The publication of excerpts from the correspondence between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok will doubtless provoke another spasm of innuendo in a age that seems excessively preoccupied with the private lives of public figures. However, if Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King are not exempt, one must not be surprised if the contagion of gossip should now extend to Mrs. Roosevelt.

The question here, bluntly is whether Mrs. Roosevelt had a lesbian relationship with Lorena Hickok. Let me say that I do not know the answer to this question, nor do I care what the answer might be. The possibility that Mrs. Roosevelt may have had an affair with another woman neither enhances nor diminishes her public or personal achievement.

But, before everyone jumps to drastic conclusions, it may be well to put the evidence into historical perspective. Eleanor Roosevelt was a most remarkable woman. She was also an emotionally dependent woman whose entire life was characterized by a hunger for affection. This hunger was not caused by, though it was certainly intensified by, her husband's love for Lucy Mercer. Her acute emotional dependence sprang rather from the sad betrayals of her own chaotic childhood. She had an adoring but alcoholic and undependable father, a beautiful but cold and even cruel mother, a couple of warmhearted but wayward aunts. Her whole life thereafter was a search for an unattainable emotional security. Her husband was affectionate but impenetrable. Her children could not be expected to bear the weight of their mother's needs. She compulsively sought the assurance of love from people beyond her family, both male and female.

She grew up, moreover, in the last years of the 19th century. Female relationships in those years often expressed themselves in romantic declarations -- in great part because 19th-century upper-class men had created a world of their own from which women were methodically excluded.This phenomenon has attracted the attention of scholars, as in the essay by the historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in 19th Century America" (Signs, Autumn 1975).

"An abundance of manuscript evidence," Smith-Rosenberg writes, "suggests that 18th- and 19th-century women routinely formed emotional ties with other women. Such deeply felt, same-sex relationships were casually accepted in American society." The Smith-Rosenberg essay documents two friendships in particular, "intense, loving and openly avowed," and points out that by "every indication . . . these four women, their husbands and families -- all eminently respectable and socially conservative -- considered such love both socially acceptable and fully compatible with heterosexual marriage . . . Paradoxically to 20th-century minds, their love appears to have been both sensual and platonic."

The Roosevelt-Hickok correspondence, including its romantic flourishes and its physical references, fits into this well-established pattern. So does the evidence that Mrs. Roosevelt used to read passages from Hickok's letters aloud to her husband, who respected Hickok as an able newspaperwoman and was genuinely interested in her observations when she toured the country as a roving inspector for Harry Hopkins' relief administration. Doubtless he was also grateful for the reassurance and consolation she provided his wife.

Though the early intensity of the relationship diminished, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok remained friends to the end. Hickok lived out her last years in Hyde Park. A salty and hard-drinking old pro, she did not appear to have strong emotional attachments either to men or women. She apparently had no lesbian reputation. Perhaps the lesson is that it is important not to read 20th-centruy preoccupations back into 19th-century forms of personal relationships.