Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons by Charlotte Gray

The Lives of Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt

The old adage “Behind every powerful man is a powerful woman” often brings to mind the image of a wife. In her latest book, Charlotte Gray reminds us of another, often more significant figure in our lives: our mothers.

Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons delves into the lives of two remarkable women: Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt, who defied the conventions of their time and played pivotal roles in shaping the careers of their sons, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“Charlotte Gray’s dual biography of Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt is a masterful exploration of the often-overlooked women who stood behind two of the most significant leaders of the 20th century.”

Both Churchill and Roosevelt have received immense critical and literary attention over the years. But as Gray notes of Jennie and Sara, “their son’s biographers often disparage them – it is as though the Great Men of History must spring, like Athena, fully-formed from the head of Zeus, without tiresome interventions from their mothers.” This book attempts to reclaim them from the hands of mostly male biographers who have historically diminished and erased their contributions, reestablishing them in their rightful place in history. As the book demonstrates, Jennie and Sara moulded the characters and careers of their famous sons and were instrumental in their success. Their influence extended beyond mere introductions and social connections; they actively managed their sons’ careers, from helping them write and practice speeches to pulling strings with powerful friends, and, perhaps most importantly, providing crucial financial support. 

These women shared little in common beyond the fact that they were the mothers of two influential men. But Gray’s choice to examine them together works well, adding depth to their individuality and highlighting the broader role women played during this era. While biographies often focus on a single exceptional figure, by comparing how Jennie and Sara navigated life’s challenges and opportunities, often very differently, Gray sheds light on the myriad ways women exerted influence within the confines of their societal roles. Even women who quietly assumed roles as daughters, wives, and mothers found ways to wield personal and social influence and effect change. Through a feminist and modern lens, Gray dismantles traditional narratives, challenging harmful stereotypes that have persisted since their deaths, and provides us with another way to interpret their influence.

Perhaps the book’s most notable strength is its unflinching examination of the underbelly of success. Gray does not shy away from the darker aspects of history that underpinned the rise of these prominent families. She contextualizes their family histories within the broader historical context, highlighting the inequities and injustices that allowed the Jeromes and Delanos to prosper at the expense of others, particularly racialized and impoverished communities.

Gray’s writing is sharp, focused, and engaging. She seamlessly weaves together the details of Jennie and Sara’s lives, effortlessly transitioning between them in a chronological narrative. Her use of direct quotations from letters, diaries, and other sources brings a vivid and personal dimension to the lives of these historical figures, which reminded me of another recent book that prominently features Winston Churchill: Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and the Vile.”

Charlotte Gray’s dual biography of Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt is a masterful exploration of the often-overlooked women who stood behind two of the most significant leaders of the 20th century. It is a compelling narrative that not only celebrates their agency and influence but also confronts the uncomfortable truths of privilege and inequality that underscored their success. Gray’s skillful storytelling and meticulous research make this book a must-read for anyone interested in 20th century politics and history—especially those who have read the biographies of Churchill or Roosevelt. 

Charlotte Gray is one of Canada’s best-known writers and the author of twelve acclaimed books of literary nonfiction, including The Promise of Canada.  An adjunct research professor in the Department of History at Carleton University, Charlotte has received numerous awards, including the Pierre Berton Award for distinguished achievement in popularizing Canadian history. She is a Member of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Visit her at

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Simon & Schuster (Sept. 12 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 432 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1982141964
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1982141967

Renée Belliveau is a writer and archivist from the Siknikt district of Mi’kma’ki (Sackville, NB). She is the author of The Sound of Fire, a novel based on the true story of the devastating 1941 fire at Mount Allison University, and a memoir about her father’s battle with cancer entitled Les étoiles à l’aube. She is a graduate of Mount Allison University, the University of Waterloo, and the University of Toronto. When not writing about the treasures she finds in archives, Renée can be found knitting, foraging, or perusing new titles at her local library.