Friday, August 24, 2007

The Roosevelt Women by Betty Boyd Caroli

This is a simply wonderful book for what it tells us both about the women of the Roosevelt clan and the men. Caroli’s story lends great insight to both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and the relationship between the two.

The book is set up as a series of smaller books, each one on a particular Roosevelt woman. The great thing is how Caroli connects these women to each other and to the politics of the time. It is interesting to see how different these women were as well as similar. For many of them, their most important relationships with men (outside their brothers/fathers) were not their husbands. Bamie, Corinne and Alice’s husbands all take a backseat to other men – often the political magnets of the day. Not that scandal haunted any of these women (except Alice, who courted it). There were some genuine love matches – Edith and Theodore really had a strong, passionate marriage.

Caroli begins with Theodore Roosevelt’s mother, Mittie (you can also see a post by EHT on this topic). Mittie is often an overlooked figure and this book brings out who she was and why. It also gives great insight to the childhood of TR and how the Civil War affected him quite differently than you’d expect. Mittie’s sister, Anna Gracie, is also a huge force in the life of the young Roosevelts and we see this chapter.

Then Caroli covers TR’s sisters: Bamie Roosevelt Cowles and Corrine Roosevelt Robinson. Both these women played down their role in their brother’s political life, but this book shows how involved they actually were. Both these women contributed greatly to the political future of the US. These women were also the models for the next generation and where they went for advice and help.

The fourth “book” talks about Edith Roosevelt (TR’s wife) and Sara Delano Roosevelt (Franklin’s mother). What is interesting here is the comparisons that Caroli draws between these two women. Edith was seen as the perfect wife and companion while Sara was vilified as the evil mother-in-law. Yet Caroli manages to show them as real women, beyond that basic stereotype. I especially find it interesting how involved Sara was in creating the woman we know as Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor, in the beginning of her marriage, needed the advice and guidance of the older woman, although she would later outgrow it, hence the later picture of Sara.

Then Caroli covers Eleanor Roosevelt, but here it is interesting to see the background to the political life we know so well. Eleanor, although Franklin’s wife, is also Theodore’s niece (the daughter of his brother, Elliot) and connected to both sides of the family. With this generation we see the split between the “Theodores” and “Franklins” politically and then moreorless socially (although there is never a complete severing of ties). Theodore’s family had always been staunch Republicans, but Franklin was going to be the golden boy of the Democratic party, which would rub hard on the “Theodores.”

Next we see another niece of TR’s, Corinney Alsop [her name is Corinne, but the family called her Corinney and to distinguish mother and daughter, Caroli does as well], the daughter of his sister Corinne. Corinney followed in her mother’s shoes as a political speaker and activist, even serving in political office herself (one of the few to do so and the only of this generation). Corinney also kept some of the best relationships with the “Franklins” and even voted for him at one point.

Finally we cover TR’s daughters: Alice and Ethel in the last two sections. Ethel’s life revolved around family and her activities more confined than some of her cousins. Alice, while not an activist in any sense, was one of the best known figures of Washington for her outrageous behavior and tongue. Alice would literally say anything. The stark contrast between these two sisters is brought out as we see Ethel as the more dutiful and responsible and Alice as the butterfly, always seeking attention, yet these two were constant friends throughout their long lives.

This book is definitely worth your attention for several reasons. First, it showcases these oft-overlooked political figures of the Roosevelt clan. Second, it gives new insight to the men who rose to political heights on the shoulders of these women. Lastly, it is just plain entertaining and well-written – a completely enjoyable read.

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