Electric EDGE
Web Edition of
The Ragged Edge
Nov/Dec 1997

Electric Edge


The Radical Mary Switzer
By Mary Jane Owen
An invitation arrived: Mary Elizabeth Switzer was to be honored: the first administrator of Social and Rehabilitative Services in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. A memorial sculpture would be unveiled in late September in the Great Hall of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building. The sculpture would be placed in the building which bears her name and which houses the offices of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and the Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitation Services. I had to go, if only because Mary Switzer had said, "It is not what you have lost that matters but what you have left that counts."

Image: Back of woman in Victorian attire

A news release summarized her 50 years: an "innovative public servant," "a catalyst for the growth of rehabilitation services and programs that changed the attitudes and enhanced the opportunities and quality of life for millions of people with disabilities and their families." Such phrases do not seem to arouse the interest of the young radicals in the disability rights movement today. More's the pity. Mary Switzer deserves to be remembered by disability activists. She too was a radical.

Her flaming passion for justice (and the Irish temper she learned to control in order to push the social order in new directions) was recognized by her classmates of Radcliffe College, who wrote in their 1921 Yearbook that "Mary Switzer is another of those Radicals for which Radcliffe was founded. She's always got the ax out for something in this social order!"

What moved Mary Switzer from the Irish ghettos of Boston into a Boston Marriage in Alexandria, Virginia? She was born in 1900 to parents who'd left Ireland, escaping the potato famine to start a new family in the U.S. amidst the discrimination and labor unrest which swirled through the streets of Boston. Mary was born first, followed by a sister, Anastasia, and twins. Life was difficult. Her mother died in 1910 of "galloping consumption"; his in-laws held Julius Switzer, a non-Catholic, responsible for his wife's death. He lost job after job; he loved to linger at the local pub. Years later, Mary said she couldn't remember much about him.

Her mother's brother took over raising Mary and Anastasia. It was Uncle Michael Moore -- who had exchanged his passion for liquor for a passion for radical politics, socialism and issues of social justice -- who was to have the greatest influence on the future bureaucrat's thinking. Little Mary sopped up her uncle's idealism like a thirsty bar sponge. As an adult she noted, "I find the exposure I had to revolutionary forces at the time when I was growing up has been of enormous value . . . unless [you have] been exposed to this, and listened to the lingo and the kinds of arguments, thinking and forces that make for revolutionary ferment, you just do not understand what is going on in the world . . . "

A scholarship to Radcliffe meant a daily walk from the slums of Upper Newton and across the Charles River onto the streets of Cambridge. Upon graduation in 1921, Mary was encouraged to make a difference in the world by moving to the capital of our nation. She continued for years to depend on advice from Uncle Mike, who had told her that "a good memory and a good set of files will serve you well." And so Mary started her career as a collector of anything and everything she could learn about the powerful men of her day.

She made good use of this information to influence and persuade, as she was mentored by a supportive group of women who had come to Washington during the Depression. They not only counseled her in the ways of Washington politics, but served as a community to which she could return for encouragement and friendship. These women staffed such organizations as the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and the Minimum Wage Board.

It wasn't too long before Mary moved into the Treasury Department, which she considered "the apex of the Washington scene." In those days, this federal entity not only oversaw national finances but was the umbrella under which the Public Health Service, The Coast Guard, the Secret Service and the Department of Prohibition operated. It was a place in which she both learned and exerted influence. And it was there that her relationship with Isabella Diamond was forged.

Mary Switzer's duties soon brought her greater responsibilities in the health and welfare field. She jumped wholeheartedly into the emerging field of rehabilitation services.

The biography of Mary Switzer, Beyond Bureaucracy, by Martha Lentz Walker, is a wonderful source of the official documents of Mary's career. Much of the material in this column is based on Walker's research. But those official statements and documents seem almost to bury the vitality of this small woman who matched wits against the largest male heroes of her time and came out a winner. She merits greater recognition!

A thousand people attended her retirement dinner at the Sheraton Park Hotel in 1970, where she publicly honored her companion -- "Miss Isabella Diamond, my friend through all of these years, who has made her home with me almost ever since I came to Washington."

That year after Mary retired, Isabella arranged vacations to their favorite spots. But neither woman was well. On October 16, 1971, Mary died of cancer; Isabella had already prepared her obituary. With Mary's death, a vital spirit, a valiant fighter for equity, a strong feminist was gone.

Mary Jane Owen, involved in the disability rights movement since 1972, was a CORE (Committee on Racial Equality) organizer in high school. She writes on equity issues and heroes who are ignored.


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