Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America

Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America

by Robyn Muncy


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Josephine Roche (1886–1976) was a progressive activist, New Deal policymaker, and businesswoman. As a pro-labor and feminist member of Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, she shaped the founding legislation of the U.S. welfare state and generated the national conversation about health-care policy that Americans are still having today. In this gripping biography, Robyn Muncy offers Roche’s persistent progressivism as evidence for surprising continuities among the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society.

Muncy explains that Roche became the second-highest-ranking woman in the New Deal government after running a Colorado coal company in partnership with coal miners themselves. Once in office, Roche developed a national health plan that was stymied by World War II but enacted piecemeal during the postwar period, culminating in Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s. By then, Roche directed the United Mine Workers of America Welfare and Retirement Fund, an initiative aimed at bolstering the labor movement, advancing managed health care, and reorganizing medicine to facilitate national health insurance, one of Roche’s unrealized dreams.

In Relentless Reformer, Muncy uses Roche’s dramatic life story—from her stint as Denver’s first policewoman in 1912 to her fight against a murderous labor union official in 1972—as a unique vantage point from which to examine the challenges that women have faced in public life and to reassess the meaning and trajectory of progressive reform.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691173528
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/11/2016
Series: Politics and Society in Modern America , #108
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 440
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 5.80(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Robyn Muncy is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland. She is the author of Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935 and the coauthor of Engendering America: A Documentary History, 1865 to the Present.

Read an Excerpt

Relentless Reformer

Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America

By Robyn Muncy


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-5241-3



Explaining Josephine Roche's extraordinary life begins with her ambitious family, the cultural and political context of her Western childhood, and her formal education in the East.

Josephine Aspinwall Roche was born on December 2, 1886, in the small town of Neligh, Nebraska. Neligh perched on the 98th meridian, the longitudinal line that, according to one eminent historian, divided the civilization of the eastern United States from that of the West. In making the transition from the timbered, wet climate of the East to the treeless, semi-arid climate of the Plains, he argued, American institutions—from methods of farming to law and literature—changed. Rooted in the boundary between East and West, Neligh was the perfect birthplace for a woman who would be formed equally by those two distinct regions and who would over the course of her life constantly cross boundaries, not only between East and West but also between women and men, social scientists and union organizers, workers and employers. In retrospect, her birth on a boundary seemed to mark Josephine Roche for life.

So did the high hopes of her parents, John J. Roche and Ella Aspinwall Roche, who migrated to Neligh after early careers in education. Originally from Maine, the willowy Ella C. Aspinwall graduated from Wisconsin State Normal School in 1873 and, demonstrating considerable independence and ambition, returned five years later to serve on the faculty. John Roche also attended the Normal School and taught while studying for the bar, which he passed in 1877. The next year, he was elected District Attorney in Wisconsin's LaFayette County. Even that elective position, however, did not fulfill John Roche's highest aspirations. In 1880, he set his sights on real estate in Neligh, a mill town in Nebraska's Antelope County.

John Roche's timing was exquisite. He arrived in Neligh the very year the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad dramatically transformed the hamlet's economic prospects by connecting it to eastern markets. Property values soared, encouraging him to found the First National Bank of Neligh, an institution that, through loans for land, facilitated other men's purchase of property at skyrocketing prices. When the town incorporated in 1881, Roche was elected one of its trustees. The next year, he married his Wisconsin sweetheart and represented Antelope County in the state legislature for the first of two terms. A decade after Roche opened the bank, Neligh hosted a U.S. land office, milled flour and lumber, and exported agricultural surpluses. The Roches' future looked bright.

Josephine's singular position in this striving family gave her unique opportunities. In 1884, John and Ella Roche celebrated the birth of a son, Joseph Aspinwall Roche, who died only four months later. In 1886, the couple transferred the name of their deceased son to their newborn daughter, Josephine Aspinwall Roche (figure 1). With the name, they seem to have transferred all their ambitions for a son to their daughter as well. When Josephine was born, one local newspaper warned readers not to expect to find her father behind the counter at the bank but instead to search him out at home, where "you will probably find him looking contentedly at the girl baby which arrived at his home yesterday." Family friends later spoke of the "intelligent devotion" that the couple lavished on their daughter, and her mother eventually wrote to Josephine of "your mother's ambition for you," an ambition she believed that Josephine knew "full well—only too well." Josephine's life would surely have been different had Joseph survived to claim the attention and resources of a first-born male child. As it was, Josephine drew every hope and asset that John and Ella Roche had to invest in their heirs.

Some aspects of her inheritance Josephine would ultimately reject, however—chief among them, her father's political views. John Roche was a pro-business Republican who believed in the unlimited prerogatives of property. He opposed organized labor, saw government exclusively as the protector of property rights, and devoted his life to the exploitation of natural and human resources his daughter would strive to conserve. Josephine's opposing political views explicitly formed after she left home, but the cultural and political context of her early childhood also encouraged rebellion.

The cultural context was captured in stories spun by the men and women who first settled Antelope County and identified themselves as the area's pioneer generation. These early settlers painted themselves as a heroic group apart from that of Josephine's father, who came to Nebraska only after the railroad eased life so much that even the climate reportedly improved. During Josephine's early childhood, Antelope County's pioneers began publishing tales of their valiant efforts to coax crops from the area's unfriendly soil and their victory over grasshoppers and prairie fires that plagued the county in the 1870s. They bragged about outlasting "Doc" Middleton, a notorious cattle thief, who was in 1879 finally brought down by U.S. marshals and a cavalry unit. Such stories, vividly contrasting the adventurous heroism of Neligh's pioneers to the tamer triumphs of approving mortgages, resonated powerfully in Josephine Roche's later life. By encouraging sympathy for the literally groundbreaking group that preceded her banker-father to the Plains, they produced a critical distance from her father himself. Moreover, as an adult, Josephine voiced the spirit of pioneer struggle when she enthused, "I've had a wonderful life myself because I've always been in the middle of a fight." In her own tales, corrupt political machines and greedy corporate magnates stood in for the likes of Doc Middleton, but Josephine Roche often understood herself to be taking down bad guys. Stories told by the founders of Antelope County during her childhood echoed in Josephine's persistent delight in battle, penchant for drama, and disdain for the profit-seeking life of her father.

Politics in Nebraska fed that disdain. As Josephine grew from toddler to child, a dissident political movement in the state cast bankers and railroad executives among the archest of villains. Conditions in Roche's own Antelope County explained why. In the 1870s, when migrants from the Midwest were first beginning to break the soil in Antelope County, the Burlington and Missouri Railroad owned over 90,000 acres of the county's best agricultural land. Much of that tract was a grant from the U.S. government intended to encourage railroad service to the state. Pioneer farmers grumbled that this federal giveaway to a giant corporation might have provided several hundred struggling farm families with 160 acres each under the Homestead Act. It hardly seemed fair that their own government lavished such benefits on wealthy corporations while hardworking families risked body and soul trying to cultivate wild, dry ground. Making matters worse, the Burlington and Missouri never provided rail service to the county, and it refused to pay taxes on the prime land. When the railroad was finally forced to put the land up for sale, it did so at prices that forced buyers into debt—even though the railroad had itself paid nothing for the land. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, disastrous weather made mortgage payments impossible for many who bought the railroad's high-priced parcels. At that point, foreclosing bankers looked as villainous as the railroads, profiting as they did from the labor of those who improved the land and were then left with nothing to show for it.

This same situation pertained through much of the Great Plains and helped to produce the populist movement of the 1890s. Whether that movement directly shaped the young Josephine Roche or affected her thinking later through the staying power of its issues and ideals, the democratic insurgency of the 1890s lived on in her activism. Josephine was about to turn four when farmers and wage-earners in Nebraska formed the People's Independent Party as a protest against the inordinate power that big businesses seemed to wield in the state's political and economic life. Demanding regulation of railroads and the elimination of other monopolistic corporations, the insurgent party shocked the state's Republican political establishment in 1890 by winning the majority of seats in Nebraska's state legislature as well as two of the state's three congressional seats. In 1892, an alliance of small business owners, dissident farmers, and industrial workers formed a national third party and convened their presidential nominating convention in Nebraska's own Omaha. Josephine was five years old. Reducing the economic inequality created by the emergence of vast corporations and ending corporate control of government were the goals of the new Populist Party. In imagining how to wrest government from bankers and railroad executives and achieve some semblance of economic equality among Americans, the Populists devised a political agenda that undergirded reform movements for decades to come. They also transformed Josephine Roche's home state just as she reached an age with potential for political consciousness. Populists and their Democratic Party allies took over Nebraska's state legislature in 1896, as Josephine turned ten, and passed the first initiative and referendum laws in the country while also regulating the state's stockyards and telephone companies. Politically, Josephine Roche proved more a child of Nebraska's Populists than of her biological father.

Although little direct evidence of Josephine's childhood remains, several of its elements are clear. For one thing, her childhood accustomed her to movement. In 1894, not long after Josephine started school, her family left Neligh. The motive is unclear, but a faltering economy probably convinced John Roche that continuing opportunity lay elsewhere. The family bounced around for a while, living briefly in Sioux City, Iowa, and then in Sault Ste. Marie, a town on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. At some point in the 1890s, the peripatetic family returned to Nebraska, where John Roche again took up work in the financial industry, this time in the bustling city of Omaha.

There, the Roches' ambitions for their daughter took discernible form. Although they had limited power over the laws and expectations that excluded most American women from the ballot box and political office, Josephine Roche's parents did not enforce Victorian expectations of feminine passivity. Family friends described Josephine as a tomboy who preferred bloomers to dressy clothes. She loved to ride horses and to climb; she enjoyed family vacations in Estes Park, Colorado, which the family reached by harrowing stagecoach rides. Even as a teenager, she slid down haystacks with cousins back in Wisconsin. In addition, John and Ella Roche aimed to give their daughter the finest education they could manage.

Indeed, Josephine received the best education the Plains had to offer. In 1901, she enrolled at Brownell Hall, a prestigious Episcopal girls' school in Omaha. The fussy parlors of the school suggested stifling Victorian domesticity, but when Josephine matriculated, the new head of school, Euphan Macrae, was applying for accreditation by all the women's colleges in the country as well as the University of Chicago and the University of Nebraska. Representing the first generation of college-educated women, Macrae hired her teaching staff from the nation's finest schools and devoted Brownell Hall to the cause of higher education for women. Roche's course of study included Greek and Latin, English and French, algebra and both American and English history. By the time of Josephine's graduation in 1904 (figure 2), Macrae had won the accreditations she sought. As a result, the bloomer-loving banker's daughter was a member of the first Brownell class to symbolize its scholarly accomplishments by wearing caps and gowns at graduation.

Josephine Roche used her Brownell certificate to attend Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, an institution opened in 1865 and intended by its founder to be for its all-female student body "what Yale and Harvard are to young men." Vassar was located in the Hudson River Valley about 80 miles north of New York City and was part of a very successful late nineteenth-century push for women's higher education. By the time Josephine Roche registered in 1904, nearly 40 percent of all undergraduates in the United States were women. Still, since higher education remained a province of the privileged—fewer than 5 percent of college-aged Americans actually attended in 1900—the second generation of college women did not take their education for granted. They knew they were lucky.

Vassar College powerfully influenced the eager, chubby-cheeked Nebraskan who traveled 1,000 miles by train to enroll. With her long, dark hair arranged in a Gibson-girl pompadour, Roche fit in perfectly with Vassar's student body. Like Brownell Hall, Vassar attracted girls who were overwhelmingly Protestant, white, and middle class. The school also promoted frenetic activity that required dressing for dinner each evening, mandatory chapels, occasional high teas, and seasonal trips up the Hudson River. A frenzied pace suited Roche, who was described in her senior yearbook as "Cheerful and happy in the prospect of having more to do that day than she could possibly accomplish." Vassar's emphasis on sports rewarded Roche's tomboy tendencies, and in a western teen exposed to the populist revolt, Vassar's insistence on democratic social relations gained easy traction. Although Vassar's students were generally middle class, their financial resources ranged broadly, and the college insisted that all students receive equal treatment regardless of wealth. The administration demonstrated its dedication to equality even in such matters as assigning girls to dormitories: rooms varied in size and amenities, but Vassar charged the same rate for every room so that students were not segregated by wealth. The practice distinguished Roche's alma mater from many other women's colleges. Indeed, so central was equal treatment to the school's identity that some students condemned the formation of cliques or any special circle of friends as "undemocratic" and therefore contrary to the school's values.

Roche's courses at Vassar both shaped her and revealed much about who she already was. One of her intellectual passions was ancient European languages. The totally absorbing process of translation apparently enthralled Roche, who took four years of Greek and four years of Latin in addition to Latin composition. Love of ancient languages suggested Roche's joy in sustained concentration and attention to detail. It also unexpectedly nourished the embryonic feminism latent in Roche's tomboy tendencies and desire for higher education. Legendary chair of the Classics Department Abby Leach encouraged her students to lead an independent and active public life. During the years when Roche was among her students, Leach bemoaned the constraints confining too many women's lives. "We have not freed ourselves," she lamented, "from the conventional view that a woman exists merely to please, to minister to the wants of the family, to live softly and idly if the family exchequer allows it." Leach worried that only a narrow range of motives was generally permitted to women, which she summed up lyrically as "all for love and nothing for logic." These motives were insufficient, Leach thought, to a present day that called "for clear vision, bravery in facing facts, and unerring judgment." She might have said, "What this era needs is guts," so closely did Leach's spirit resound in Roche's future statements. As sponsor of Vassar's Hellenic Society, which Roche joined every year, Leach had opportunities outside the classroom as well as in it to model for Roche a fully realized, independent womanhood and to nurture Roche toward her own independent life.


Excerpted from Relentless Reformer by Robyn Muncy. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents




1 Childhood in the West, Education in the East, 1886-1908 13

2 Aspiring Feminist and Social Science Progressive, 1908-1912 26

3 Emergence as a Public Leader, 1912-1913 42

4 Seeking Fundamentals: The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913-1914 64

5 "Part of It All One Must Become": Progressive in Wartime, 1915-1918 79


6 Work and Love in a Progressive Ebb Tide, 1919-1927 97

7 Migrating to a "Totally New Planet": Roche Takes Over Rocky Mountain Fuel, 1927-1928 110

8 "Prophet of a New and Wiser Social Order," 1929-1932 126


9 Working with the New Deal from Colorado, 1933-1934 143

10 At the Center of Power: Roche in the New Deal Government, 1934-1939 162

11 Generating a National Debate about Federal Health Policy, 1935-1939 177

12 Unmoored during Wartime, 1939-1945 193

13 Becoming a Cold War Liberal, 1945-1948 211


14 Creating "New Values, New Realities" in the Coalfields, 1948-1956 227

15 Democratic Denials and Dissent at the Miners' Welfare Fund, 1957-1963 247


16 Challenged and Redeemed by the New Progressivism, 1960-1972 265

17 Only Ten Minutes Left? Epilogue and Assessment 289





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"Relentless Reformer brings to life one of this country's truly great twentieth-century feminists. A visionary who knew how to get things done, Josephine Roche worked with presidents, governors, and union leaders to achieve her ideal of industrial democracy. Robyn Muncy's masterful and page-turning biography should be required reading for all feminists and progressive reformers working today."—Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League

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