Saturday, November 8, 2014

Robyn Muncy's "Relentless Reformer"

Robyn Muncy is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland. She is the author of Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935 and the coauthor of Engendering America: A Documentary History, 1865 to the Present.

Here Muncy dreamcasts an adaptation of her new book, Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America:
The central character in Relentless Reformer is the indomitable Josephine Roche, a progressive reformer who achieved political celebrity in the 1930s as a pro-labor and feminist member of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal government.

To play the adult Josephine Roche, I would cast Meryl Streep. Streep has the range and vitality to play this bronco-busting westerner who castigated anyone with no “guts” and at the same time charmed the Washington press corps with her easy grace.

Roche’s dramatic life would give Streep’s versatility full expression. Roche was in 1912 Denver’s first policewoman; in the 1920s, she took over and ran a coal mining company; in the 1930s, she served as the second-highest-ranking woman in the New Deal government; and, as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, she started the conversation Americans are still having about the federal role in health care. She shaped the Social Security Act in 1935 and eventually pioneered managed care in medicine. She remained an activist into the 1970s, when she was, in her 80s, trying to bring down a murderous regime within the United Mine Workers of America, a labor union she had allied with for over 40 years.

Since Roche was active in public life from her teens into her old age, we might need additional actors for earlier moments of Roche’s life. Jennifer Lawrence would certainly do justice to the young Roche, as she pursued higher education at Vassar College and then graduate work in political science at Columbia University. Lawrence would be brilliant as the idealistic graduate student who joined the picket lines with striking garment workers in 1909 and lived in Greenwich Village during its heyday as America’s Bohemia. She would shine in the scenes of Roche interviewing young prostitutes and visiting tenements as she sussed out the effects of sweatshop labor on the hopes and dreams of immigrant girls.

Colin Firth would be terrific in the role of Edward Costigan, an upright Denver attorney and activist, who mentored Roche and was eventually elected to the U.S. Senate. Benedict Cumberbatch might play Edward Hale Bierstadt, Roche’s dashing writer-husband. Because the marriage lasted only two years (1920-1922), this would be a small but interesting role: Bierstadt married Roche when she was his boss! At the time of their impetuous nuptials, Roche was running the Foreign Language Information Service, an organization that helped immigrants navigate American life, and she had hired Bierstadt as her associate director. For marrying a woman who was his employer (in 1920), Bierstadt deserves a moment in the spotlight even though the marriage did not ultimately take.

The most significant male role will be that of John L. Lewis. President of the United Mine Workers of America, Lewis became in the 1930s Roche’s closest political ally, and the two worked hand in glove until Lewis’s death in 1969. Their most important joint project was the United Mine Workers’ Welfare and Retirement Fund, which supported the post-World War II labor movement and provided state-of-the-art medical care to coal miners all over the United States. Lewis was, of course, a titan of organized labor, renowned for his girth, awning-like eyebrows, and blustery speeches. John Goodman would be perfect in the role.

Susan Sarandon will put in a cameo as Eleanor Roosevelt, a great admirer of Roche.

To direct, we need someone who can represent complicated and powerful women with warmth and admiration. Any applicants?
Learn more about Relentless Reformer at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue