Mary Harriman (1881-1934)

Mary Harriman

Born on November 17, 1881, Mary Harriman was the oldest of six children to railroad industrialist, E.H. Harriman. Mary’s family was among the wealthiest in America at the turn of the twentieth century. Mary, however, did not live the usual sheltered life of the girls of her class.

As her father’s favorite, she often accompanied him on trips to survey his vast railroad empire.  Mary admired her father, who was not only a captain of industry, but also a generous philanthropist. He founded the Tompkins Square Boys’ Club in New York City’s impoverished Lower East Side; he not only provided financial support, but also took time to visit and work with the boys. E.H. Harriman expected much of his children, encouraging them to excel academically.

Mary, a bright student, expressed her intention to enroll in Barnard College, the relatively new female affiliate to New York City’s Columbia University. Mary’s father initially resisted:   young women of Mary’s age and class were expected to debut and then marry; very few had any education beyond that of governesses and finishing schools.  Unable to say no to his favorite child, Harriman relented.

The era was one of great immigration from Europe, and “settlement houses” to help them adjust had been founded in Boston, Chicago, and other cities.  Inspired by a lecture on this during a college preparatory course, Mary had the idea to organize several friends to begin volunteering at the College Settlement on Rivington Street in New York City’s Lower East Side, a large immigrant enclave.  Through her work supporting the College Settlement, Mary became convinced that her privilege obligated her to do more to help others.

In 1901, while a student at Barnard College, Mary and a group of 80 debutantes from New York City’s most prominent families formally established the Junior League for the Promotion of Settlements Movements, now known as The Junior League of the City of New York. The purpose of The Junior League would be to unite social prominent young women to work for the needy. Among The Junior League’s earliest members was Mary’s good friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, who taught dance and calisthenics to girls at the College Settlement and later served as Junior League Secretary.  Eleanor Roosevelt, who later married her cousin with the same surname, exposed future President Franklin Roosevelt to the settlement house clients by having him call for her there, instead at the mansion where she lived; she later wrote that she deliberately arranged dates for earlier than she expected to her classes to end, thus forcing the young Harvard student to spend some time with the poor.

The glaring poverty that Mary Harriman and her fellow Junior League members encountered was indeed a stark contrast to the privileged lives they led, and many members found themselves feeling in over their heads in their attempts to help. Mary pushed her fellow Junior League members to become better educated about poverty and the legal and economic problems that poor people faced if they were to create real change. Mary’s belief in the importance of knowledgeable and trained volunteers would become a key principle of The Junior League. And as members became more knowledgeable and comfortable confronting the pressing issues of their day, their work expanded and gained them recognition as a serious community service organization.

As word of the works of The Junior League spread, women throughout the United States and beyond sent inquiries requesting to start Junior Leagues in their communities. For many women who joined throughout the early twentieth century, membership in The Junior League was a means to engage with their communities and become civic leaders at a time when they were expected to remain at home raising children. The Junior League would serve as launching pad for many women who went on to make a name for themselves in public service, including Sandra Day O’Connor, Margaret Chase Smith, and Shirley Temple. And in many communities, it was The Junior League that was first to call attention to and propose solutions to issues such as learning disabilities, domestic abuse, and sexual violence; the League also joined other of the era’s groups that were considered about the natural environment. Although Mary Harriman cut back on her volunteer activities once she married and started a family, her commitment to helping others and improving communities did not end with the founding of The Junior League. The latter part of her life would be defined by her continued philanthropic efforts, work with farming cooperatives and entrance into the worlds of publishing and politics. This was especially true after the untimely death of her husband, the sculptor and polo player, Cary Rumsey.

Harriman had long expressed an interest in publishing, believing it to be the best forum for expressing her liberal progressive philosophies. After a couple of failed attempts in the newspaper industry, she decided to found a newsmagazine that would serve as a liberal counterpoint to newsmagazines in circulation at the time. In 1932, Mary, along with her younger brother, future diplomat Averell Harriman, and several close colleagues founded the newsmagazine, Today, which would later merge with and become Newsweek.

The following year, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed her to a major agency dealing with the Great Depression:  she chaired   the Consumer Advisory Board (CAB) of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the United States’ first consumer rights panel. In addition to being one of two women to serve on the powerful NRA, she helped write the Social Security Act with others, including her close friend and fellow Junior Leaguer, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins.

Tragically, Mary Harriman was unable to witness passage of the Social Security Act, as she died in 1934 at the age 53. A tireless and committed person, she continued her work as head of the CAB even in the hospital, before succumbing to injuries from a horseback riding accident a month earlier.  Her obituary in The New York Times noted her “desire to accomplish valuable things herself which was extremely rare in her contemporaries of the same position in the world” and labeled her a “pioneer in the now common practice of young ladies working for the benefit of less fortunate persons.


Written by Susan Chavez, Nonprofit Consultant

Works Cited:

  • The Anglican Examiner. Debutantes of the World: Unite! The Irrepressible Mary Harriman.

  • December 19, 1934. New York Times. Report on the death of Mrs. Mary Harriman Rumsey

  • Gordon, Janet & Reische, Diana (1982). The Volunteer Powerhouse. Rutledge Press.

  • Holmen Mohr, Lillian. (1979). Frances Perkins. North River Press

  • Jackson, Ph. D., Nancy Beth. (200 1) The Junior League: 100 Years of Service. FRP.