Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the most revered and influential public figures in recent history. Her efforts to improve the lives of human beings both here and around the world earned her universal respect and admiration. In the early 1900s, Eleanor's cousin Alice, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, became a household name and was, according to one of her biographers, the first female celebrity of the 20th century. Later, as Alice Longworth, she presided for decades over a Washington salon where she was famous for her irrepressible and irreverent wit. Eleanor was, of course, a Democrat; Alice, a Republican.
Although we have read about the women in other major American political dynasties such as the Adamses and the Kennedys, until now the Roosevelt women as a group have not received similar attention. Historian Betty Boyd Caroli, whose other books include First Ladies and Inside the White House, corrects that oversight with The Roosevelt Women.
Caroli points out that two traits that appear in Roosevelts of both sexes are their high energy and their intellectual curiosity. She also stresses their strong sense of family, especially among the women. Even after the Democratic Franklin branch broke away from the Republican Theodores and feelings between the two sides became very bitter, Eleanor insisted that they were all family. The author emphasizes that because of their privileged background, several of the Roosevelt women were opposed to women's suffrage. Theodore's sister Anna opposed it, but, as Caroli notes, In her day and among women of her circle . . . intelligent women like herself would always find ways to act behind the scenes in politics. Two of the most compelling portraits found in Caroli's book are of Theodore's mother, Martha Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt, and Sara Delano Roosevelt, Franklin's mother. They are, in part, revisionist views. Mittie has often been portrayed as fragile, notably by her dynamic sons and daughters. Caroli sees her as a complex person who wrote remarkably intelligent and insightful descriptions of her travels and whose actions were often definite and determined.
In recent decades, Sara Delano has been pictured as a domineering matriarch who interfered in the marriage of her only child. By contrast, Caroli details her involvement in political campaigns and her support of various social causes. She was also a major financial source for her son and daughter-in-law. During her lifetime observers frequently commented on her spunk and intelligence. In addition to those already mentioned, other subjects include T.
R.'s wife Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt, his sister Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, his daughter Ethel Roosevelt Derby, and niece Corinne Roosevelt Robinson Alsop. Their achievements were many and varied. Caroli gives us insightful profiles of both the public and private lives of key women in one of our nation's most prominent political families.
Roger Bishop contributes monthly to BookPage.