History's Women: Social Reformers: Mary Harriman, Founder of the Junior League

Mary Harriman
Founder of the Junior League
1881 – 1934 A.D.

You know her as the founder of The Junior League.  And it’s a remarkable story.  At 19, a young New York debutante, daughter of one of the richest men in America, mobilizes a group of 80 other young women, hence the name “Junior” League, to work to improve child health, nutrition and literacy among poor immigrants living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

According to Wikipedia, “As word of the work of the young Junior League women in New York spread, women throughout the country and beyond formed Junior Leagues in their communities.  In time, Leagues would expand their efforts beyond settlement house work to respond to the social, health and educational issues of their respective communities.  In 1921, approximately 30 Leagues banded together to form the Association of Junior Leagues of America to provide support to one another.  With the creation of the Association, it was Mary that insisted that although it was important for all Leagues to learn from one another and share best practices, each League was ultimately beholden to their respective community and should thus function to serve that community’s needs.”

You also know how the story ends: The Junior League goes on to become one of the most successful women’s volunteer organizations in the world, with 292 individual Leagues and 160,000 members in four continents.
That’s all true…but there’s more to her story than that.

At 27, after her father’s death, she takes over management of her family’s estate, now a National Historic Landmark, becoming in the process an accomplished farmer and a life-long advocate of farming co-operatives.

At 29, she marries for love but becomes a young widow at 41 when her husband – the athlete and sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey – is killed in a car accident, leaving her with three young children.

At 47, defying her family’s political tradition, she publicly joins the Democratic Party, a move significant enough at the time that The New York Times memorializes it as an important political news story of the day.

At 53, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appoints her to chair the first government consumer rights group, the Consumer Advisory Board (CAB) of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), and she goes on to promote the formation of consumer groups across the country.  In that role, she is one of the highest-ranking women in the administration.

And less than a year later, she dies of injuries suffered in a horseback-riding accident.  A superb horsewoman throughout her life, Mary Harriman died young from injuries that today would not likely have proven fatal.

At her memorial service, a year later at the New York Junior League headquarters in Manhattan, political, civic and philanthropic leaders came to pay tribute.  Eleanor Roosevelt, a friend of decades and a colleague in the earliest days of The League, said, “She helped all those she came in contact with who needed her assistance.”

Which is not a bad way to be remembered.

So Happy Birthday, Mary – your work lives on.