Biographer of a Progressive reformer says it's odd reading stories about inequality in the news every day

Historians in the News
tags: progressivism, inequality



Robyn Muncy is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her most recent book is "Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressive Reform in Twentieth-Century America" (Princeton University Press, 2015). 

Having just completed a biography of progressive reformer Josephine Roche, I am struck with déjà vu nearly every time I open my morning newspaper. Headlines routinely mention the central role that economic inequality will play in the 2016 US presidential race. Jeb Bush recently initiated his campaign for the Republican nomination with a promise to tackle economic inequality, while Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton reportedly struggled to build a platform that would reduce inequality without alienating Wall Street bankers. Elizabeth Warren is an appealing alternative to Clinton among many in her party precisely because economic inequality has been the most powerful generator of her political agenda.

Economic inequality was also at the center of concern for Josephine Roche, a progressive reformer about whom I spoke recently at the Washington History Seminar. Indeed, Roche’s dramatic life story, which spanned the years from 1886 to 1976, led me to conclude in her biography that the desire to diminish inequalities of wealth and power lay at the heart of American progressivism from the late 19th century through the 1960s. And, as many scholars have shown, progressives actually succeeded by the 1950s in creating the greatest economic equality in all of US history. When today’s presidential aspirants strive to develop platforms aimed at shrinking the gap between rich and poor, they have a rich political heritage from which to draw ideas. 

 Josephine Roche’s biography reveals that heritage. Roche emphasized the importance of policies aimed directly at more equitably allocating the fruits of economic production—like progressive income taxes, higher minimum wages, and robust social security programs—which are on many political wish lists now. Another goal of hers was legislation that would empower workers in their places of employment, which appears more rarely in current proposals but was a vital tool in reducing inequality in the mid-20th century. 

One of the reasons that the empowerment of workers is so important to diminishing inequality is that other equalizing policies can otherwise so easily go unenforced. Roche discovered this dynamic when she was in Colorado during a great coal strike in 1913–14. While visiting coal camps during the strike, Roche discovered that coal mine owners routinely ignored state laws governing hours and wages. Roche concluded that public policies aimed at raising workers’ standards of living were not enough to diminish inequality: if workers were not empowered to insist on enforcement through collective action, the policies were ineffective....




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