If you read my original post about The Twelve Virtues of the Merchant Priests, as suggested in the book, Sacred Commerce, my goal is to reflect upon and write about these 12 virtues — honor, loyalty, nobility, virtue, grace, trust, courage, courtesy, gallantry, authority, service, and humility — one a month for an entire year until I get through the list of twelve. (I’m a couple months behind schedule, but what is linear time? Really only a human construct, developed to encourage uniformity of thinking, meaning, I’m only late in some circles while it’s possible that in others I’m operating ahead of schedule.) The 12 virtues of the merchant priest “automatically lift us to a higher octave of being,” and boy could we use some of that these days. This month’s virtue is Nobility.
Nobility sits on a throne of good intentions, but it’s a hard wooden seat without a cushion and a razor-straight back. Eventually, the sitter tires of the lack of luxury, but not Nobility. True Nobility doesn’t truck in luxury, but in getting your hands dirty. You can be born into Nobility, but living up to it is a whole different story (although the modern royals seem to be doing a fine job).
Nobility is not for everyone, but for Mary Harriman Rumsey, it was a driving force. Born in 1881 to American royalty, Harriman worked tirelessly to help those less privileged. Her father, E. H. Harriman made a name and fortune for himself as a railroad magnate, but his civic-minded and philanthropic nature left an impression on his like-minded daughter. A debutante who came of age to become a force in politics and social activism, Mary founded the first Junior League in 1901 at the age of 18 while studying at Barnard College in New York City.
Inspired by the work of social reformers active in the “settlement movement” — the idea that those in upper echelons could and should help those less fortunate than themselves, not with just donations, but through their works and deeds — Mary and 80 of her similarly situated colleagues, one of whom was Eleanor Roosevelt, established the Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements which later became the Junior League of the City of New York. Their first project was on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side, home to a large group of immigrants. Mary and her friends provided assistance and instruction on issues related to health, education and welfare, and social reform. Mary thought it “almost inhuman that we should live so close to suffering and poverty” and do nothing about it. To ensure her workforce was ready, Mary brought in lecturers and leaders in the field to train the Junior Leaguers, a practice which prevails today.
Mary continued her Junior League work for 10 years before moving on to other projects, and later, was tasked by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to chair the Consumer Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration, which had the distinction of being the first government consumer rights group in the nation. In between she founded the Community Council of Greater New York, opening almost five hundred playgrounds across the City, and worked with the Block-Aid program which assisted people on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis with food and clothing. She also worked in politics with an eye toward social reform, and entered the publishing world by founding Today magazine in 1932 (which later merged with Newsweek), a magazine with a social conscience. She even influenced her brother, Averell, to become active in politics and he went on to be the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and the governor of New York. In a time when trivial pursuits were encouraged for women, even the affluent ones, Mary had the tenacity and nobility to forge a path that had not been walked before.
The legacy Mary left behind is the Association of Junior Leagues International Inc. (AJLI), comprising 291 Junior Leagues with about 140,000 women volunteers in Canada, Mexico, the UK and the U.S., women who are improving the community, improving the social dialogue, and improving the lives of those less fortunate in myriad ways. AJLI’s mission statement includes “promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women and improving communities through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. Its purpose is exclusively educational and charitable.”
It’s not often that people reach a hand down in order to pull someone up. Through her life’s noble work, Mary Harriman demonstrated that the world itself is buoyed when we reach out in service to others, a lesson we would all do well to emulate.
BTW, it’s the one-year anniversary of the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord — a not-so-noble thing — but thankfully, there are some brave and noble leaders determined to keep moving forward: