When the history of women began to receive focused attention in the 1970s, Eleanor Roosevelt was one of a handful of female Americans who were well known to both historians and the general public. Despite the evidence that she had been important in social-reform circles before her husband was elected President and that she continued to advocate different causes than he did, she held a place in the public imagination largely because she was the wife of a particularly influential President. Her own activities were seen as preparing the way for her husband's election or as a complement to his programs. Even Joseph Lash's two volumes of sympathetic biography, Eleanor and Franklin (1971) and Eleanor: The Years Alone (1972), reflected this assumption.
Lash’s biography revealed a complicated woman who sought through political activity both to flee inner misery and to promote causes in which she passionately believed. However, she still appeared to be an idiosyncratic figure, somehow self-generated not amenable to any generalized explanation. She emerged from the biography as a mother to the entire nation, or as a busybody, but hardly as a social type, a figure comprehensible in terms of broader social developments.
But more recent work on the feminism of the post-suffrage years (following 1920) allows us to see Roosevelt in a different light and to bring her life into a more richly detailed context. Lois Scharf’s Eleanor Roosevelt, written in 1987, depicts a generation of privileged women, born in the late nineteenth century and maturing in the twentieth, who made the transition from old patterns of female association to new ones. Their views and their lives were full of contradictions. They maintained female social networks but began to integrate women into mainstream politics; they demanded equal treatment but also argued that women’s maternal responsibilities made them both wards and representatives of the public interest. Thanks to Scharf and others, Roosevelt’s activities—for example, her support both for labor laws protecting women and for appointments of women to high public office—have become intelligible in terms of this social context rather than as the idiosyncratic career of a famous man’s wife.