Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Relentless ReformerJosephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America$

Robyn Muncy

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780691122731

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691122731.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM PRINCETON SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.princeton.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Princeton University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in HSO for personal use (for details see www.princeton.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 16 December 2018

Only Ten Minutes Left? Epilogue and Assessment

Only Ten Minutes Left? Epilogue and Assessment

(p.289) Chapter 17 Only Ten Minutes Left? Epilogue and Assessment
Relentless Reformer

Robyn Muncy

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers the legacy of Josephine Roche. Roche did not live to see the new, deindustrialized age in American history. Early in 1976, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It had metastasized and she died on July 29, 1976, at age 89. Even though obituaries of Roche rehearsed many of the highlights of her amazing career, she had by then faded from Americans' collective memory. She had lived so long that few remembered the headlines trumpeting her breakthroughs as a policewoman in the 1910s, as a progressive industrialist in the 1920s, or as assistant secretary of the treasury in the 1930s. Her obscurity resulted in part from Roche's own desire to hide from public view during the anti-communist frenzy of the late 1940s and early 1950s. When she reemerged, she was an old woman eventually represented in print as little more than a rubberstamp to John L. Lewis. The remainder of the chapter considers representation because it helps us understand further how such an important and previously well-known woman could disappear from American history.

Keywords:   Josephine Roche, progressives, progressivism, biography, legacy

While Josephine Roche was campaigning for Arnold Miller in November 1972, a reporter asked whether she would at last consider writing her memoirs. As usual, she refused. “I only have 10 minutes left,” she retorted, “and I’m afraid I didn’t fight hard enough.”1 By one way of accounting, the relentless reformer had three and a half years left; by another, she lives on still.

Until her death on July 29, 1976, Roche stayed in touch with developments in the institutions that meant most to her. She was pleased with the directions taken at the United Mine Workers of America. Miller won his election in 1972 and moved quickly to reform the union. His administration held elections for district offices, built up the union’s safety division, and opened the pages of the union’s newspaper to the rank-and-file. Miller stopped charging union dues to pensioners and abolished locals that enrolled no active miners. In 1974, he negotiated a new contract that raised wages and benefits.2

The fund also underwent profound changes, the outcome of which was not yet clear by the time Roche died. Believing the coal industry was on an upswing and that a higher royalty on increasing production would provide enough revenue to meet new obligations, reformers followed through on their promise to increase the level of benefits as well as the number of beneficiaries of the fund. For precisely the reasons that Roche had been so cautious—the general unpredictability of the economy, the peculiar instability of the coal industry, and astronomical increases in medical costs—the reformers quickly reached a point where they could not meet these obligations.3 As a result, only six years after Roche’s retirement and a year after her death, the reformers began sloughing off the unique features of her health program. They returned to fee-for-service (p.290) payments to doctors and required miners to pay deductibles and copayments for services that had previously been free. The changes destroyed some of the medical clinics serving miners in Appalachia and decreased health care usage because miners could not always afford the new out-of-pocket expenses. In addition, the 1978 union contract handed the health care of working miners to employers, who insured them through commercial insurance plans. Under the new health plans, less care was covered; miners paid more than when Roche was in charge; and no one oversaw the quality of care. The fund became strictly a welfare agency serving the retired and disabled rather than an active player in recalibrating the relationship between labor and capital or in reshaping American health care. Indeed, in the shift of responsibility for the medical care of working miners, workers lost a significant measure of their independence from employers, and the union some of its appeal.4

The failure of the union to maintain control of working miners’ health care was yet another blow to an already weakening labor movement. Because of automation, its own corruption, globalization, and the determination of anti-union interests, the labor movement declined dramatically after 1970. While a third of the nonagricultural labor force was unionized in the early 1950s, that percentage fell to 24.1 percent in 1979 and 13.9 percent in 1998. By 2012, only 11 percent of the total U.S. workforce was unionized, including just 6.6 percent of workers in the private sector. The deterioration of the union movement in the late twentieth century was part of the reason that economic inequality, significantly diminished by progressive achievements in the mid-twentieth century, began to increase again in the 1970s.5

Roche’s system at the fund, dedicated to remaking American medicine and sustaining a strong union in addition to improving the living standards of coal miners, had preserved a broader social justice agenda for the fund than that of the reformers who took her down. Despite Roche’s narrowed political vision in the 1940s, she was able to see how her activity in a circumscribed field might reverberate well beyond it. When she became convinced that her fund could not provide for every need of the country’s coal miners, Roche chose to provide benefits for the groups that she could while also achieving two broader goals, bolstering the labor movement and transforming American medicine. In the end, the law did not allow her to continue pursuing those broader goals through the fund.

For historians, those goals were significant in part because of their continuity with earlier periods of progressive reform. Roche carried her commitment to diminishing inequality from the earliest twentieth century through the New Deal and into the post–World War II world. Her work at the miners’ Welfare Fund demonstrated that ideals and even concrete plans for reform generated in the Progressive Era and sustained (p.291) during the New Deal survived within Cold War liberalism, creating institutions and expectations that helped to ignite the final burst of progressive reform in the 1960s. Roche’s long life, which began as industrialization transformed American institutions in the late nineteenth century and ended as deindustrialization was doing the same in the 1970s, helps us see that near-century as an Age of Progressive Reform with temporary reversals in the 1920s and 1950s.

Roche did not live to see the new, deindustrialized age in American history. Before her death, she moved to the Fernwood Nursing Home in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC. Visited regularly by Mildred Lea and the Owens family, Roche spent her last months on the sidelines. Early in 1976, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It had metastasized, and she died in July at age 89.6

Even though obituaries of Josephine Roche in 1976 rehearsed many of the highlights of her amazing career, she had by then faded from Americans’ collective memory.7 She had lived so long that few remembered the headlines trumpeting her breakthroughs as a policewoman in the 1910s, as a progressive industrialist in the 1920s, or as assistant secretary of the treasury in the 1930s. Her obscurity resulted in part from Roche’s own desire to hide from public view during the anti-communist frenzy of the late 1940s and early 1950s.8 Her low profile during those years probably helped the miners’ Welfare Fund survive, but it also moved Roche off the front pages of American life. When she reemerged, she was an old woman eventually represented in print as little more than a rubberstamp to John L. Lewis.

That representation is worth investigating because it helps us understand further how such an important and previously well-known woman could disappear from American history. The rubberstamp representation began with the 1971 judicial opinion of Judge Gerhard Gesell in Blankenship v. Boyle. In that opinion, Gesell, who would officiate later in trials connected to Watergate and other federal scandals, went beyond finding Roche guilty of breach of trust.9 He belittled her intelligence, questioned her independence, and disparaged her business experience. He attributed her investment decisions, if not to corruption, then to “naivete” and claimed that she “idolized John L. Lewis and felt entirely confident to follow his leadership in financial matters, apparently without independent inquiry.” At another moment, he wrote, “The Fund’s affairs were dominated by Lewis until his death in 1969. Roche never once disagreed with him.”10 Even though Gesell did not have the evidence that would later vindicate Roche’s fiscal caution, he did have evidence against this portrait of her as slavishly subservient to John L. Lewis. That Gesell would nevertheless paint Roche as naïve, dependent, and mindlessly devoted to a powerful man attests more to widespread assumptions about (p.292) women’s fundamental nature than to a careful evaluation of the evidentiary record. The assumption of women’s subordination to men seems to have fixed Gesell’s attention on the parts of the record that confirmed Roche’s subservience to Lewis and deflected his focus from evidence to the contrary.

It is easy to see how Gesell came to his assessment. For starters, he did not have full evidence of Roche’s relationship with John L. Lewis. Roche and Lewis hashed out most of their decisions off the official record, and Gesell was not looking into the lion’s share of decisions made at the fund, most of which Roche clearly controlled. In addition, Roche spoke in extravagant praise of John L. Lewis every chance she got, including at the trial. Gesell had no way of knowing that Roche spoke in extravagant praise of everyone she admired, not just John L. Lewis, and so he read more into her effusiveness than he should have. Most important, Roche explicitly testified at trial that she on occasion deferred to Lewis’s judgment on financial matters, contrasting her “personal experience against his wisdom.”11

But the record contained evidence against Gesell’s characterization of Roche as well. Roche testified to her ultimately successful arguments with Lewis both to invest their cash and to diversify their investments, demonstrating that she exercised independence from and disagreed with Lewis on issues before the court. Gesell also ignored Roche’s many years as president and general manager of Colorado’s second-largest coal company when he claimed that Roche had substantial experience in welfare matters but “her business experience was more limited.”12 And, of course, union executives and industry trustees at the fund deferred to Lewis to a greater degree than Roche ever did, and Gesell did not represent these men as naïve dependents of John L. Lewis. Expectations of women’s subservience to men and their affinity for welfare but not business were assuredly at work in Gesell’s representations of Roche.

Popular writers followed suit. In the 1970s, several journalists narrated the dramatic implosion of the UMW, and they echoed Gesell’s representations of Roche. In mass-marketed books that would later be cited in important works by historians, Roche was treated as an inconsequential yes-woman to John L. Lewis. One reported that Lewis dominated the fund and “Josephine Roche was there with him, holding the crucial vote in her hands, to do the will of Lewis.” Roche’s judgment was, he wrote, for “John L. Lewis to form as he wished.” Another popular writer claimed, “Roche was completely in accord with his [Lewis’s] wishes, whatever they were.” In each of these works, Roche was put forward as anything but the irascible, no-nonsense powerhouse she was, hired by Lewis to direct the fund because he needed her expertise, and on whose judgment, (p.293) advice, and creativity he and the fund utterly relied. She was just, according to them, “a little gray lady who administered the Fund.”13

The point is not to blame earlier representers of Josephine Roche. The point is rather to see in these inaccurate pictures of Roche the toll that sexism has taken on our understanding of the American past. Although many factors played into Roche’s historical obscurity, one of the most significant was the assumption of female subservience that so dampened the imaginations of even smart and curious observers that they could not see a woman as head of a vast, innovative, and powerful institution like the United Mine Workers of America Welfare and Retirement Fund—and especially not an old, gray-haired woman with a cane, thick glasses, and hearing aids. One reason to tell Roche’s story is make sure that we can, from now on, detect power in old women.

Another reason is that Roche’s legacy to American life is so vast. She had a hand in crafting policies and erecting institutions that affected virtually every American during the second half of the twentieth century. She presided over the immense expansion and modernization of the U.S. Public Health Service in the 1930s and participated in drafting the founding legislation of the American welfare state, the Social Security Act of 1935. Social Security’s disability insurance as well as Medicare and Medicaid bear the mark of her leadership in devising and promoting the first national health plan in American history. Indeed, Josephine Roche generated the national conversation Americans are still having about the relationship between health care and U.S. citizenship. Additionally, an organizational heir to her Foreign Language Information Service, the Immigration and Refugee Services of America, persisted in serving immigrants in the twenty-first century, and Roche’s Appalachian hospitals continue even today to operate as a pathbreaking medical unit, fulfilling the vision for health care that progressives developed early in the twentieth century.14 In 2010, under the name of Appalachian Regional Health-care and somewhat reorganized, Roche’s chain of hospitals was designated the Outstanding Rural Health Organization in the nation by the National Rural Health Association. In 2013, it remained the largest employer in southeastern Kentucky.15

Although the UMW’s health service did not survive the 1970s, the legacy of Roche’s years at the helm of the Welfare Fund lives on. She and her staff participated in pioneering managed care, one of the permanent directions of health care for the rest of the century, and she, along with others in the labor movement, pointed the way toward solving some of the country’s current health care predicaments. Prepayment plans that replace fee-for-service health care and group practices collaborating in community clinics go a long way toward controlling the cost and quality (p.294) of health care and in the process expand accessibility. They remain crucial elements in the health care mix of the twenty-first century.16

Roche’s years at the fund offer important lessons, too. They highlight not only the inevitable inadequacy of private social welfare schemes but also the need for democracy in our health care system. Although coal miners in general were receiving a quality of health care in the 1960s unimaginable a decade earlier, many were profoundly dissatisfied. Why? To receive care, miners had to tangle themselves in a bureaucracy that treated them as dependents rather than decision-makers and then changed the rules of the game without consulting them. Miners were not citizens in their health care system; they were at the mercy of decisions made by others. Ultimately, they revolted against their exclusion from decisions that so directly shaped their lives—and deaths. Roche’s experience at the fund suggests that if we are to create a health care system with which Americans are truly satisfied, we must not only increase access to care, lower costs, and maintain high quality but also address issues of governance. Coal miners in the 1960s demanded a health care system in which patient-citizens shared power in deciding how to distribute health care resources. They never got it, but their history suggests that only such a system is consistent with democratic ideals and social peace.

Rocky Mountain Fuel stood as another of Roche’s legacies. She lived to see the company roar back to life in the early 1970s when oil and gas reserves were drilled on the company’s land; new water rights were discovered; and farmers flocked to its fertile fields. Some of the company’s real estate was developed for recreational and residential use. In this new incarnation, Roche’s enterprise funneled valuable income to America’s coal miners, as their union still owned about a third of the company’s stock. Roche was delighted when Gerald R. Armstrong, a corporate reformer, expressed interest in running the company in 1972–1973. She encouraged him to gather as many proxies as he could and made calls on his behalf. He was elected president of RMF in April 1973 and ran the thriving company until 2006.17 Recently, some of RMF’s land in Lafayette, Colorado, was set aside as a wild area and named the Josephine Roche Open Space; on another plot in 2012, the Boulder County Housing Authority opened seventy units of affordable housing for seniors in a development named the Josephine Commons.18

These memorials would have pleased Josephine Roche. They embody the kind of tribute she called for on the death of her friend, Grace Abbott, in 1939. The only memorial worthy of Abbott, Roche insisted, was “to hold ourselves relentlessly” to the task of correcting the “inequalities, widespread denials and fears, threateningly in violation of democracy’s commitments.” To give Abbott the “honor which is her due” meant continuing (p.295) to battle “the destructive force of economic and social injustice reaching into every phase of human life.”19 Ongoing efforts to diminish inequalities of wealth and power would, in other words, be the memorial most cherished by Josephine Roche. Her life illuminates a powerful political heritage for any who wish to build that memorial. (p.296)


(1) Nicholas von Hoffman, “One More Battle,” Washington Post, Nov. 24, 1972, B1.

(2) Trevor Armbrister, Act of Vengeance: The Yablonski Murders and Their Solution (New York, 1975), 333–334. “IEB Report,” UMW Journal, Feb. 1, 1973, 2–9, in Earl Dotter’s private collection of union newspapers, Silver Spring, MD. Richard P. Mulcahy, A Social Contract for the Coal Fields: The Rise and Fall of the United Mine Workers of America Welfare and Retirement Fund (Knoxville, TN, 2000), 166.

(3) Mulcahy, A Social Contract for the Coal Fields, 166–181Ivana Krajcinovic, From Company Doctors to Managed Care: The United Mine Workers’ Noble Experiment (Ithaca, NY, 1997), 166–175.

(5) Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm, accessed Feb. 15, 2014. Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies (New Haven, CT, 2010); Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York, 2010); Nelson Lichtenstein and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, eds., The Right and Labor in America: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination (Philadelphia, 2012).

(6) William Owens, interview with author, Ellicott City, MD, May 26, 2005. Certificate of Death, Josephine Roche, State of Maryland, Maryland State Archives, Annapolis.

(7) See, for instance, Werner Bamberger, “Josephine Roche Dead at 89: Treasury and U.M.W. Official,” New York Times, July 31, 1976, VAO; Jean R. Hailey, “Josephine Roche Dies: Miners’ Advocate,” Washington Post, July 31, 1976, E4.

(8) She was not alone in this. Daniel Horowitz, Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism (Amherst, MA, 1998); Landon R. Y. Storrs, The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left (Princeton, NJ, 2013).

(9) Bruce Lambert, “Judge Gerhard Gesell Dies at 82,” New York Times, Feb. 21, 1993, http://www.nytimes.com/1993/02/21/us/judge-gerhard-gesell-dies-at-82-oversaw-big-cases.html, accessed Feb. 15, 2014.

(10) Gesell, “Memorandum Opinion,” Apr. 28, 1971, folder 6, box 59, RC.

(11) “UMW Fund Chief Criticizes Hoarding,” Washington Post, Feb. 9, 1971, A3.

(12) Decision of Judge Gerhard Gesell in Blankenship v. Boyle, Apr. 28, 1971, 17, http://www.lexisnexis.com.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/hottopics/lnacademic/?, accessed Feb. 15, 2014.

(13) Joseph E. Finley, The Corrupt Kingdom: The Rise and Fall of the United Mine Workers (New York, 1972), 36, 162–163, 188, 198, 219. Brit Hume, Death and the Mines: Rebellion and Murder in the United Mine Workers (New York, 1971), 35. For these quotations, I thank Angela Cavalucci, my research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2007–2008. Such important and deeply valuable (p.374) later works as Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine, John L. Lewis: A Biography (New York, 1977) relied on these works and inadvertently perpetuated the version of Roche as a rubberstamp of Lewis’s.

(14) The history of the FLIS is documented in IRSA.

(15) Available at http://www.arh.org, accessed July 5, 2013.

(16) Bonnie Lefkowitz, Community Health Centers: A Movement and the People Who Made It Happen (New Brunswick, NJ, 2007). Robert Politzer, Ashley Schempf, Barbara Starfield, and Shi Leiyu, “The Future Role of Health Centers in Improving National Health,” Journal of Public Health Policy 24 (2003): 296–306; Craig Tanio, “Innovations at Miami Practice Show Promise for Treating High-Risk Medicare Patients,” Health Affairs 32 (June 2013): 1078–1082. Elisabeth Rosenthal, “Apprehensive, Many Doctors Shift to Jobs With Salaries,” New York Times, Feb. 14, 2014, A14.

(17) Gerald R. Armstrong, telephone interview with author, Sept. 12, 2008. Daniel Edelman, interview with author, Washington, DC, Sept. 5, 2008.

(19) Roche, “Grace Abbott,” reprinted from the Welfare Bulletin, Feb. 1940, folder 2, box 1, RC.