Letters from Eleanor: When Do Private Acts Have Public Consequences?

Episode 8

What can the private lives of public figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover tell us about their impact on U.S. history? Historian Claire Potter helps us navigate the relationships among identity, power and actions—and why we must teach them.


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Claire Bond Potter

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John D’Emilio: Back in the day when I was a graduate student and reading book after book after book, I learned an endless number of the facts and details of history. But in the seminar room, my professors always emphasized the big picture, the interpretative frameworks that captured the meaning of an entire era. Why did the North American colonies revolt against British rule and declare their independence? What impact did the Industrial Revolution have on the lives of ordinary Americans? When I started teaching undergraduate U.S. history courses in the 1980s, I brought this perspective into how I organized my classes. 

But over those first years, as I read my students’ exam essays, I noticed a recurring pattern. If the lectures that related to the exam question were framed in big-picture terms, the student essays were often vague and unclear, but if I had used an individual’s life story and career as a way of illustrating the broad topic—for instance, if I told the history of the abolitionist movement through the life of Harriet Tubman, or the history of the modern civil rights movement through the career of Dr. Martin Luther King—my students were far more likely to have written essays that offered an interpretation of the historical topic while also recapturing the life of the individual with rich detail. History most comes alive when real human beings are placed at the center of the story. 

I took this lesson from my students to heart and over the years of my teaching career, I made a conscious effort to weave biographical narratives into the interpretive structure of my U.S. history courses. Later in my career, when I had the privilege of teaching LGBTQ courses, I noticed that biography was even more valuable. Many students, no matter what their identity, do not yet personally know any LGBTQ individuals. Bringing some of their stories to life as part of the teaching of a class will not only include queer history but will also allow students to appreciate the complicated and varied ways that lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and gender-nonconforming individuals have had an impact on the path that history has taken.

Think of the opportunity it might provide and the difference it might make if the history of progressive reform and the settlement house movement in the early 20th century—without question, important topics in U.S. history—if this history were told through the life of Jane Addams. She was a key figure in the period from the 1890s through the First World War. Hull House in Chicago, the base for her work, had a national reputation, and Addams herself won the Nobel Peace Prize. But can one really lecture about Jane Addams without also mentioning Mary Rozet Smith, the woman who financially supported the work of Addams for decades, and who was widely acknowledged at the time, including by Jane Addams’ own family, as her most intimate relationship? Can one discuss the urban reform movements of these decades without also commenting on the fact that its leadership was composed of women reformers who lived in lifelong partnership with another female reformer?

These women lived together, socialized together, traveled together and supported each other in their efforts to create a more just world. Or let’s jump ahead to the black freedom struggle of the post–World War II decades. The civil rights movement of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s changed the United States for the better. It mobilized millions of people to take action in support of social justice. A key feature of this movement, something that won the movement widespread sympathy and support, was its embrace of nonviolent resistance. Dr. Martin Luther King, of course, is the figure most commonly associated with this feature of the movement. But how many people know that Dr. King received his training in Gandhi and nonviolence from an activist named Bayard Rustin. Rustin had been protesting racial and economic inequality since the 1930s. He was a pacifist committed to the abolition of war and violence.

At the time of Dr. King’s Montgomery bus boycott, Bayard Rustin was probably the most experienced nonviolent activist in the United States, and he devoted himself to Dr. King’s emergence as a national leader. Rustin was the organizer of the famous 1963 March on Washington, at the time, the largest protest march ever seen in United States history. Rustin was also a gay man who lived through the horrors of the lavender scare, which this podcast series has already talked about. Imagine what it would mean to teach the history of racial justice activism through the life story of Bayard Rustin. Imagine the sympathy it would produce if students learned that this heroic figure suffered tremendously simply because he was a gay man living through the decades that were the worst time to be queer in the United States. In Rustin’s case, the fact that he was a gay man is indisputable. In the case of Jane Addams, she lived in an era before the label or identity of lesbian was part of the culture.

Biography can be a very productive way of including LGBT stories into the history of the United States, but it can also be complicated. I’m John D’Emilio, and this is Queer America, a special series from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. LGBTQ history has been largely neglected in the classroom, but it’s necessary to give students a fuller history of the United States and to help them understand how that history shaped the society they live in. This podcast provides a detailed look at how to incorporate important cultural touchstones, notable figures and political debates into an inclusive U.S. history curriculum. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.

Talking with students about sexual and gender identity can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges, so teachers and students can discover the history and comprehend the legacy of queer America. 

Eleanor Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover are two very different historical figures and both have significance in queer history in very different ways. As far as we know, neither claimed a queer identity, but each is known to have had a same-sex relationship. And integrating their stories into the historical narrative helps us understand the complicated relationship between private and public life. In this episode, historian Claire Potter navigates the challenges of integrating sexual and gender identities into the study of historical figures. She teaches us about the use of evidence and the relationship between identity and behavior. Here’s Claire Potter.

Claire Potter: When I teach history, I always like to begin with evidence. Students actually like primary evidence best; they don’t like to listen to lectures, and they generally don’t like to read a textbook. I’m going to start with the kind of evidence I would use with my students if I were teaching them about Eleanor Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover. I want to begin with a letter, an excerpt from a letter that Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Lorena Hickok, a journalist who was her lover in the 1930s. On March 5th, 1933, which was the evening of her husband, Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Lorena Hickok, “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.”

The next day Roosevelt wrote another letter to Hick. “Hick, darling, how good it was to hear your voice. It was so inadequate to try and tell you what it meant. Funny was that I couldn’t say je t'aime and je t'adore as I longed to do, but always remember that I am saying it, that I go to sleep thinking of you.” Of course, je t'aime means “I love you,” and je t'adore means “I adore you.” Now, Lorena Hickok also wrote letters to Eleanor Roosevelt that were not only affectionate but that were loving and that were erotic. The eroticism of these letters has been actually contested among historians, and we’re going to talk about that a little later. What Lorena Hickok wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt was this: “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 northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips.”

Now, these letters actually were not public for many, many years. Let’s look to something else that was public: a photograph of J. Edgar Hoover. The photograph of J. Edgar Hoover that I’m thinking about was taken when the two were on a fishing trip. Hoover is sitting in a deck chair, relaxed, he’s a young man, he’s got his shirt off, he’s tanned, he’s looking fit and he’s holding onto a fishing pole. Clyde Tolson, his assistant director at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is leaning over to him, talking intimately. The two of them seem happy. The question is, What does it mean? Now, if we take these letters and this photograph together, both of them seem very queer to today’s audiences. But I think they unlock some important challenges for your classroom and I want to talk to you a little bit about how I would introduce these documents, how I would introduce this pair of figures from before a time when gay liberation really permitted people to be out of the closet. And talk about what kinds of challenges they offer for your history classroom.

I want to emphasize at this point that while teaching gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender history can sometimes be very difficult, it also opens students up to the best practices of history itself. How would we ask our students to think about these documents? First of all, I would ask my students not to make a snap judgment about something historical that seems gay or lesbian to them, or someone who seems transgender to them, using contemporary standards. This is intellectually important to all of us who are historians, but it’s particularly important in a high school classroom because it’s an intervention that actually reminds students not to make judgments about each other based on superficial observations, and asks them not to imagine the documents that were generated decades ago can actually be read as if they were just generated today.

The second thing I would think about, and I hope you think about when you’re teaching, is to ask students to unlock the meaning of evidence by doing other kinds of research. What I mean is reading scholarship that’s accessible to them, but also doing other kinds of primary research. One letter by itself may or may not mean that much, but the fact is there are 3,500 letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. Not so much about J. Edgar Hoover, so we’ll have trouble putting more primary documents in dialogue with this one picture than we will looking at thousands of letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok and deciding what to make of them.

The third thing I would ask students to think about as they were beginning to explore these documents is that the past is both familiar and strange. History is, after all, often about human beings who are like us and who are not like us. We have to try to read into these documents to understand what people were trying to say to each other. But we also have to understand that the words they use, the symbols that they evoke, the types of mannerisms that each of our historical figures uses are specific to a place and time that is not now. Finally, and what I would say is the biggest question that you can propose to your students is that history is by definition about change over time. LGBT history is not only exactly like that, but it is even more like that than perhaps some other fields. The language that is used to describe sexual and emotional intimacy has changed dramatically over time. The possibility for how people might choose a life and someone to love has also changed dramatically over time.

Sexual attraction has not always been what we now call an “identity,” or even my least favorite term, a “lifestyle.” The 20th century, which began with the mass distribution of newspapers and magazines and ended with the Internet, has perhaps been the swiftest period of change for LGBT people. It began with the invention of “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” in the 1890s as medical categories. The popularization of those terms in the 1920s and ’30s as those terms began to confer stigma on the people who are identified as heterosexual and homosexual. The 20th century ends with the idea that a person who feels themselves to have been assigned the wrong sex at birth can take steps to affirm their actual gender—something that was inconceivable to most people until the 1970s or 1980s.

John D’Emilio: There are both differences and similarities in Eleanor Roosevelt’s relationship with Lorena Hickok and J. Edgar Hoover’s with Clyde Tolson, and there are even bigger differences between the two historical figures. Yet they both played important roles in U.S. history, and history has treated them both in some of the same ways. Thinking about their lives and the evidence we have about them helps us to think about the assumptions we bring to historical analysis. Once again, here’s Claire Potter.

Claire Potter: Let’s return to the 1930s, why don’t we, and think about a time that’s very unlike this moment in the 21st century. Twentieth-century political history had always treated these two figures very differently, and rightly so, of course. The wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a progressive feminist, and FBI Director Hoover was the opposite. He was a conservative and he was very invested in traditional gender roles. Eleanor Roosevelt was anti-racist, she fought Jim Crow segregation, whereas J. Edgar Hoover, as you may know, maintained de facto racial segregation at the Bureau of Investigation until his death and undermined all civil rights activism. In fact, many of the things J. Edgar Hoover did in relation to the civil rights movement would now be considered to be crimes or illegal—illegal surveillance, for example—and interfering with political movements by infiltrating them with his agents.

Eleanor Roosevelt was descended from American aristocracy and the Roosevelts had been in the United States since the colonial period, and actually, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt were related to each other. In contrast, Hoover was the son and brother of middle-class Washington bureaucrats. Hoover’s entire family, his brother and his father, actually worked for the federal government. During the early part of the 20th century, not so differently from today, Washington, DC, was a company town. So J. Edgar Hoover pretty much knew he was going to go to work for the federal government, whereas Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt pretty much knew they were going to run the federal government. Hoover despised liberals like Roosevelt—and J. Edgar Hoover saw progressivism as the first step to communism and an internal threat to the United States—even when she was the president’s wife, J. Edgar Hoover conducted surveillance on her.

By the 1930s and certainly into the 1940s, Eleanor Roosevelt actively worked against segregation. J. Edgar Hoover, not just as the director of the FBI, but as a Southerner, actively believed in segregation. Eleanor Roosevelt would have been under surveillance by the Bureau in part because she was involved with other people who were desegregationists and other people who had progressive politics. Although in many ways they lived parallel lives and very different lives, their lives intersected because of the surveillance that J. Edgar Hoover was doing on Roosevelt. Now, we might also want to turn to the students and ask them to think about what Roosevelt and Hoover had in common, and I think here you can start with some really basic things. Both Eleanor Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover were important 20th-century political figures. It’s hard to think of women as political figures in the early 20th century when they didn’t run for office, and mostly did secretarial work in the federal government.

But, in fact, Eleanor Roosevelt and her circle were some of the most important progressive reformers in the New Deal, and Roosevelt played a very important role in getting her friends, a number of whom were lesbians, into important jobs in the federal government to enact New Deal policies. Both Eleanor Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover have long been subject to rumors, rumors that historians now believe to be true that they each had emotionally and physically intimate relationships with members of the same sex. Now for a very long time, it was considered inappropriate for historians to think about these things, much less write about them. I think one of the things you might want to try with your students is to ask them to sit down and freewrite some reasons why it’s wrong to write about people’s private lives and then ask them to freewrite some reasons why it might be important to think about people’s private lives.

You can build on the things that the students have already said about this as you’re teaching them to connect this realm of the private and personal to the realm of the public and the political. Now another thing I think that would be important to point out to your students that Roosevelt and Hoover had in common, is that both of them, although, Hoover was a little bit younger than Eleanor Roosevelt, both Hoover and Roosevelt lived all or most of their lives during a period in American history in which a gay or a lesbian identity would certainly not have been unknown, but it would have been a subcultural identity, not a source of pride. What I mean by that is that gays and lesbians were often found in working-class subcultures, bars, restaurants, or they were found in the theater, or they were found in very rarefied, upper-class settings. Indeed, Eleanor Roosevelt’s friends were one of those rarefied, upper-class settings.

Roosevelt herself used her house, Val-Kill, as a gathering place for a large group of women who today we might call lesbians’ then they might have spoken of themselves as being in Boston marriages or they might have spoken themselves as friends. Some of them might have even spoken of themselves as simply being married, which was not unknown. But they would have kept these identities pretty private, they wouldn’t have marched down Fifth Avenue and talked about them publicly or written about them. Ask students to think about this: When does it become okay to write the history of something that a person has actually hidden, that a person did not want to become public? When does it become important to reveal those truths about somebody, and under what conditions can we revise a person’s history of themself?

John D'Emilio: You’re listening to Queer America, I’m your host, John D’Emilio. Teaching Tolerance has learned a lot about what LGBTQ students need to thrive. How even small policy adjustments and curriculum changes can make a big difference in the lives of queer and nonbinary students. We also know that LGBTQ-inclusive schools benefit all students. Our new LGBTQ Best Practices Guide can help educators and school leaders ensure that all students feel safe, seen and capable of success. By creating a curriculum as complete and representative as possible and cultivating a school climate that fosters open and respectful dialogue among all students and staff, you are preparing your students to engage and thrive within our diverse democracy. You can find it at tolerance.org/podcasts. Here is Claire Potter.

Claire Potter: Now we don’t want to overwhelm our students with an agenda, and it’s always in many ways much more useful if you encourage them to ask questions from what they know already. But there are two other things that I think I would ask them to think about in terms of the similarities between these two very different people. First of all, they were both very powerful. Eleanor Roosevelt was not just powerful because she was wealthy, but because she was the wife of the president of the United States, a man who had previously been the governor of the state of New York. She had a certain kind of social power and financial power. J. Edgar Hoover, who was born without much financial power became, by 1926, what he called the “top cop” in the United States. After 1926, he built a powerful bureaucracy and police force around him and became indispensable to numerous presidents.

These are two people who actually had the power to prevent public conversation about their intimate lives. The second thing I would ask students to remember as they’re plunging into this is that both Roosevelt and Hoover were far more constrained by gender norms than it is possible to imagine today. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt and her friends, when they went to Val-Kill to talk about politics and love and life, wore pants. Women mostly didn’t wear pants in the 1930s, it was actually considered almost impolite to wear pants, but it was also kind of sexy to wear pants too. You have certain kinds of popular figures in the 1930s that students might actually want to look for. In fact, I would encourage students at this point to go into Wikipedia and look up a bunch of popular figures from the 1930s and see whether they’re wearing pants or not. See if they come up with Amelia Earhart, see if they come up with Greta Garbo, see if they come up with Katharine Hepburn. These are all women who wore pants publicly, and it was considered a risqué thing to do, a gender-crossing thing to do.

It’s not inconsequential that these are all women about whom rumors of lesbianism circulated, and who themselves we have come to understand were at least bisexual, if not lesbian. J. Edgar Hoover was also very constrained by gender, but he embraced it so that professional men in the 1930s, and this really lasted until the 1960s, wore suits and ties. They wore very conservative suits, dark clothes, narrow ties, white shirts. In fact, to not dress like that might almost be to look gay. One of the things you should consider asking your students to do is get them to Google, “What does it mean to wear a red tie?” It was said in the 1930s, and after, that often gay men signaled to each other by wearing red ties in public. Think about it, it’s not such a big deal to wear a red tie nowadays. Take a look at the U.S. Senate, you’ll see all the Republicans are wearing red ties.

But in the 1930s if you wore a red tie, that meant you were gay and you were inviting another gay man to identify himself to you. For J. Edgar Hoover to be in the closet meant paying very, very careful attention to what he was wearing. Here’s something to ask your students to do: Ask them what clothes signify to them? Whether an article of clothing signifies that they’re cool, whether it signifies that they’re a nerd. Getting students to think about clothing as historical evidence, in the ways I’m talking about it being historical evidence for Eleanor Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover, can get them to then notice things in the past that they might not otherwise notice.

Let me go back to that picture of J. Edgar Hoover. The fact that they are being pictured without shirts on, it’s very unusual for Hoover—it’s very unusual for Hoover to allow himself to have a picture taken in such an informal mode. You have to ask, is this a picture that Hoover wanted to have taken because he wanted to own it? Because he wanted a picture of Clyde and himself together that was a little more intimate and a little less formal?

Since I’ve talked about all the similarities, what you might want to turn to as you’re continuing, are the ways in which Roosevelt and Hoover were different. We’ve talked about some of the ways that Roosevelt and Hoover were different, we’ve talked about class, we’ve talked about their politics, but they’re also remembered differently in history.

I remember when I was first going to gay pride parades in New York and the Lesbian Herstory Archives were always very early on in the parade, and they would carry pictures of women who they considered their lesbian foremothers. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of them, so Eleanor Roosevelt was embraced early on by lesbians as a kind of foremother, and her circle of women-loving friends has been explored by historians that you might want to introduce your students to. For example, Susan Ware or Blanche Wiesen Cook, both of which, by the way, are very, very accessible for high school students. Both women have written about this network around Eleanor Roosevelt that was crucial to enacting progressive policies under President Roosevelt. What’s kind of interesting about this is that Franklin Roosevelt encouraged his wife, Eleanor, to network for him in this group of women and bring their ideas back to him and sometimes bring them back to him so that he could appoint them to offices in the federal government.

In other words, because Eleanor Roosevelt was in politics, because she was a certain kind of person, we have lots of evidence about her. If you are teaching in New York state or somewhere nearby, you might enjoy taking your students to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library and asking the archivist there to pull some boxes of Eleanor Roosevelt’s letters. There’s really, in my view, nothing more exciting for students than to, instead of being told about certain kinds of evidence, to hold it in their hands themselves, to read it themselves and discover it for the first time themselves in the atmosphere of the archive. We have lots and lots of evidence about Eleanor Roosevelt’s interior life and her love for other women.

J. Edgar Hoover is really kind of a different story, and he has a different power from Roosevelt. He had the power to destroy information about himself, and he had the power to destroy other people who displeased him. J. Edgar Hoover’s rumored homosexuality has for many historians, and at least one filmmaker, caused them to speculate that his conservative political agenda and particularly his persecution of lesbian and gay civil servants and activists during the 1950s and ’60s was motivated, in fact, by his own self-hatred and homophobia. Now, this is a kind of historical logic that may or may not make sense to your students. Why would people hate themselves for being gay? All right, now this is something that hasn’t changed for some people, but this is something that’s changed in the larger culture. You may have to get your students to imagine a world in which being gay and hiding the fact that you’re gay is a life-or-death situation.

Certainly, J. Edgar Hoover may have felt it was a life-or-death situation for him; that he would lose his job, his prestige and all of his power if people found out he was a homosexual. It’s important to emphasize about Hoover that we have very little evidence about his interior life. Perhaps because he destroyed it, perhaps because he never generated it in the first place, perhaps because he persuaded people not to talk about him because he was such a powerful guy. 

Now let’s talk about some ideas that can help you plan a class discussion about this interesting pair. I would say a good starting place for talking to students about LGBT figures in our political past more generally is to point out that historians should identify and be aware of their own assumptions before beginning their research.

In other words, students need to think about what they don’t know and how their assumptions may be guiding what they consider to be good evidence and not good evidence. How their assumptions may be guiding what they’re looking for in the first place. Do your students assume that proper LGBT people are usually progressive or liberal? That would be an interesting question to ask them—and it’s not a trick question, but let’s think about it a little bit. Although gay civil rights are perceived by many as a generally progressive movement, it actually doesn’t follow that LGBT people cannot be committed conservatives. It’s important for students to know, first of all, that if they live in conservative families or conservative communities, that that’s not inconsistent with being gay. But it’s also important for them to know because when we’re studying a figure like J. Edgar Hoover, it’s not a contradiction that he was gay and actually a conservative and someone who spent an entire lifetime trying to repress progressive movements.

Now, one of the things I think you’re going to want to reemphasize to your students over and over again—and it’s something I think is important to not just say at the beginning of the semester, but to bring up in different ways throughout the semester—is that when you’re researching the life of a prominent person, you need to know that your own standards for what counts and doesn’t count as evidence and your own assumptions about identity make as much of a difference to the history you will write as what your subject did or did not choose to keep private. For example, it’s actually worth thinking about that Eleanor Roosevelt kept all those letters with Lorena Hickok. She wanted them to be part of history. On the other hand, my friend Estelle Freedman wrote a book about a woman named Miriam Van Waters who was also a lesbian, and Estelle writes about her as a lesbian.

And she also imagines a portion of the book where Miriam Van Waters is sitting at the fireplace and burning all of her love letters because it’s the McCarthy period. She knows if she’s found out as a lesbian, she’s going to lose her job and her capacity to do her work in the prison system is going to be ended, so she burns the letters. Think about this: When somebody leaves evidence for the historian to find, is that making a choice, right? Ask your students that. When you tell a story a certain way, you not only need evidence, but you need to be able to explain why you interpreted that evidence the way you did and to be able to back up that claim with other secondary and primary sources.

John D’Emilio: Another important lesson that can be drawn from the comparison of Roosevelt and Hoover is the way language to refer to sexual identity has changed over time. How do historians describe people we might today call “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “gay” or “queer” when those terms weren’t in use then? Or if they were, we don’t know what kind of identity individuals would have used to describe themselves. It’s important to be clear about these considerations with your students. Again, here’s Claire Potter.

Claire Potter: Words matter; they give insight into how people imagined or did not imagine themselves. “Homosexual,” “gay,” “lesbian” and “bisexual”—none of these words existed in the lifetimes of Hoover and Roosevelt as respectable terms to refer to people with. They usually conveyed stigma and even emotional illness. Beyond that, however, and I think this is a very important thing to reemphasize with your students: We have no evidence that either of these people embraced any of these words to describe themselves, or that they connected these words to the actual erotic connections that they felt to people they loved. But tell your students not to despair, this isn’t bad news. It means that the historian’s job is to describe a subject as complexly and completely as possible without resorting to the shorthand of modern identity groups.

Students may not be aware that the actual names that are attached to sexual identities have changed dramatically over centuries, but certainly even within the 20th century. Students should be asked whether and why Roosevelt and Hoover would have named their sexualities as we would today. What names they might have chosen in the 1930s or whether they would have assigned themselves a sexual identity at all? Students should also think about why people like Hoover and Roosevelt have or have not privileged sexuality as a point of similarity with others. In other words, a political figure might think of other kinds of attributes that are actually more important to them than their sexuality. Their race, for example. Our friend John D’Emilio writes about Bayard Rustin, who was both homosexual and in many ways, very proud of it, and also deeply committed to nonviolence and to the civil rights movement and to the peace movement.

So being gay or lesbian may actually not be the most important thing to a historical figure even though it might be important to us to write a true history of that person and count that part of their personality. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, probably thought about herself primarily as a wife and a mother. She probably didn’t think about herself as a lesbian, because the word “lesbian” connoted something that was perhaps a form of mental illness, certainly something that was working class. She might have thought of herself as a sapphist, although, we haven’t seen that in any of her letters but some women called themselves sapphists. Some lesbians in the 1930s married each other in private ceremonies surrounded by their friends, and they would call each other husband and wife. Molly Dewson and her partner referred to each other simply as “partner,” and when they spoke to other people, they would call each other “Partner and I.”

J. Edgar Hoover would have been familiar with a number of words to describe male homosexuality. A “jocker,” for example, was an older man who had sex with younger boys. A “fairy” was an effeminate man. J. Edgar Hoover might also have been aware of the many kinds of Greek and Roman love between men that was considered to be far more respectable and lodged in classical mythology. He might also have been aware of the biblical story of David and Jonathan, who loved each other, but Hoover would not have identified with terms like “fairy,” “jocker.” I’ve written about the fact that J. Edgar Hoover was rumored to have dressed in women’s clothes, but it does not necessarily follow that he believed himself to be transgender, gender fluid or gender nonbinary—as somebody might think about themselves today. These words simply did not exist.

Another good example of a word that comes into play and goes out of fashion is the word “transsexual.” Hoover would have been familiar with the word “transsexual.” In the 1950s, the first celebrity transsexual, Christine Jorgensen, bursts onto the scene and Hoover would have been very, very aware of such a person and he would have very much not wanted to be identified as a transsexual. He would have probably thought of himself only as a bachelor. Now, the word “bachelor” is also very important because actually by the 1930s, people are beginning to ask questions about whether bachelors are actually normal people at all. In 1930, Hoover, and his public relations agent, got himself named Bachelor of the Year.

However, by the 1940s, bachelors were not necessarily assumed to be homosexuals, but that was one possibility. Hoover might have stopped referring to himself in some circles as a bachelor by the 1940s or ’50s, and simply said, as his niece Margaret did, that he was married to the Bureau. 

Our job as historians is not to find ancestors who make us feel better or who reaffirm certain kinds of things that we want in history, but our job is to evoke a true story about the past. I always emphasize with my students that unless we’re using the proper language, we’re not telling a true story about the past, even if we’re using that language to try and make the story relatable to people today. 

Let’s see if we can get our students to talk a little bit about stigma. Depending on the reading level of your students, you might ask them to read Erving Goffman’s article about stigma and have a conversation about what that actually means. LGBT people have actually embraced stigma over time to form community with each other. Long past the rise of the LGBT liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s, it was considered shameful to be anything but heterosexual and cisgendered, a term we use now to describe someone whose sense of their gender corresponds to the gender they were assigned at birth. That sense of shame might have caused people to destroy evidence about a person’s life that we might normally look for, say, to evoke a marriage. But it might have actually caused them just to hide it away like Eleanor Roosevelt did. She kept it for another time; it’s almost as if Eleanor Roosevelt knew the world was changing and someday someone would want to read these letters. Anyway, that’s how I like to think about it.

Now, not only did many LGBT people destroy evidence about their sexuality— diaries and love letters are key sources that often go missing—but, unfortunately, well-meaning friends and relatives sometimes intending to preserve the person’s reputation, sometimes intending to preserve their own reputation, also often conceal what they knew or suspected about this person. This doesn’t change when a historian enters the room and may in fact intensify. See if your students are aware about modern controversies that have very much played out in public. For example, the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, something that the Jefferson family vigorously denied for many, many years and was ultimately proven by the historian Annette Gordon-Reed. Gay and lesbian people aren’t the only people that families try to conceal, and asking students whether they’re aware of contemporary events in which someone has tried to conceal an erotic connection, say Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, will get them to see lesbian and gay people as part of a dynamic in history, that it’s the historian’s job to grapple with and unravel.

I would also say that I like to talk about how people who know a historical figure best may deliberately or accidentally misrepresent them. That they may do so actually not quite understanding what they’re talking about. I’ve always found it fascinating that J. Edgar Hoover’s family always explained his lifelong bachelorhood as a sign of his devotion to his work. One of the things his niece Margaret always used to say, is that J. Edgar Hoover could never actually marry a woman and have children because the FBI was his family, and he was married to his work at the FBI. And that this left no time for children and family. I think this is really interesting because it actually does describe a very masculine devotion to work that even family men had in the 1950s and ’60s, and in fact, a lot of us have today, unfortunately.

Similarly, I would say it’s true that many women of Eleanor Roosevelt’s generation who made their lives with other women, in fact, many women that Eleanor knew, would say honestly about themselves that they were so devoted to their work that they could never marry and have children because it would take too much time away from it. Instead, they sought a partnership with another working woman who would support what they considered to be their mission in the world. It’s not always a lie, in other words, when people represent someone’s erotic life in a way that would seem like a euphemism today.

John D’Emilio: There is a big question that the intertwined stories of Eleanor Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover raises that can help students think, not just about history, but also about the world we live in today. That question is: Do the intimate lives of public figures matter? Following up on that: If intimate lives do matter, how? And how do we know anything about people’s private lives in the past, anyway? Here’s Claire Potter.

Claire Potter: Finally, we might want to consider the question of why the history of sexuality should intersect with a history of politics at all? This is a really interesting question because if you get students to look at most of the textbooks they’ve ever used, they won’t see an awful lot about sexuality in it. Maybe they’ll see a little bit about gender and race. So it’s been considered, actually, for decades that the history of politics was really a very different thing from the history of sexuality. But you should ask students whether that’s really so, and if it isn’t so, why do they think it’s not so? What does scrutinizing the private lives of public people teach us about very public people? What does it teach us about the practice of history and maybe even commitment to politics themselves? One of the things to think about with Eleanor Roosevelt is that as she and her friends move forward with a political program, it also had something to do with their intimacy with each other and their trust of each other and the lives that they shared together as women, and as women who were committed to other women.

That’s something that you might want to ask students to explore in relation to other kinds of movements as well. But your students might actually come back to you and they have in my classes and said, “Well, people’s sex lives aren’t important, why would we breach other people’s privacy?” Students may think about politics as something that happens between great men on big stages; they might even think it happens between great women on big stages nowadays. They might ask why do we care about someone’s sexuality when the work they did in politics was so much more influential and mattered to so many more people. Maybe we know too much about people’s private lives. But this is a really, really good question. This is a moment to pull them back into the past, to look at political figures whose private lives have been hidden and who have had their private lives uncovered.

By uncovering those private lives, we not only understand more about these people as human beings, but we understand a lot more about the politics that they did. Let’s return to how you would talk to your students about why a person’s private life might give us insight into their public actions. Let’s think with our students about how thinking about sexuality helps us dig more deeply into politics. Well, first of all, it teaches us excellent methods and techniques. Unconventional evidence, gossip, rumor and satire might tell us little about a subject’s private thoughts but it does speak to how they were viewed by others. One of the things you’ll see in newspaper clippings in J. Edgar Hoover’s scrapbook, he had a clipping service who would send these to him, is there were several political columnists in Washington in the 1920s and 1930s who used to write little news squibs about how J. Edgar Hoover and his friend were seen at an antique show, or that J. Edgar Hoover seemed to be stepping quite lightly.

I love the one about him stepping lightly because it refers to an old 1930s, 1940s phrase that people would say about gay men, which is that they were “light in their loafers.” Okay, so this political columnist writes this, and then the following week, the political columnist writes, “I saw J. Edgar Hoover stepping much more firmly last week on his way to the office.” Even homophobia has a use, okay? Even homophobia is evidence. Charges that men are unmanly and women are unfeminine have long been a way of discrediting the authority of public figures. Yet just because the speaker or the evidence is homophobic doesn’t mean that it isn’t leading you in the right direction. There’s a book that’s come out in 2018 called Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, that it shows all of these ways about how you can write a history of something about things that other people have said about them publicly.

This would be one good way for your students to investigate Eleanor Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover. What did other people say about them? What were the political cartoons about them, saying about them? Can students get hints of sexuality in those? Now Hoover’s deep ties to men don’t just tell us something about his erotic life; they tell us something about why the FBI’s public image reflected his belief that a range of men’s institutions—the military, fraternities and the Boy Scouts, for example, (my own dad was an Eagle Scout and he was recruited by the FBI because he was an Eagle Scout)—that all of these men’s institutions were seen as critical to good citizenship. Now, this is a point where you might want to introduce your students to the term “homosocial” as opposed to “homosexual,” okay? Hoover’s deep ties to men may have been homosexual, we think they were, but they were also homosocial.

In other words, those ties to men allowed him to do his work. As we’ve spoken about Eleanor’s ties to women allowed her to do progressive politics, and it allowed her to bring a certain kind of women’s reform politics into her husband’s New Deal at a time when very few women were actually getting appointed to political jobs and they certainly weren’t getting elected to Congress. It’s fairly well established now, and I think the somewhat 50,000 biographies and books about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt pretty much tell the same story: that they went their separate ways domestically after the 1920s, after Eleanor discovered that her husband, Franklin, was having an affair. The Roosevelts had a similar vision for what the United States should be, and they did it together. One might even suggest that the equality in their political relationship resulted from the friendship, patience, hard work, trust, passion and mutual respect that they cultivated in a relationship that was no longer erotic between them.

In other words, the Roosevelts’ political marriage was at the heart of the New Deal and the liberal ideas that shaped the United States for the next half-century. In understanding that, see if you can get your students to talk about how marriage works—because the Roosevelts’ marriage did work in part by inviting a number of other people into it. Now just to get back to J. Edgar Hoover, of course, he’s a more difficult person to think about, as we’ve discussed. An investigation into his sexuality leads historians down a number of important paths: the culture of masculinity that shaped the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the power politics of an FBI leadership that was populated by Hoover’s former and current intimate male friends, and the importance of normative sexuality in shaping the American state as it evolved between 1920 and 1972 when Hoover died in office.

Now, Hoover is perhaps most famous, and ask your students if they’ve heard about this, Hoover is most famous for the files he kept on other politician’s sex lives. Which tends to portray him as a voyeur who exerted his power over presidents, congressmen and other powerful men because he owned their secrets. Some have argued that Hoover’s attacks on other homosexuals, as I’ve said, and his desires to collect the sexual secrets of others, make him a hypocrite and a cruel and uncompromising person. But let’s hold it in our heads for a second and ask students to think about this: What if sexuality was a real struggle for Hoover? What if he really did believe that homosexuality was wrong? And that trying to take control of his own erotic impulses was part of an epic struggle within himself. What if this gives us insight into the political significance of homophobia, not just when it’s exerted against someone, but when it’s internalized, when it’s a real struggle within the person?

Now, it’s interesting to talk to students about this because we no longer live in a day and age when politicians’ private lives are kept from the public eye. You might ask your students whether they would prefer to know a little less about politicians’ sex lives, but it’s also true that the past gives us a way to think about the present. In other words, thinking about the significance of politicians’ erotic lives in the past might allow us to screen out some of the chaos of the present and make certain kinds of ethical and intellectual decisions about what the significance of this information is. It is now a part of our political landscape to sift revelations of private behaviors and misbehaviors for their significance. Get your students to summarize what thinking about sexuality as an integral aspect of political history might achieve for their own intellectual projects. What might it achieve for the larger project of citizenship today? How does it help us think about Bill Clinton, about Donald Trump? 

Both J. Edgar Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt point us to the importance of networks in politics. Networks are sometimes erotic and they are sometimes not, but very effective networks are also sometimes glued together through an erotic charge. Well, networks can represent a great many aspects of a person’s political resumé—their educational, their professional, their regional self. These networks also represent intimacies; even heterosexual political networks are sexual. Being willing to open the box of sexuality allows your students to think about politics as more than the work of one charismatic person working alone. For example, Franklin Roosevelt’s approach to governance was shaped by Eleanor Roosevelt’s ideas and priorities, and the ideas and priorities of her friends. While Eleanor’s views were shaped and informed by Lorena Hickok’s investigative reporting into poverty all around the United States.

But J. Edgar Hoover’s rebuilding of the FBI also depended not just on the loyalty and affection of an inner circle of men who were devoted to him and devoted to each other, but on his intimate partner, Clyde Tolson, who executed Hoover’s wishes and advised him every day. Who was always there whenever Hoover needed him—even at Hoover’s death. 

Sexual liberation after 1968 slowly helped gays and lesbians become public about their identities. This is the world your students inherited; it helped us think about a history of grassroots politics that is positive and progressive and based in people’s best impulses. But J. Edgar Hoover should remind us that there’s no necessary correlation with being sexually unconventional and being politically decent. My point here is that our students should never imagine that political history is what it seems to be on the surface, that sexual history is what it seems to be on the surface, or the politicians themselves can be easily understood from the stories they tell about themselves or the public image that their friends protect. This is the job of the historian.

When your students become historians, they will know that when we do our research right, we can weigh the possibilities, we can weigh the evidence, and our job is to tell the truest story we know how to tell.

John D’Emilio: Claire Bond Potter is a Professor of History at The New School for Social Research and an executive editor at Public Seminar. She is also the co-director of OutHistory.org. Queer America is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press. They’re the publisher of the award-winning anthology, Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History. In each episode, we’re featuring a different scholar to talk about material from a chapter in that collection. You can purchase the book through tolerance.org/podcasts. You’ll also find additional tools including resources we’ve mentioned, episode transcripts and an LGBTQ Best Practices Guide to help your school create an inclusive curriculum and an open and respectful climate for dialogue among students and staff.

Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, providing free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can also find those online at tolerance.org. Thanks to Dr. Potter for sharing her insights with us. This podcast was produced by Shea Shackelford with production assistance from Russell Gragg. Kate Shuster is our project manager. Music in this episode is by Chris Zabriskie. What do you think? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, review us in iTunes and please tell your friends and colleagues about this podcast. I’m Dr. John D’Emilio, Professor Emeritus of History and of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and your host for Queer America.


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