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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Eleanor  Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt 1884to –1962

Human rights activist, UN delegate, politician, lecturer, writer, and longest-serving First Lady of the United States. As a member of the prominent Roosevelt family in New York, and niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, she enjoyed a privileged childhood. But she was met with tragedy when her mother, brother, and father died in quick succession before she was ten. At 15, she was sent to a finishing school and taught by the feminist Marie Souvestre, who would have a great influence on her life. She returned to New York where she got involved with the Junior League, and then happened to run into her fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The two were married after a secret romance, despite his mother’s disapproval. She devoted herself to married life, raising six children and supporting her husband, while constantly at odds with her mother-in-law. So she was devastated to discover in 1918 that Franklin had been having an affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. She considered divorcing him; instead, she decided to devote all her energy toward public service. When her husband contracted polio and lost the use of his legs, she persuaded him to stay in politics, and began making public appearances on his behalf. She advocated for labor unions, and campaigned for Democratic candidates. And when Franklin Roosevelt became President in 1933, she immediately began challenging the traditional role of First Lady, drawing intense criticism along the way. She established an experimental community for struggling workers, reported from the front lines during World War II, and called for women to go into factories. She fought passionately against racial discrimination toward black and Japanese Americans, even within her husband’s own New Deal. And she vowed to match her husband’s salary during his first year as president, giving lectures across the country, hosting a weekly radio program, holding daily press conferences, and writing a popular daily column called “My Day.” Inspiration for the column and press conferences came from Lorena Hickok, a lesbian and one of the top reporters in the country, who had been sent to give Roosevelt her very first interview as First Lady. The two hit it off immediately, and were soon inseparable. When they weren’t together, they wrote each other lengthy, daily love letters. Their relationship eventually waned as Roosevelt became more and more active, but they remained lifelong friends. Roosevelt was good friends with other lesbian couples as well, such as Nancy Cook and Marian Dickerman, with whom she purchased and ran a school for girls, and a furniture factory to support local farmers. Her other great romance from this time was with her bodyguard, Earl Miller. Her husband, meanwhile, continued to have affairs with a number of women. When he died suddenly before the end of his term, Eleanor Roosevelt was distraught to discover that he had once again been in the company of his original mistress, Lucy Mercer, at the time, and that her daughter had arranged the affair. But her husband’s untimely death did not put an end to her public career. Incoming President Truman appointed her to the first American delegation to the United Nations, where she was the only woman in the group, and served on the Commission on Human Rights. She continued to lecture and advocate for the working class, people of color, and women up until her death. And though she was often considered a controversial First Lady, a plain-looking woman, a possible communist, and made up one of the largest of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI files, in her later years she became one of the most admired and beloved public figures in United States history, and remains so to this day.

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