Bell-Scott allows these women to speak for themselves, a light touch that works with two heavyweights. The format has its limitations: During most of the years of their friendship, Roosevelt’s life was marked by a series of international delegations that don’t quite make for riveting reading, and Murray did her most important intellectual and political work after Roosevelt’s death. But the fact that Mrs. Roosevelt is here more foil than subject hardly detracts from this distinguished work.
Bell-Scott’s work succeeds in connecting Murray and Roosevelt to larger historical processes while focusing on the details of their individual lives. But her method does have its costs. The Firebrand and the First Lady is at times a too-straightforward narrative of what these women did, what they wrote to each other, and the factual circumstances that surrounded their many letters and meetings.
Because the narrative is closely based on their letters, the periods before the correspondence began in the later 1930s and after Roosevelt’s death in 1963, are foreshortened. The focus, and rightly so, is on the dynamic events of the mid-20th century, well told, well researched and a poignant portrait of two women who were heroes of the civil rights movement and the struggle for women’s equal rights.
Amazement, annoyance, impatience, assistance, resistance, challenge, focus, concern and love flowed in the decades of correspondence between Murray and Roosevelt. There were so many times when these two women could have turned away from each other, severing a connection without acrimony, but with the simple assertion that things fall apart. Instead, through sheer determination, Murray and Roosevelt decided to be friends. Their lives were each the richer for it, and our lives are richer for the accounting of their friendship in this important book.
Patricia Bell-Scott, professor emerita at the University of Georgia, has done a yeomanlike job of bringing both of her subjects and their careers into sharp focus, especially where the strands of their lives intersect. A wonderful touch is the reprinting in full of many of the letters that the two women exchanged.
“[Written] with the grace, compassion and diligent attention to detail that characterized both its principle subjects ... 'The Firebrand' is someone whose inspiration is sorely needed – and not only by black women.”
“The Firebrand and the First Lady may make too much of the Murray-Roosevelt relationship. Eleanor had a wide network. Pauli Murray was simply one of many friends. Still, the author’s dual portrait brings our attention to Murray’s important American story.