Note: This is part of a series of profiles about Barnard alumnae. These profiles were originally posted on the old Barnard Archives website.
Trustee, social justice pioneer
Mary (Harriman) Rumsey (Class of 1905) attended Barnard at a time when very few women pursued higher education, and she continued to break barriers throughout her life. Rejecting the convention that the affluent should remain within their elite circles, she founded the Junior League to mobilize young, upper-class women to help the underprivileged.
From her years at Barnard until her untimely death in 1934, Harriman was a formidable force in politics and social activism, with a focus on consumer advocacy.
Harriman was born on November 17, 1881, the eldest of six children of Edward Henry Harriman and Mary Williamson Averell. She grew up in New York City, with a brief interlude in Chicago; her family also owned several country ranches, including an estate and dairy farm in Arden, New York. Edward Harriman, who controlled the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroad systems, had accumulated between $200 million and $600 million (estimates vary widely) in the railroad industry. Mary was very close to her father and often accompanied him on his railroad work. In her obituary, the New York Times wrote that she “in their close companionship developed a breadth and intensity of interest in large affairs, and a desire to accomplish valuable things herself, which was extremely rare in her contemporaries of the same position in the world.”
Upon coming of age at 18, Harriman could have taken the path prescribed by society—a lavish debutante party in the company of the “400,” New York City’s wealthiest and most powerful families—but “its frivolity bothered her,” Marjory Potts wrote in a 1983 Junior League Review article. Instead, she matriculated at Barnard in 1901. Her father was initially reluctant, but he was proud enough of his daughter’s drive to let her pursue her own path.
Edward Harriman was not a backwards man—on the contrary, he was a dedicated philanthropist who founded the Boys Clubs of America in the 1870s. While he was “a man of great wealth,” his daughter said, “he was very civic minded and, in fact, his was the first railroad that had a pension plan for employees and the first to institute safety regulations for both workers and passengers.” But the irony of the era, as Annabel Schnitzer, class of 2000, notes in her senior thesis on Harriman, was that “industrial magnates” like Harriman’s father funded many women’s colleges but chafed at their own daughters attending them.
At Barnard, Harriman majored in biology and sociology, developing a particular interest in eugenics, which would later become one of her many professional pursuits. As longtime Barnard Dean Virginia Gildersleeve wrote in a tribute after Harriman’s death, “She was a member of that very energetic and original class, 1905, founder of Greek Games. In her undergraduate days, I taught her English composition and argumentation, and learned to respect her sound intelligence and her wide interest in human affairs, and to feel warm affection for her charming and generous nature.”
Harriman was only 19 years old when she learned about Jane Addams and the settlement movement in a class, and decided—along with her classmate and friend Nathalie Henderson—to form the Junior League for the Promotion of the Settlement Movements. Harriman and Henderson recruited 80 young women of “background and comfort” to move beyond debutante life by volunteering in the slums of the Lower East Side, particularly at the New York College Settlement on Rivington Street. One of these women was future First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt: In fact, Harriman’s brother, former Democratic politician and diplomat William Averell Harriman, recalled in 1983 that “Mary was the one who first influenced Eleanor Roosevelt to get involved in social work.” The League was eventually renamed the Junior League of New York, and over time, it became a national movement with which figures as prominent as Barbara Bush, Betty Ford, Katharine Hepburn, Sandra Day O’Connor, Nancy Reagan, and Shirley Temple have been associated.
Henderson told the Junior League Review in 1983 that “for more than a year Mary had been mulling over the idea of how to organize her class of ’85 debutantes into some purposeful activity. She’d rejected church work as ‘too sectarian,’ and welfare or hospital work as ‘too limited in scope.'”
Founding the League was a gutsy, tradition-smashing act for a young woman of Harriman’s privileged background. As Schnitzer noted, “Upper class women did not engage in such activities, because it was considered coarse for women or ladies to associate with the lower classes. … Helping the poor on a personal level was not an option for most women because it meant traveling to poor neighborhoods.” Harriman looked that convention in the eye and openly defied it, creating an organization specifically for upper-class women to do just that. She was “one of the first elite women to work for the betterment of the poor through methods other than pithy donations, and an attitude of pride rather than disgust.”
Harriman saw her work as a moral obligation, writing in the League’s 1906 annual report, “It seems almost inhuman that we should live so close to suffering and poverty, that we should know of the deplorable conditions, and of the relief work that exists within a few blocks of our own home, and bear no part in this great life.”
After close to 10 years of tireless work with the Junior League and her founding of a sanitarium for Brooklyn consumptives in 1909, Harriman scaled back in 1910 when she married sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey, with whom she had three children: Charles Cary Jr. (born 1911), Mary Averell Harriman (born 1913), and Bronson Harriman (born 1917). The family bought a home at Sands Point, Long Island, as well as a farm near Middleburg, Virginia, where Harriman put her interest in eugenics to use with a stint in cattle breeding. Rumsey was active in polo, and Harriman also began to ride—a hobby that would lead to her untimely death when she fell from a horse in 1934. In February 1911, she also had the honor of being elected to the Barnard Board of Trustees, a position she would hold until her death. Simultaneously, she took control of her family’s estate in Arden, New York, including its 600 employees, in the wake of her father’s death in 1909.
Her comparatively quiet life as a wife and mother came to an abrupt end when Rumsey died in an auto accident in September 1922, leaving Harriman, then 40 years old, a widow with three children. She moved on by plunging into politics, particularly consumer advocacy, which would become her life’s calling. For her, marriage and social activism arguably were mutually exclusive; her social work was put on hiatus during her marriage, and had it not been for her husband’s untimely death—tragic as it was—her dazzling array of accomplishments may not have been possible.
Harriman was particularly inspired by The National Being, a 1916 book by Irish poet and social activist George Russell. She said of its influence, as quoted in theJunior League Review in 1983, “In that book, I found my nebulous ideas put into practical form. Here was a man who believed that it was not possible for a country to advance without cooperation, and who described how the best sort of community life could be built up through it.” It was through The National Being that she solidified her dedication to cooperation, in contrast to the competition of her father’s era.
In the early 1920s, Harriman co-founded the Welfare Council to aggregate New York’s many social agencies, many of whose missions overlapped. This later became the Community Council of Greater New York. She served on several committees within the Council and was instrumental in opening close to 500 playgrounds in New York City through the Playground Committee, which she formed in 1926. She also got involved in the “Block-Aid Program,” which, according to the Fall 1983 Junior League Review, raised money and distributed food and clothing “in small amounts on a neighbor-to-neighbor basis.”
Harriman cut her teeth in politics by supporting Democratic candidate Al Smith’s presidential campaign against Herbert Hoover in 1928, breaking from her family’s Republican tradition. Smith lost, but the experience drew Harriman into political advocacy and her brother, Averell, into his life’s pursuit as well. Averell joined the Smith campaign because Mary had, and it led him to a career that included serving as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, a member of the presidential cabinet, and governor of New York. “I was affected by all Mary’s interests, and certainly politics,” Averell told the Junior League Review in 1983. “She had an influence in preventing me from staying a Republican.”
When the stock market crashed a year later, plunging the country into the Great Depression, Mary Harriman plunged just as surely into relief work, applying her political and social ideals to tangible efforts, just as she had done with the Junior League. She first joined the Emergency Exchange Association, a New York-based organization that sought to keep the unemployed afloat by allowing them to exchange skilled labor (instead of money) for necessary merchandise.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the New Deal, Harriman became an integral part of the groundbreaking recovery effort. She ran the Consumers’ Division of the National Emergency Council and was appointed directly by Roosevelt to chair the Consumers Advisory Board (CAB) of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), within which she established the Bureau of Economic Education. Additionally, she co-authored the 1935 Social Security Act with Secretary of Labor (and former Junior League colleague and close college friend) Frances Perkins.
Roosevelt established the NRA to protect industry and labor and to “stimulate the economy by getting labor and business to adhere to restrictions on wages and hours,” according to the Fall 1983 Junior League Review, but “missing from the plan was consumer representation.” It was Harriman who pointed out that gap, and she was superbly equipped to fill it as chairwoman of CAB, which under her leadership—according to her biography in Notable American Women, 1607-1950—”made its influence felt, particularly in combating price mark-ups and in protecting cooperatives from price discrimination.”
As the New York Times wrote in her obituary, Harriman—the only female member of the National Emergency Council aside from Perkins—”had been recognized in and out of the [Roosevelt] administration as the chief driving force and influence of the New Deal in its approach to consumer problems.” She was also the primary influence for her brother in his approach to consumer problems, as evidenced by the fact that, when Averell was elected governor of New York in 1954, he became the first governor of any state to appoint a consumer adviser.
As her work in politics and consumer advocacy intensified, Harriman—seeking a suitable outlet to promote her philosophies to a wider audience—decided to enter the publishing industry. This had been a longstanding goal of hers since the 1920s, when she tried to buy the Des Moines Capital for $800,000 but was outbid. She then bought a newspaper in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, with Arthur Brisbane, a columnist for the Hearst Corporation, but Brisbane backed out, the paper failed, and Harriman fell into enough debt to necessitate a $500,000 loan from her mother. In exchange for the money, her mother set a series of written terms, including that Harriman would not attempt to buy any more papers, would sell her house at Sands Point, and would consult with Averell before making any major purchases. She abided only by the last condition, although she did have to put her newspaper ambitions on hold until her mother’s death in 1932.
The very next year, she bid for the Washington Post with Averell and Vincent Astor, but former Federal Reserve chairman Eugene Myer won with a bid of $825,000. Fortunately for her publishing ambitions, Today—the magazine she, Averell, Astor, and Raymond Moley launched in 1932—took off. It merged with Newsweek in 1937, after Harriman’s death, and remains a prestigious and widely read magazine more than seven decades later.
Why was Harriman so determined to enter the publishing industry? Schnitzer explains, “It was not boredom or copious free time … but a desire to publish her views on political matters. She saw publishing as a forum where more liberal opinions could be heard.” With that goal in mind, she and her partners—Averell, Astor, and Moley, all staunch advocates of Roosevelt and the New Deal—did not see Today as an objective news source. “It was always meant to be a partisan paper, and they did not hide their favor,” Schnitzer writes, but “Today was not … going to be a gimmick or a form of political propaganda.”
As she pursued these publishing endeavors on the side, Harriman continued to work tirelessly on the Consumers Advocacy Board. She was instrumental in convincing the Roosevelt administration that concerted attention to consumer issues was needed just as badly as attention to the issues of workers and sellers, and it was the momentum she created that led to the establishment of “a permanent representative for the consumer within the presidential cabinet,” according to Schnitzer.
That momentum slowed only because of Harriman’s untimely death in 1934. On her 53rd birthday, November 17, 1934, she was riding in a fox hunt in Virginia—she was an expert equestrian, having won a number of horse shows and driven a four-horse coach—when her horse fell, and before she could stand up, the horse rolled over her. She fractured four ribs and suffered a compound fracture to her right thigh, and soon developed complications, including kidney malfunction and pneumonia. She died December 18, 1934, at Washington Emergency Hospital, and was buried beside her parents in Arden. Eleanor Roosevelt attended her funeral. In a tribute published in the January 1935 Barnard Alumnae Magazine, Gildersleeve wrote, “In her death, at the top of her powers, Barnard has suffered a grievous blow.”
Today, the Junior League continues to thrive as an international organization, with 200,000 members in close to 300 chapters in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. Its scope has broadened over the years, and the upper-class women who fill its ranks work on issues of domestic violence, child health, and literacy as well as the traditional issue of poverty.
While the League and consumer advocacy were her major endeavors, Harriman also co-founded the State Charities Aid Society in 1910 and chaired its Mental Hygiene Committee; co-founded the American Orchestra Society, which trains musicians of all religions, cultures, and classes, in 1920; founded the Community Council on National Defense and chaired its Finance Committee; and chaired the Council of Organization for War Service and the Red Cross Women’s Division. Her lifelong interest in farming and rural life led her to establish the Eastern Livestock Cooperative Marketing Association and to work for the American Farm Foundation, and her passion for the arts led her to support fledgling artists financially and to open her home as a congregating place for artists.
The sheer volume of her involvements and accomplishments would be impressive for anyone, but for a woman of her affluence in an age when she could have—indeed, was expected to—rest on her laurels and remain within the “female sphere,” her career was stunning. Decades after her death, Harriman remains an inspiration to women who want to make a difference beyond their socioeconomic class and the boundaries set for them by society. The New York Times called her “a pioneer in the now common practice of young ladies working for the benefit of less fortunate persons,” and Schnitzer writes that she “began an American movement and women of privilege followed her in providing aid to others and thereby, themselves.”
Harriman was inspired by her father in many ways, but she carved a very different path. While her father’s fortune gave her tremendous opportunities, and she inherited his entrepreneurial drive and talent, she eschewed his capitalistic tendencies, devoting her life’s work instead to philanthropy and community service. In her obituary, the New York Times printed a quote from 1933, in which Harriman elaborated on the philosophical differences between her and her father: “His period was a building age, when competition was the order of the day. Today the need is not for a competitive but for a cooperative economic system. When I was a young girl I began to realize that competition was injuring some, and I dreamed of a time when there would be more cooperation, not only among the people themselves, but also between the government and the people.”
-Maggie Astor ’11
Gildersleeve, Virginia. “Mary Harriman Rumsey: A Personal Appreciation.” Barnard College Alumnae Magazine, January 1935.
James, Edward T. Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume III, P-Z. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.
Potts, Marjory. “Averell Harriman Remembers Mary.” Junior League Review, 1983.
Schnitzer, Annabel. “Affluence to Influence: The Life of Mary Harriman Rumsey.” New York: Barnard College History Department, 2000.
“Mrs. Rumsey Dies After Hunt Injury.” New York Times, December 19, 1934.