Rumsey, Mary Harriman

views updated


Mary Harriman Rumsey (November 17, 1881– December 18, 1934) was a reformer who believed in cooperation rather than competition as a vehicle for social and economic enterprise. Active in many civic, social, and philanthropic organizations, she co-founded the Junior League, a voluntary social service organization for debutantes, and during the Great Depression she served as chair of the Consumers' Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration (NRA).

Born into a wealthy New York family (her father was railroad tycoon E. H. Harriman and her siblings included U.S. statesman W. Averell Harriman), Rumsey was expected to live a conventional privileged life. Instead, inspired by the work of settlement house reformers such as Jane Addams and the efforts of the College Settlement Association, Rumsey, her friend Nathalie Henderson Swan, and several other debutantes founded the Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements in New York (later the Junior League) in 1901. Among the group's early members was Eleanor Roosevelt. Rumsey chaired the League until 1905, the year she graduated from Barnard College.

After her father's death in 1909, Rumsey helped manage the Harriman estate and promoted agricultural and livestock cooperatives. In 1910 she married sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey. The marriage, which resulted in three children, lasted until her husband's death in an auto accident in 1922.

In 1928 Rumsey and her brother, Averell, abandoned their family's Republican politics to support the Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith. The siblings also supported Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, although of the two, Mary Rumsey was closer to the Roosevelts and initially more involved with the New Deal. After Roosevelt's election, Rumsey became chair of the Consumers' Advisory Board of the NRA, which lobbied for consumers' interests when the agency's industrial fair practices codes were established. Rumsey also lobbied on behalf of consumers with the National Emergency Council, a coordinating group for New Deal agencies.

Although she lacked bureaucratic experience, Rumsey was influential because of her skill at working with academics and her strong ties with other New Dealers, and she was often mentioned as a possible candidate for a cabinet level position as secretary of consumer affairs. Her most significant achievement, however, may have been convincing Averell to take an administrative post with the NRA, thus beginning his long career in politics and public service.

An avid sportswoman, cattle breeder, and art patron, Rumsey's career ended abruptly when she died in 1934 from injuries suffered when she fell from a horse while fox hunting in Virginia. Her Washington funeral drew many prominent New Dealers, including her old friend, Eleanor Roosevelt.



Abramson, Rudy. Spanning the Century: The Life of AverellHarriman, 1891–1986. 1992.

Beasley, Maurine H.; Holly C. Shulman; and Henry R. Beasley; eds. The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia. 2001.

Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1: 1884–1933. 1992.

Cook, Blanche Wisen. Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 2: 1933–1938. 1999.

Mary Jo Binker