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Relentless Reformer by Robyn Muncy


Denver has a street called Josephine, which few know for whom it is named. It's one of my favorite secret histories. Some, in the know, will say she was Denver's first female cop. Which she was. But she was so much more important to all women in America.

Feminism is such a fun concept in that it's adherents fight for equality and it is also used to cause division among those with the same goals. I am a feminist. The kind that is grateful everyday for the Suffragists who got us the vote and birth control, the bra-burners and writers of the 70s who got us into the work force and made abortions legal, the women of the 2000s who declared their bodies their own and their right to do whatever the fuck they wanted, and the women who came forward in the #metoo movement. I believe that men are as harmed by the patriarchy as women, and that LBGTQIA folks deserve the same rights I'm fighting for. I believe taking care of each other and treating each other dignity is not political, it's just right.

And so, Josephine Roche is one of my Heroes. Like Frances Glessner Lee, Josephine came from money, and like Frances, she used it to benefit others. In her long career, she was Denver's first female cop--Inspector of Amusements--and advocated for female laborers and prostitutes (if in a misguided attempt to help them by sending them to a farm). She helped build the social security administration, ran for Governor of Colorado, unionized her mines, and created a model of hospitals and healthcare for her miners that became the blue print for Medicare and Medicaid.

Josephine worked within the system to make change. And while she wasn't radical in the sexy starving-in-jail kind of way, she and those like her were nevertheless important for their tireless work to move the dial in the direct of help for women and children and laborers. We like to embrace the big movements like suffrage and #metoo as examples of how to make change. And those movements are important. But so is the less visible work done by the women who show up in places of power when they're invited, do the work, and live their lives without immediate glory. The founders of Black Lives Matter and WomensMarch aren't just sitting back doing nothing waiting for the next big moment. They do the work every day. The tedious, daily grind. That is how change is made.

For Josephine that daily grind passed laws and created departments that many of us still depend on. She started a conversation about health care and came up with solutions. Because she gave us an idea about what Medicare and Medicaid could look like, we can now talk about universal healthcare. Because of her fight against other mine owners to unionize and pay her workers a livable wage (throughout the 30s when the other mines closed), we can know that Amazon's "worker housing" program is just another way to exploit their workers. Josephine's work, and that of her cohort, built the foundation that we are able to build on.

Josephine wasn't perfect. And I admire her for that. If all the women that came before were perfect, or portrayed as perfect, we would all fall sort and wait for that one perfect woman from our generation to come save us. But her imperfection, her being a product of her time, gives me hope that we will make great changes and those that come after us will work on our mistakes and keep moving the dial.

A few times now, I've come across historical women whose love lives and personal lives are lost to time and the fires that burned their personal papers. At first I used to decry this loss, our inability to really know them. But now I admire it. Josephine ensured that the parts her life that she wanted known would be, and that we would not get hung up in who she slept with. It's the ultimate power move for a sex positive feminist. We don't get to judge her or martyr her, because we don't know. And in today's SM world, where every detail of our lives is shared, I am inspired to erase the parts of personal life that posterity doesn't need to know about, so that work will speak for me.


Back of the Book:

Josephine Roche (1886–1976) was a progressive activist, New Deal policymaker, and businesswoman. As a pro-labor and feminist member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, she shaped the founding legislation of the U.S. welfare state and generated the national conversation about health-care policy that Americans are still having today. In this gripping biography, Robyn Muncy offers Roche’s persistent progressivism as evidence for surprising continuities among the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society.


Muncy explains that Roche became the second-highest-ranking woman in the New Deal government after running a Colorado coal company in partnership with coal miners themselves. Once in office, Roche developed a national health plan that was stymied by World War II but enacted piecemeal during the postwar period, culminating in Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s. By then, Roche directed the United Mine Workers of America Welfare and Retirement Fund, an initiative aimed at bolstering the labor movement, advancing managed health care, and reorganizing medicine to facilitate national health insurance, one of Roche’s unrealized dreams.


In Relentless Reformer, Muncy uses Roche’s dramatic life story—from her stint as Denver’s first policewoman in 1912 to her fight against a murderous labor union official in 1972—as a unique vantage point from which to examine the challenges that women have faced in public life and to reassess the meaning and trajectory of progressive reform.