Princeton University Press sits down with Robyn Muncy, author of Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America, to talk about how the book was created.
Why did you write Relentless Reformer?
RM: I wrote the biography of Josephine Roche because from the moment I first encountered her, she knocked my historical socks off. She was at every turn doing things that flew in the face of historians’ expectations. She was a vice cop in the 1910s, a pro-labor coal mine owner in the 1920s, a gubernatorial candidate in the early 1930s, and Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury in the New Deal government. As the second-highest ranking woman in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, she started the conversation that Americans are still having about the federal role in health care. This was a woman to be reckoned with—and yet historians knew virtually nothing of her. Having “discovered” her, I had to tell her story.
As it turned out, Roche’s life also illuminated many of the grand themes of twentieth-century U.S. history. She helps us understand how women could have taken great strides toward equality with men and yet remained unequal. She helps us understand how, during the post-World War II era, Americans achieved the greatest level of economic equality in all of U.S. history. She helps us understand the values, perspectives, hopes, and dreams that connected the early twentieth century with the 1960s. Not bad for a single life.
Describe your writing process.
RM: My writing process is chaotic and inefficient, jubilant and suspenseful. The reason is that I figure out what I think about an issue or event through the writing process itself. I envy writers who can order their thoughts and complete their analyses before putting a metaphorical pen to paper. I, unfortunately, have to propel that pen over page after page to come up with my analysis in the first place. Although messier than I’d prefer, my process is also wondrous because it produces revelations every day. As I write, connections among events and trends come into view; reasons for behavior emerge; and big ruptures take me by surprise. As I wrote about Roche’s experiences in the 1940s, for instance, I wondered what I would think by the end: would she be the same sort of progressive in 1950 as in 1940, or would the war and subsequent anti-communist crusade transform her—and her progressive cohort—into something new, something I had to concede was dramatically different from the progressive she had been for so many decades previous? I just didn’t know what I’d think until I’d written my way through that tumultuous period of Roche’s life.
What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?
RM: The biggest challenge in writing this book was keeping it short enough that someone might actually read it. Roche’s life is so rich and interesting, her thinking and writing so moving that I wanted to share everything I learned about her and everything that her life had taught me.
Especially hard to excise were dramatic, suggestive, or poignant scenes from Roche’s life. I considered laying out, for instance, evidence of a possible romance between Roche and her first political mentor, juvenile court judge Benjamin Lindsey. In the end, the evidence was thin enough that I decided it might seem more like historical gossip than anything else, but including it was very tempting. I also longed to narrate the hair-raising story of a pregnant teenager in Roche’s case load at Denver’s juvenile court, from whose parents Roche had to beg for consent to a caesarian section when their daughter went into convulsions during labor. The begging spanned a long, harrowing day and ultimately involved the parents’ neighbors, clergy, and physicians. Baby and mother were saved in the end, but the story vividly embodied the tensions among familial rights, state power, and individual freedom. Many an episode like these wound up on the cutting room floor.
How did you come up with the jacket?
RM: The design of the book jacket is a brilliant pun, for which I thank the ingenious designer, Chris Ferrante. As the book was going to press, Princeton asked me to share ideas for the cover. I responded that the cover should feature a photo of Roche, of course, and that I wanted her associated with POWER. I honestly put the word “power” all in caps. Since she was a coal magnate, I suggested, maybe we could include a coal tipple on the cover, or, because she was a Treasury official, maybe a shot of the colossal and classical Treasury Building in D.C. Either of these would associate Roche with a kind of power—corporate or governmental. Beyond that, I mused that I liked a New Deal aesthetic, which would place Roche in the decade of her greatest visibility and influence.
Chris took all of these ideas to heart. He super-imposed Roche’s image on the red, white, and blue design of a New Deal poster that had originally advertised the Rural Electrification Administration, that is, a poster that had promoted electrical power. Roche was thus associated with POWER, for sure, and with the New Deal as well. It was the perfect design.
What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?
RM: Most obviously, Relentless Reformer restores Josephine Roche to history and explains how such an important woman, who was a political celebrity in the 1930s, could have been lost to history thereafter. Because of this, I consider the book an act of gender justice.
Beyond that, the book offers insight and inspiration to anyone concerned about economic inequality in the twenty-first century as it analyzes a persistent and effective campaign to diminish similar inequalities between the late nineteenth century and the 1970s.
What are you reading right now?
RM: At bedtime, I read novels rather than history, and I have just finished the latest book in Alan Bradley’s mystery series, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. I love Bradley’s 12-year old sleuth, Flavia de Luce, who has a soaring spirit, brilliant wit, and passion for chemistry. She also has a habit of taking to the 1950’s English countryside on her trusty bike, Gladys. It’s hard to resist a detective who names her bike Gladys.
I’m drawn to detective fiction because it is so much like history: the detective begins with some kind of puzzle and must gather clues from the past to piece together a story so compelling that it explains the crime and reveals the culprit. Historians often follow a similar path.
As for history, I am reading a terrific dissertation by Chantel Rodriguez, “Health on the Line: The Politics of Citizenship and the Railroad Bracero Program of World War II.” In it, Rodriguez analyzes the experiences of Mexican guest workers who came to the U.S. to repair railroad tracks during the Second World War. She finds that, because of the health guarantees in the Mexican Constitution of 1917, these guest workers expected railroad companies and the U.S. government to protect their health while they worked in the U.S. Struggles of these workers to achieve what they perceived as their “health rights” sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, and in both cases, their experiences reveal the complex landscape on which transnational workers still labor. This work edges us toward a new conception of citizenship and raises fresh questions about the trajectory of health rights in the United States.
Read the introduction to Relentless Reformer, here.
Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America