Denverite Shattered Capital’s Glass Ceiling in the 1930s
By Stephen J. Leonard
For the GPHN
Janet Yellen grabbed headlines recently when President-elect Joe Biden announced that he would nominate her to be Secretary of the Treasury. If confirmed, she will be the first woman named to that major cabinet post—a male bastion since 1789 when George Washington selected Alexander Hamilton for the job.
More than 80 years ago, Denverite Josephine Roche gained similar attention when President Franklin Roosevelt appointed her Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, which made her the second highest ranking woman in his administration. Only Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor and the first woman in U.S. history to gain a cabinet post, held a higher distinction, although First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt unofficially outranked both of them.
Born in Nebraska in 1886, Roche graduated from Vassar in 1908 and in 1910 earned a M.A. from Columba University. In 1911 she left her doctoral studies to come to Denver, where her father had relocated to head the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, one of the state’s largest coal producers. She immediately plunged into social reform work allying herself with juvenile court judge Benjamin Lindsey and Progressive Party leader Edward Costigan.
After her father died in 1927 Roche won control of Rocky Mountain Fuel. She encouraged the company’s workers to unionize and she paid them well, much to the annoyance of other coal moguls.
In mid-1934 she unsuccessfully challenged conservative Democrat Edwin “Big Ed” Johnson in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. In November Roosevelt selected her to be Henry Morgenthau’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.
Roche’s first important task was to help shepherd the passage of the Social Security Act, one of Roosevelt’s most significant long-term accomplishments. Far less successful were her efforts to create a national health care system.
Roche resigned in 1937 to return to Colorado, where she resumed management of Rocky Mountain Fuel. Later she served as a trustee of the United Mine Worker’s Welfare and Retirement Fund. She died in Bethesda, Maryland in July 1976, at age 89.
In the 1930s Roche lived at 1642 Detroit St. near East High School and just west of Park Hill. Her rich career is covered in two books: Elinor McGinn, A Wide-Awake Woman: Josephine Roche in the Age of Reform (Denver: Colorado Historical Society, 2002) and Robyn Muncy, Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).
Stephen J. Leonard is a professor of history at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He lives in Park Hill.