plays on the water polo and swim teams. She hopes to attend University of California, Santa Barbara after graduating high school next year.
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