I was so touched when I heard you’d told Lucinda Franks in an interview that you found it a “mystical experience” to visit out-of-the-way places around the country and find guest books that I had signed. You even quoted to her my remark that women in public life have to have “skin as tough as rhinoceros hide” [see Talk magazine, September]. I didn’t go in much for mystical experiences, but it’s certainly true that you resemble me more than any of the First Ladies who came between our husbands’ presidencies. Like me, you’re energetic and independent and you step beyond the traditional boundaries of a woman’s role. Like mine, your relationship with your husband is a partnership, and political talk is at its center. And like me, you attract vicious caricature and real hatred. Oh, it was something, dear, the way people made fun of my looks and my accent–but you know all about that. Some men just can’t abide a strong woman; it makes them crazy. And it’s got nothing to do with politics–men on the left can be the worst. If you read The Nation, you know what I mean. But I guess there’s no accounting for people’s psychosexual makeup, is there dear?
Since you’re channeling me anyway, Hillary darling, I thought I would save you some trouble and write you a letter. There are some experiences I’d like to share with you that will point out the differences between us as well as our similarities. Most of what I have to say can be found in the second volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of me, which was recently published. (In form it’s a conventional academic biography, based on thorough archival work and a range of interviews. But, as she did in the first volume, Professor Cook focuses not on “Eleanor and Franklin”–the title of Joe Lash’s classic biography–but on me. It’s a feminist account, with particular attention paid to my women friends and our political project. Cook’s strength is her ability to show the relationship between my life and my work. This came off somewhat more successfully in the first volume, which told how I shed the expectations of me as a daughter, daughter-in-law and wife and became my own person. By the time of Franklin’s first and second administrations–the period covered in the second volume–the coming-of-age story was finished, and I was who I was. Besides, with the Depression and the looming European war, the world was on fire. So there’s more small-p politics and less big-L life.)
Both of us, Hillary, are perceived as being well to the left of our husbands. It’s easier to test the perception in my case because I had my own political life in organizations like the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee, the National Consumers League and the Women’s Trade Union League in the years before Franklin became President. Your independent political life was limited to the years of your youth–that law school summer when you worked for Bob Treuhaft, Jessica Mitford’s husband; your connection with Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund; your work on the House Judiciary Committee’s Watergate inquiry. After you moved to Arkansas and married Bill, your politics tended to get folded into his. When he was governor you worked on projects for his administrations in areas like education reform, although even that reform was less than it seemed to be, wasn’t it, dear?