Relentless Reformer


Relentless Reformer is part of the series Politics and Society in Twentieth-century America.

Robyn Muncy is associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland. She has written in depth on history and gender divisions in America.

Josephine Roche (1886- 1976) was a progressive, a reformer and a business woman; so this is a biography of Josephine Roche, well yes and more. So it’s a commentary on the Progressive Party, well yes and more. So it’s an account of business in twentieth —century America, well yes and more. It is all of those things and more. What Muncy has written is a splendid commentary on the United States of America for the first three quarters of the Twentieth century including, not least, an examination of the gender thinking and divisions that were present.

Josephine Roche was born on 2nd December 1886 in Neligh, Nebraska, just on the line that divides east from west in the USA. Whether this was predestined or not it was certainly most apt for someone who, as Muncy notes, was forever crossing boundaries throughout her long life. (p13) Roche’s mother was an academic who returned to teaching, her father also taught while studying for the bar. Thus Roche’s childhood was hardly working class. Her father had the happy knock of appearing somewhere just as the boom hit whether this in the form of railroads or otherwise, he even founded a bank. Roche thanks to her parents had a fine education first at Brownell Hall, Omaha where Euphon MaCrae pushed for college accreditation and thus later at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York. Of interest is the fact that Vassar ran a College Settlement Association (CSA) which was modelled on the first such experiment, in the east end of London in 1884, by university students. The inequality that Roche experienced, with the CSA work, no doubt shaped her whole life. Roche pursued graduate study at Colombia University during which time she worked (1908-09) as a volunteer at the juvenile court in Denver, Colorado. During this time she also became aware of the extent of corporate power used rarely for good but often for evil.

It was during her time at Colombia that Roche absorbed some of the latest thinking to be found there perhaps with at least a nod towards Marx. It was based in the theory that economic structures affected all aspects of human endeavour; economic conditions were the prime mover of historical actions. The effect of economic conditions on women, especially working women, was of particular interest to Roche. Among Roche’s investigations was the cause of prostitution. It was a popular misconception among employers that all working women had someone at home who ‘kept’ them, looking after their food, shelter etc. This led to gender discrimination by the employers and indeed by the state. Muncy notes that in 1910 some 35 per cent of working women lived on their own.

In 1912 Roche returned to Denver in the process becoming the city’s first women police officer, a deputy sheriff. With increasing Progressive zeal Roche persuaded Police Commissioner George Creel to instigate a campaign against prostitution in Denver, similar to a new law enacted in New York, in the process illegally seizing powers that emulated Britain’s Contagious Diseases Act of 1864. Muncy does not acknowledge the British experiment, an act that was flawed in the same way as its copycats. What Muncy does do, to her credit, is to criticise Roche’s gross thinking and rash actions. Roche could be said to be the typical young university graduate making rash assumption safe in the knowledge that they knew all the answers. Roche was also rash or at least naïve to equate ‘religious’ with ‘unintelligent’ in her speeches. (p55). Roche, while uncovering corruption in Denver, also fell foul of the moneyed political establishment; she and Creel paid the penalty. Roche committed herself fully to the Progressive Party, got involved in the Ludlow encampment and its subsequent ‘Battle’. The latter was to split the Progressives. The Foreign Language Information Service (FLIS), the Red Cross and a brief marriage not withstanding the next big shift in Roche’s life was being orphaned and unemployed in 1927. Her father had left a sizeable amount of stock in Rocky Mountain Fuel (RMF) a mining company, ignoring advice to sell Roche instead bought up enough stock to become the majority shareholder and president. She completely reorganised the company along Progressive lines, not quite a co-operative but certainly the next best thing. Roche invited the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) into her company to represent the workers. The invitation would at a later date bring her into contact with the union’s autocratic president John L Lewis. RMF had been as bad as any other company during the anti-union battles. However, during the reorganisation in 1927 -28 Roche promoted the notion of contract and contact between management and miners. She envisaged a Department for Medicine, Health and Sanitation to be run and funded jointly by miners and owners.

As ever for Josephine Roche life would never run smooth, RMF was to face two big obstacles. One the other mine owners who by fair means or often foul means were determined to ruin Roche and her progressive RMF. Two the Wall Street Crash that started on October 28th 1929 and the subsequent ten year long great depression. To counter the first problem Roche was helped by RMF miners ‘lending’ part of their wages back to the company, thus RMF always notionally paid above the going rate, and also ‘secret’ loans by UMW. The means to counter the second problem was almost but not quite entirely out of Roche’s hands.

Roche was ever the progressive politician. During the time of the New Deal she attempted, unsuccessfully, to become the Governor of the state of Colorado. However, political office was not to be denied her. On 4th March 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as the thirty second President of the USA. FDR wasted no time in getting to work with his New Deal which was good old fashioned Progressivism. In 1934 Roche was invited to Washington to become an assistant secretary to the Treasurer overseeing the US Public Health Service (PHS) and the welfare of the Treasury’s 56,000 employees. Roche was to be in everything bar name the US Minister of Health. If this was not enough Roche would be celebrated for something else she was a woman. This was 1934 not 2015. While class inequality was the main focus for Roche she never lost sight of gender inequality or indeed racial inequality. Her appointment gave Roche something for which always yearn ‘Power’. Muncy describes Roche being sworn in. ‘Wearing a familiar black dress belted at the waist and featuring a wide white strip of cloth across the bodice …’ (p163). Why describe her dress? Would Muncy have described a man’s apparel? The anti-sexism Muncy seems to have fallen into a trap of her own making. It is interesting to note that at this time Roche appointed an exclusive female staff in her department. Inequality comes in many guises. Roche’s time at the PHS would start a debate over the government’s responsibility for the nation’s health. A debate that would endure into the twenty-first century. Among Roche’s fiercest critics were the nation’s medical practitioners; shades of Aneurin Bevan and Britain’s NHS.

All the while Roche was in Washington she was running RMF even if this was with on site managers. It was something of an ‘Albatross’. RMF was constantly in debt and struggling to make payments. Roche had been badly served by on site directors. Again she turned to the UMW and its president John L Lewis for illicit loans secured against RMF stock. Lewis would loan $100,000 provided Coal Mine Management (CMM) was hired to run RMF. Roche also used her connections in Washington to secure handouts from the Government. Roosevelt was seeking a third term and was in need of Roche’s support, this gives some idea of Roche’s standing in the nation, blackmail may be too strong a term for the tactics used to obtain a loan for RMF but it was not far short. RMF finally filed for bankruptcy in February 1944.

As ever Roche carried on pursuing her liberal policies of course this brought her in to conflict with the McCarthy thought police.

In April 1948 Roche became director of the United Mine Workers of America Welfare and Retirement Fund (The Fund). The Fund was based in Washington so Roche could keep in contact with her governmental friends. The president of UMW was still John L Lewis. Just who was the ‘big cheese’ out of Lewis and Roche is open to question but Roche was certainly not Lewis’s rubber stamp. The Fund was to be Roche’s dream ‘…to deliver state-of-the-art health care and income assistance to the hundreds of thousands of bituminous coal miners and their families who were concentrated in Appalachia and fanned out over twenty-six states stretching from Georgia to Alaska’ (p228) It was not to be an insurance scheme but a service. Thanks to favourable court decisions it was all paid for from coal royalties. Of course it was not all plain sailing. Sometimes it was necessary to reduce benefit payments and here Roche came across what was for her a new phenomenon. What were once considered add on benefits e.g. first class health care, generous pensions, had come to be considered by the miners as ‘rights’; it ever was so. The work that Josephine Roche and The Fund did in Appalachia was to the natives out of this world, they had experienced nothing like before’ (perhaps the 1972 film Deliverance was not quite fiction after all ). Much of what Roche had achieved with The Fund would find its way into the policies of Kennedy and Johnson; Progressivism was alive and well in the 1960s.

John L Lewis retired from The Fund in 1960 but the good work continued. Following adverse court judgements relating to conflict of interests between The Fund and UMW, Roche was ordered by Judge Gesell to step down from The Fund directorship, in June 1970. Roche did not disappear from public life and would spend time campaigning for Progressivism and Democracy.

Roche’s legacy lives on as does her name. RMF was reformed and when oil and gas was discovered under its land blossomed. Part of RMF’s land in Lafayette, Colorado has been set aside as a wild area and is called The Josephine Roche Open Space.

Robyn Muncy has written a well researched, informative and entertaining history. For it is a history. Using the life of a remarkable woman, Josephine Roche, as a conduit Muncy has documented the social, political, industrial, medical and gender history of the United States of America in the twentieth century. In doing so she has brought to life the trials, tribulations and successes of her heroine. A woman who at times can be seen to be infuriatingly narrow minded, believing hers is the only way, a trait which at times was valuable in her battle against corruption especially by the corporations she crossed. Muncy points out that Roche never let ideology get in the way of her pragmatism, as the saying goes she would sup with the devil to achieve her aims.

Relentless Reformer is a very necessary addition to the reading list of any student of the history of the United States of America. For those of a non-academic nature it is a jolly good read. It takes a worthy place in the comprehensive series Politics and Society in Twentieth-century America

Don Vincent
Copyright © Open University History Society, 2015