January 12: Robyn Muncy on “Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and the Persistence of Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America”

In November 1938, delegates from more than 40 national labor organizations convened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations. On the fourth day of the jubilant proceedings, a representative of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) rose to the podium and introduced “the greatest woman of our time” and the “most outstanding liberal.” The woman was Josephine Roche. The delegates, who had repeatedly proclaimed their militancy in the battle for industrial democracy, welcomed Roche to their convention with riotous applause even though Roche was at that moment president of the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, a major coal mining concern in Colorado. How did it come to pass that this visitor from the capitalist class, representing an industry notable for its anti-labor violence, enjoyed the devotion of militant unionists in 1938?

The answer is, in short, that Josephine Roche was a well-known pro-labor feminist who, as the second-highest-ranking woman in the New Deal government, generated the conversation that Americans are still having about the federal role in health care. In analyzing Roche’s astonishing life story, which included stints as a vice cop in the 1910s and director of the UMWA’s Welfare and Retirement Fund in the 1960s , Robyn Muncy demonstrates that political commitments born in the earliest twentieth century produced not only the New Deal, as other historians have argued, but also survived to ignite and shape the Great Society.

Robyn Muncy is Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. She received her Ph.D. from Northwestern University and is author or co-author of three books: Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890-1935 (Oxford Univ. Press, 1991); Engendering America: A Documentary History Since 1856 (co-authored with Sonya Michel; McGraw-Hill, 1999); andRelentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton Univ. Press, 2015).

The seminar meets at 4:00 p.m. at the Woodrow Wilson Center, 6th Floor Moynihan Board Room, Ronald Reagan Building, Federal Triangle Metro Stop.

The seminar is sponsored jointly by the National History Center of the American Historical Association and the Wilson Center. It meets weekly during the academic year. See www.nationalhistorycenter.org for the schedule, speakers, topics, and dates as well as webcasts and podcasts. The seminar thanks the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations for its support. Reservations requested because of limited seating.

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