Rumsey, Mary Harriman (1881–1934)

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Rumsey, Mary Harriman (1881–1934)

American social welfare leader. Name variations: Mary Harriman. Born Mary Harriman on November 17, 1881, in New York City; died on December 18, 1934, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of Edward Henry Harriman (a financier and railroad magnate) and Mary Williamson (Averell) Harriman; sister of W. Averell Harriman (ambassador to the Soviet Union and governor of New York); educated at the Brearley School in New York; graduated from Barnard College, 1905; married Charles Cary Rumsey (a sculptor), on May 26, 1910 (died 1922); children: Charles Cary, Jr. (b. 1911); Mary Averell Harriman (b. 1913); Bronson Harriman (b. 1917).

Born on November 17, 1881, in New York City, Mary Harriman Rumsey was the first of Edward Henry Harriman and Mary Williamson Averell Harriman 's six children. Her father was a financier and young Mary grew up in comfortable wealth, which greatly increased at the turn of the 20th century when her father gained control of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroad systems. The family, in addition to being wealthy, was close, and Rumsey's parents were keenly interested in the education and training in the Episcopal faith of all their children.

Rumsey spent most of her childhood in New York City, with frequent vacations to the family's various estates and ranches across the nation. Her entire family enjoyed the outdoors and even joined a scientific expedition to Alaska organized by Edward Harriman in 1899. Rumsey was especially close to her father, and discussed his railroad expansion plans with him; after he took control of Union Pacific, he took Mary and her sister Cornelia Harriman on an inspection tour of the Union Pacific railway system.

Despite her wealthy upbringing, Rumsey was keenly aware that others were not so fortunate. In 1901, she founded the Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements. It was later renamed the Junior League of New York, and from this organization developed the Junior League movement which remains active in cities across the country to this day. The purpose of the Junior League was to encourage wealthy, influential girls and women to devote more time, energy, and resources to the community. Her parents encouraged her in this endeavor, and likewise promoted her entrance into Barnard College, which awakened her interest in sociology and the burgeoning new "science" of eugenics, which was then still quite respectable. Six years after her graduation in 1905, she became a lifelong trustee of the school.

Edward Harriman died in 1909, after which Rumsey became involved in managing Arden, the family estate and dairy farm in New York. She also advised her mother on charitable activities, although the exuberant daughter often conflicted with her more formal mother. Mary married Charles Cary Rumsey, a sculptor hired to decorate Arden House, on May 26, 1910. They settled at Sands Point, Long Island, where their home life combined their interests in horses, polo and art. They also owned a farm near Middleburg, Virginia, where Rumsey applied her longstanding interest in eugenics to cattle breeding, and her interest in community service to creating the Eastern Livestock Cooperative Marketing Association. During World War I, Rumsey became involved in the Community Councils that were organized as part of a plan for national defense.

After her husband died in an automobile accident in 1922, Rumsey devoted more time to social causes. She was named a trustee of the United Hospital Fund of New York in 1925, and played a leading role in the Women's Auxiliary of that institution. Going against her family's Republican tradition, she, with her brother Averell Harriman, supported the presidential candidacy of New York Governor Al Smith in 1928, and after the stock-market crash of 1929, helped neighborhoods deal with the financial aftermath.

Rumsey's enduring friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt and her support of New Deal policies led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to appoint her chair of the Consumers' Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) in 1933. Although the board was unpopular with business and labor interests (as was the entire NRA, which was soon declared unconstitutional), Rumsey kept its agenda on track in the fight against price markups and price discrimination against cooperatives. She played an integral role in protecting consumers' interests during the NRA's establishment of its industrial fair practices code. She also worked to create county consumer-protection councils that would support the efforts of the board. During this time, she shared a house in Washington with Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins , who was a close personal friend.

During a fox hunt on her Virginia farm in November 1934, Rumsey suffered several broken bones in a fall from her horse. Pneumonia set in as she recovered from the fall, and she died just a month later, on December 18, in Washington Emergency Hospital. After her funeral at St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., she was buried next to her parents in the village graveyard in Arden.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women: 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer, Bayville, New York