Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Robyn Muncy's "Relentless Reformer"

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.

Muncy applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Relentless Reformer, we enter the life of progressive activist Josephine Roche as she desperately seeks funding for one of her many efforts to diminish inequalities in American life: the Foreign Language Information Service (FLIS). It is the early 1920s and Roche has recently founded the FLIS to support immigrants’ efforts to participate fully in American society and politics. When we join the action on page 99, the Red Cross offers Roche stable funding for a part of her program but insists it can no longer underwrite the whole.

In consultation with her staff of 65 writers, translators, and caseworkers, Roche chooses to forgo the offer because she believes it will impose anti-democratic curtailments on her program. The cutbacks would especially eliminate mechanisms created by FLIS to allow immigrants to communicate their ideas, hopes, and dreams to English-only Americans. For Roche, page 99 concludes, “keeping the fullest possible program in operation was worth continual anxiety about funding.”

This tiny part of Roche’s life story captures her unrelenting dedication to the project of diminishing inequality in American life and thus a major theme of Relentless Reformer. Roche remained a progressive activist from 1908 (the year she graduated from Vassar College) into the 1970s. Along the way, she served as the second-highest ranking woman in the New Deal government, ran a coal-mining company in partnership with coal miners themselves, initiated the conversation Americans are still having about the federal role in health care, and pioneered managed care in medicine. She was a staunch pro-labor feminist, who battled inequality for over 60 years.

The goal of my biography of Roche is both to restore a forgotten but deeply important woman to our understanding of American history and to provide a new way of thinking about progressive reform, a strain within American political culture that emerged in the late nineteenth century to challenge the inordinate political and economic power of corporations. With Roche as my guide, I develop a unique vision of the meaning and trajectory of progressivism: I define it as an effort to diminish inequalities of wealth and power through social legislation and new civil society institutions (like the FLIS) and argue that it did not cease to dominate American politics until the 1970s. Page 99 goes a surprisingly long way toward capturing the spirit and themes of the book.

From page 99 (citations excised):
By March 1921, Roche was pleading with the Red Cross for increased funding. She needed more staff to respond to the deluge of requests [from immigrants] for information and advice, and she wanted to add several new languages to the FLIS repertoire, especially Greek, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese. Roche was also emphatic that her managers should be meeting in person with representatives of their language groups all over the country. Democracy required it. She insisted, “if the Bureau’s work is to continue to be based on the fundamental needs of, and in sympathetic cooperation with the foreign born,” the staff had to get out into communities. “A long absence by Managers from the field,” she argued, “inevitably undermines the Bureau’s work.” Roche wanted her agency to be an integral part of immigrant communities, not to become a separate bureaucratic entity claiming to speak on behalf of those whose real and changing concerns it could not possibly know....

Roche would not abide any diminution of her efforts. In spring 1921, the Red Cross, facing financial pressures of its own, recommended that the FLIS downsize to twenty staff members, cut the American Press Section, and end its casework with individual immigrants. Roche and her staff found these reductions unacceptable. Eliminating the American Press Section and casework would shut off much of the communication from immigrants to English-only Americans.... Rather than accept what she considered an anti-democratic curtailment of her work, Roche took the risk of unhitching her organization from the Red Cross. After a mad scramble, she won funding from various foundations.... Every grant was for only a fixed period. Still, for Roche, keeping the fullest possible program in operation was worth continual anxiety about funding.
Learn more about Relentless Reformer at the Princeton University Press website.

My Book, The Movie:  Relentless Reformer.

--Marshal Zeringue