Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the most beloved first ladies in American history. She fought for human rights and used her position to speak out on behalf of women, African Americans, Asian Americans and minority groups who she fully believed deserved equality. Along with her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and her uncle President Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor is part of a long line of wealthy and political powerhouses that have fascinated the country since the late 1800s when she was born.
Many films, biographies and historians have studied The Roosevelts, including Eleanor, but a new Ken Burns documentary about the family, premiering on PBS this Sunday, promises to go in-depth in seven parts. But in all of that time, 14 hours worth of discussion on the family, there is no mention of Eleanor Roosevelt’s rumored not-so-straight sexuality.
Eleanor Roosevelt (R) with Lorena Hickok (L) and Governor Paul Pearson (Center)
In the American Experience documentary on Eleanor, those that knew her debated if she and Lorena (affectionally called “Hick” by Eleanor) if their relationship was romantic or sexual. Historian Geoffrey Ward spoke of their devotion to each other while Eleanor’s grandson said they “fulfilled each other’s needs.” The women traveled together and Hick was, indeed, an out lesbian, but Eleanor’s friend, Trude Lash, said, “Mrs. Roosevelt was very affectionate and quite demonstrative, not only to Hick, to other women, to men. She showed her warmth. But she was definitely not a lesbian.”
The more than 3500 letters Eleanor and Hick wrote one another were compiled for a book called Empty Without You in 2000, and since then, much more has been studied about their relationship. A 2007 biography from A&E called Eleanor Roosevelt: Restless Spirit is much more open to the idea that Eleanor was not so straight than the new PBS doc might be—you can watch it all for free below.
As Eleanor’s grandaughter Nina Gibson said in A Restless Spirit:
To see Eleanor in the queer way we’d like, we’ll have to look outside of PBS’s The Roosevelts—lke instead, watch lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer‘s History Lessons has a great satirical piece on Eleanor and every woman’s right to be a lesbian.