OCTOBER 11: Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

Today, the legendary First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt would have turned 133-years-old. Although she might be one of the most quoted and revered women in American history, what is often glossed over about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt is her lesbian identity. 

Eleanor Roosevelt photographed in 1930 (x).

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born on October 11, 1884 to wealthy socialite parents in Manhattan, New York. As a child, she preferred to go by her middle name of Eleanor, but her mother nicknamed her “Granny” for her oddly mature and serious manner. Despite her privileged beginning, Eleanor’s childhood would prove to be traumatic and breed a chronic depression that would follow her for the rest of her life. After her mother and little brother Elliott died of diphtheria in in 1892 and 1893, Eleanor’s father would descend into alcoholism and die of a seizure in 1894; three deaths in three years. For the rest of her childhood, Eleanor would live with her maternal grandmother in Tivoli, New York when she was not attending finishing school at the prestigious Allenswood Academy in London. 

Eleanor’s life changed when she just so happened to run into her father’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on a train back to Tivoli in 1902. Despite the opposition of several of their family members, Eleanor and Franklin were married on March 17, 1905. The couple settled in New York City’s Hyde Park area and remained there for many years, having six children from 1906 to 1916. Everything changed for Eleanor once again when her husband became the President of the United States on March 4, 1933. A “reluctant first lady,” Eleanor was dismayed at the idea that she would be so publicly shunned to the private, “womanly” sphere of the home and spend all her days playing hostess; however, Eleanor would go on to reinvent the role of First Lady and carry her feminist passions into her life in the White House. 

Although she had six children throughout her lifetime, Eleanor would reveal in private to her daughter Anne that she disliked having sex with her husband and that it was “an ordeal to be borne.” It is widely regarded today that Eleanor was a lesbian. She had a longtime relationship with the out lesbian journalist Lorena Hickock, whose love story with Eleanor we have covered on the blog before! It was also rumored that she had a short affair with the famous pilot Amelia Earhart, who was a close friend of Eleanor during her lifetime and who once sneaked her out of the White House so the two could attend a party together. The letters between Amelia and Lorena coupled with the fact that she was close friends with several known lesbian couples, such as Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, and Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read, makes the fact of Eleanor’s lesbianism and her understanding of that culture and identity undeniable. 

Photos of Eleanor and her longtime lover Lorena Hickok side by side. The letters between the two were not studied as evidence of an explicit love affair until the publication of Eleanor and Hick by Susan Quin in 2016 (x).

Even after her time at the White House was up and her husband had famously lost his battle with polio, Eleanor maintained a career as a social activist. She became the very first United States Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and spearheaded the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. The laundry list of progressive and feminist organizations Eleanor was either a supporter of or was directly involved in is almost never-ending and her contributions to mainstream America’s understanding of women’s rights is immeasurable. She passed away from cardiac arrest on November 7, 1962 an American hero.  

-LC