The Queer Truth Behind Eleanor Roosevelt’s Feminism

"I know I’ll never make an open break & never tell F.D.R. how I feel."

One of the most famous sapphic women in American history isn’t even remembered for having a female life partner, probably because she was married to the President of the United States while with her.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (known as Eleanor) spent decades of her life in an intimate relationship with Lorena “Hick” Hickok, a journalist who wore pants and boots years before it was widely accepted for women to do so. Hick and other lesbians influenced Eleanor’s politics, and without their urging, Eleanor may never have become the women’s and human rights advocate we now remember her as.

When Eleanor discovered intimate letters between her husband and her secretary in 1918, she offered him a divorce. This was practically impossible at the time due to professional and family pressures, so they stayed together, but their relationship was never the same. The Roosevelts were partners in some ways (and certainly in public), but romantically and sexually, they became distanced from each other for the remaining 27 years of their marriage. This was when Eleanor began to find herself.

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Eleanor (L) and Franklin.

In the 1920s, Eleanor explored Greenwich Village in New York City and found a chosen family of lesbian political activists there. They helped push her towards her own advocacy for women’s political rights. Two suffragists who were life partners with each other ー Nan Cook and Marion Dickerman ー became particularly important in Eleanor’s life.

The couple met Eleanor in 1922, and the three became extremely close. The nature of Eleanor’s relationship with Nan and Marion is a source of speculation, but we do know they were devoted to each other. “They had become a threesome, working in women’s politics in New York; sharing responsibilities for the children, especially the two youngest boys; and traveling together from their respective houses in the city for weekends in Hyde Park,” Emily Herring Wilson writes in The Three Graces of Val-Kill: Eleanor Roosevelt, Marion Dickerman, and Nancy Cook in the Place They Made Their Own.

The trio eventually moved in together in a cottage built just for them in Hyde Park, New York, a few hours north of the city. While Franklin and Eleanor had their own home minutes away, the Val-Kill cottage was what Franklin dubbed “the love nest” and the “honeymoon cottage.” The women decorated with linens and silver monogrammed with their three initials, “E.M.N.”

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Eleanor (R) with Nan Cook and Marion Dickerman.

Things became more complicated as FDR’s political career took off. Hick covered the future First Lady for the Associated Press on Franklin’s 1932 campaign trail, and they grew very close. By 1933, they spent most days together. At her husband’s presidential inauguration that year, Eleanor wore a sapphire ring Hickock had given her.

“That the Hickok relationship was indeed erotic now seems beyond dispute considering what is known about the letters they exchanged,” Russell Baker wrote for the New York Review of Books in 2011. Indeed, the 16,000 pages of correspondence between the pair make the nature of their relationship clear. As quoted from Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok by Rodger Streitmatter:

March 9, 1933 (E.R. to H)
“My pictures are nearly all up & I have you in my sitting room where I can look at you most of my waking hours! I can’t kiss you so I kiss your picture good night & good morning!”

January 22, 1934 (H to E.R.)
“Dearest, it was a lovely weekend. I shall have it to think about for a long, long time. Each time we have together that way — brings us closer, doesn’t it?”

January 27, 1934 (E.R. to H)
“Gee, what wouldn’t I give to talk to you & hear you now, oh, dear one, it is all the little things, tones in your voice, the feel of your hair, gestures, these are the things I think about & long for.”

April 19, 1934 (H to E.R.)
“Oh, damn it, I wish I could be there when you feel as you did Sunday night and take you in my arms and hold you close. Well, I’ll try to make you happy every minute while I’m there in May—”

May 2, 1935 (E.R. to H)
“I know I’ve got to stick. I know I’ll never make an open break & never tell F.D.R. how I feel.”

According to Streitmatter, Hick burned hundreds of the letters after Eleanor’s death because she “wasn’t always discreet in her letters,” in Hick’s words. Hick made the remaining thousands of letters she deemed tame enough public.

After she and Eleanor grew closer, Hick resigned from her AP position since she could no longer report on her subject objectively. She had her own room to sleep in next to Eleanor’s in the White House when she visited, and they wrote of dreaming of their own place together someday. It was Hick’s encouragement that sparked Eleanor’s move to redefine the role of First Lady.

Eleanor held weekly press conferences of her own where only female reporters were allowed. It was in stark contrast to Franklin’s press conference, which only permitted men. She also expressed her own political views in a daily syndicated column, another move never made by any First Lady before her. After Franklin’s death, she went on to become a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Without Nan, Marion, and Hick, Eleanor may have stayed a wife trapped in a lonely marriage who never became her own political force for women’s rights. Thankfully, she was able to live her life more fully with them in it.

Sarah Prager is the author of three books on LGBTQ+ history and her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, National Geographic, NBC News, and many other outlets.
@Sarah_Prager