Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America

Josephine Roche and 20th Century Progressivism
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See all on U. Josephine was about to turn four when farmers and wage-earners in Nebraska formed the People's Independent Party as a protest against the inordinate power that big businesses seemed to wield in the state's political and economic life.

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Demanding regulation of railroads and the elimination of other monopolistic corporations, the insurgent party shocked the state's Republican political establishment in by winning the majority of seats in Nebraska's state legislature as well as two of the state's three congressional seats. In , an alliance of small business owners, dissident farmers, and industrial workers formed a national third party and convened their presidential nominating convention in Nebraska's own Omaha.

Josephine was five years old. Reducing the economic inequality created by the emergence of vast corporations and ending corporate control of government were the goals of the new Populist Party. In imagining how to wrest government from bankers and railroad executives and achieve some semblance of economic equality among Americans, the Populists devised a political agenda that undergirded reform movements for decades to come.

They also transformed Josephine Roche's home state just as she reached an age with potential for political consciousness. Populists and their Democratic Party allies took over Nebraska's state legislature in , as Josephine turned ten, and passed the first initiative and referendum laws in the country while also regulating the state's stockyards and telephone companies.

Politically, Josephine Roche proved more a child of Nebraska's Populists than of her biological father. Although little direct evidence of Josephine's childhood remains, several of its elements are clear. For one thing, her childhood accustomed her to movement. In , not long after Josephine started school, her family left Neligh.

Josephine Roche

The motive is unclear, but a faltering economy probably convinced John Roche that continuing opportunity lay elsewhere. Marie, a town on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. At some point in the s, the peripatetic family returned to Nebraska, where John Roche again took up work in the financial industry, this time in the bustling city of Omaha.

There, the Roches' ambitions for their daughter took discernible form. Although they had limited power over the laws and expectations that excluded most American women from the ballot box and political office, Josephine Roche's parents did not enforce Victorian expectations of feminine passivity.

Lectures in History: The Roots of Progressivism

Family friends described Josephine as a tomboy who preferred bloomers to dressy clothes. She loved to ride horses and to climb; she enjoyed family vacations in Estes Park, Colorado, which the family reached by harrowing stagecoach rides. Even as a teenager, she slid down haystacks with cousins back in Wisconsin. In addition, John and Ella Roche aimed to give their daughter the finest education they could manage.

Indeed, Josephine received the best education the Plains had to offer. In , she enrolled at Brownell Hall, a prestigious Episcopal girls' school in Omaha. The fussy parlors of the school suggested stifling Victorian domesticity, but when Josephine matriculated, the new head of school, Euphan Macrae, was applying for accreditation by all the women's colleges in the country as well as the University of Chicago and the University of Nebraska. Representing the first generation of college-educated women, Macrae hired her teaching staff from the nation's finest schools and devoted Brownell Hall to the cause of higher education for women.

By the time of Josephine's graduation in figure 2 , Macrae had won the accreditations she sought. As a result, the bloomer-loving banker's daughter was a member of the first Brownell class to symbolize its scholarly accomplishments by wearing caps and gowns at graduation. Josephine Roche used her Brownell certificate to attend Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, an institution opened in and intended by its founder to be for its all-female student body "what Yale and Harvard are to young men. By the time Josephine Roche registered in , nearly 40 percent of all undergraduates in the United States were women.

Josephine Roche - Wikipedia

Still, since higher education remained a province of the privileged—fewer than 5 percent of college-aged Americans actually attended in —the second generation of college women did not take their education for granted. They knew they were lucky. Vassar College powerfully influenced the eager, chubby-cheeked Nebraskan who traveled 1, miles by train to enroll.

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