The queer history of Eleanor Roosevelt you won’t see in the Ken Burns documentary

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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.

Eleanor Roosevelt

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.

Throughout her life, Eleanor held close relationships with female friends like Amelia Earhart and Lorena Hickok, the latter of whom she wrote romantic letters to later compiled in a book. The Roosevelts filmmaker Geoffrey C. Ward said during a PBS panel at TCA, “In the film, we present the facts … all of [the letters] are in the film. Our era focuses on things like that far more deeply than anyone has before. This is an intimate history, not a tabloid history.”

Some examples of lines from their letters:

Hick my dearest– I cannot go to bed tonight without a word to you. I felt a little as though a part of me was leaving tonight. You have grown so much to be a part of my life that it is empty without you…

I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms.

I’ve been trying to bring back your face — to remember just how you look. Funny how even the dearest face will fade away in time. Most clearly I remember your eyes, with a kind of teasing smile in them, and the feeling of that soft spot just north-east of the corner of your mouth against my lips.

Eleanor Roosevelt (R) with Lorena Hickok (L) and Governor Paul Pearson (Center)
Eleanor Roosevelt

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.

In his book Queering Public Address: Sexualities in American Historical Discourse, Chuck Morris writes that while Restless Spirit addressed the Hick/Eleanor relationship, it also did so with some “shock and distance.” An excerpt:

Rather than claiming Roosevelt, we can queer her by pointing out how her private life, if brought by rhetorical criticism into public memory—which has sublimated, if not erased, this relationship—can trouble the assumptions of heteronormativity. We may out texts of Eleanor Roosevelt but we may not out Eleanor.

As Eleanor’s grandaughter Nina Gibson said in A Restless Spirit:

I have no idea whether Lorena Hickock had a homosexual relationship with my grandmother or not. And my feeling about that is kind of: Who cares? They were very good friends. And if they could make each other happy in any way, then that’s what’s important.

Eleanor Roosevelt

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.

The Roosevelts debuts this Sunday night on PBS.

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