Bibliobitch: Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage
Like most of us, I learned about Eleanor Roosevelt in school. She was one of the few woman leaders who received attention in my 10th grade US History textbook, which also had a paragraph on the women's movement and a few words about Harriet Tubman, but was otherwise a big book full of dudes shaking hands and dudes making grand speeches and dudes boldly going where no other dudes had gone before. I always liked Eleanor Roosevelt because, unlike a lot of other first ladies, even in my dude-heavy textbooks she was portrayed as having an identity beyond political wifehood.
Why, then, did I decide to read a biography that is specifically not about Eleanor on her own, but instead focuses her relationship with that other important person she was married to? A biography that doesn't even list her name first? To be totally honest, I was convinced by the advertising. I heard a review that hailed Hazel Rowley's Franklin and Eleanor as a "crackling" account of the Roosevelts' "radical" marriage, written by an author who'd detailed other unconventional partnerships in the past. I never knew much about the Roosevelts' marriage before I read this book (other than the fact that the two were distant cousins who were both related in some way to Teddy) so the idea that their relationship was somehow "radical" was intriguing to me.
The reality of the book is a little disappointing. Rowley makes a case for uncommon tenderness and understanding between the two, basically saying that at its core, this was a close and caring partnership centered more around politics than romance. Apparently, a common perception among Roosevelt enthusiasts is that although they were united in their political goals, their personal relationship struggled, so they were both forced to find romantic closeness elsewhere. Unfortunately, from there it's easy for biographers to make the sexist jump that it was Eleanor's fault the marriage lacked romance. After all, she was so tall and awkward! And she was always bugging Franklin during his vacations, about trivial things like the state of the nation and the welfare of their five children! She pretty much forced him to fool around with his secretaries and nurses because she was a lesbian who wouldn't have sex with him anymore after the birth of their youngest child!
These are not the jumps that Rowley makes. She tries her hardest to portray the Roosevelt marriage in a different light, one that involves "understandings" rather than "cheating." But I was not convinced. I went into this book really hoping that I would find some surprisingly radical polyamorous relationship between the Roosevelts, one with open lines of communication and an effort by everyone to avoid hurting other people. That was an unrealistic expectation. As was the hope that since Eleanor was such a proponent of women's rights who is known to have had romantic friendships with other women, perhaps traditional gender roles wouldn't be observed.
Instead, despite Rowley's efforts, Franklin comes off as absorbed in the world of politics and in himself, and Eleanor is portrayed, especially in the first half of the book, as a wife devoted to helping Franklin achieve his goals. He lives and works in Washington while she stays at their home in the Hudson Valley to look after the children and network on his behalf. He rides off in motorcars with younger women, and Rowley writes that these were possibly full-blown affairs, while Eleanor's relationship with her bodyguard was probably not sexual because he was thirteen years younger than she and his "girlfriends—including the three women he would marry and divorce—were younger women, pretty women."
Perhaps this was the way things really happened—I would have to do a little more reading before developing my own stance on the lives of the Roosevelts. And I do appreciate Rowley's intent to explain things in a way that makes their relationship and Eleanor's role in it more palatable from a feminist perspective. But since her arguments aren't quite convincing, the book ends up more like a futile effort to skew the facts than a restructuring of the truth.
What I did find interesting about the book was the opportunity to see Eleanor grow over the years and develop her own political sensibilities and her own life apart from her husband and children. I was disappointed that there were only a dozen or so pages after Franklin's death, because I liked who Eleanor had become and I wanted to see her do more! But of course, that's what I get for picking up a book about their marriage. Next time I'll learn my lesson and try instead to get my hands on Eleanor's post-White House memoir, On My Own.
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