Overlooked No More: Leonora O’Reilly, Suffragist Who Fought for Working Women

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This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times. This latest installment is one of many ways The New York Times is examining the centennial of the 19th Amendment.

The date was March 13, 1912. The occasion was a joint Senate committee hearing in Washington on women’s suffrage. And the star witness about to testify was the labor organizer Leonora O’Reilly, a charismatic and powerful public speaker who was representing the country’s eight million working women.

“I am not going to give you any taffy,” O’Reilly chided the all-male committee. “You men in politics are not leaders, you follow what you think is the next step on the ladder. We want you to understand that the next step in politics, the next step in democracy, is to give to the women of your nation a ballot.”

O’Reilly, who was in her 40s, had been working since she was 11 and had experienced the conditions typical of garment and textile work at the time, toiling six days and 60 hours a week for wages that barely covered the expenses of food, lodging and clothing.

“We working women want the ballot, not as a privilege but as a right,” she told the committee. “All other women ought to have it, but we working women must have it.”

Working women were experts on their own lives, she continued, and they should have a say in the laws affecting them.

“You men say to us: ‘Go back to the home. Your place is in the home,’” she said, “yet as children we must come out of the home at 11, at 13, and at 15 years of age to earn a living; we have got to make good or starve.”

Leonora O’Reilly was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on Feb. 16, 1870, to John and Winifred (Rooney) O’Reilly, Irish immigrants. Her father was a printer, her mother a garment worker. Leonora’s childhood, and her education, was interrupted by the deaths of her only brother and then her father, which left her mother penniless and compelled Leonora to find a job.

Leonora began working in a collar factory alongside other daughters of immigrants. They were expected to work only until marriage, when they would become homemakers, leaving them little time for efforts like labor organizing. But O’Reilly, who never married, wasn’t interested in following the standards that society had set aside for her.

In 1886, at 16, she joined the Knights of Labor, a labor federation, and organized a club called the Working Women’s Society. It gained the attention of Josephine Shaw Lowell and Louise Perkins, well-to-do New York reformers.

Impressed by her quick mind and her passion for self-improvement, Perkins spearheaded an effort in 1897 to raise funds for O’Reilly so that she could take time off from her job in a shirtwaist factory and complete her education. She enrolled in the domestic arts course at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, graduating in 1900. From 1902 to 1909 she taught sewing at the Manhattan Trade School for Girls.

As a public speaker O’Reilly had a remarkable ability to explain working-class conditions to those who had never experienced them. In 1903 she became a founding member of the New York chapter of the Women’s Trade Union League. The W.T.U.L. was unique in its commitment to bringing working women together with wealthy allies to improve conditions for female workers and build their leadership skills in the labor movement.

Coming from such different backgrounds, the allies and the working-class women often clashed over priorities. On many occasions O’Reilly quit in a huff; once, in a letter to a friend, she complained of “an overdose of allies” — the heavy-handed efforts of elite women to control the group. But she would always return.

Mary and Margaret Dreier, wealthy sisters from a German immigrant family in Brooklyn, became major financial backers of the organization. Mary Dreier and O’Reilly shared a warm friendship, and in 1909 Dreier presented O’Reilly with a lifetime annuity that allowed her to devote her attention to the W.T.U.L. For O’Reilly, such collaborations were examples of the power of W.T.U.L., which she once described as “women’s real togetherness.”

Between 1909 and 1915 Leonora O’Reilly was front and center in what the historian Annelise Orleck, in the book “Common Sense and a Little Fire” (1995), called “arguably the most intense period of women’s labor militancy in U.S. history.”

During the 1909-10 garment workers strike, known as “The Uprising of the 20,000,” O’Reilly gave speeches on street corners, joined picket lines and spoke at mass meetings. In the aftermath of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which took the lives of 146 workers, mainly young women, O’Reilly and the W.T.U.L. helped mobilize support for an investigation of the fire. It led to new government safety regulations and regular inspections of factories.

O’Reilly would continue her efforts on behalf of working women, speaking out as well for equal pay for equal work. In 1915, the W.T.U.L. made her a delegate to the International Congress of Women, which met at The Hague to try to find a peaceful alternative to war. And in one of her last public acts, she was a delegate to the 1919 International Congress of Working Women in Washington.

O’Reilly lived with her mother her entire life. In 1907 she adopted an infant daughter, Alice, who died four years later.

When O’Reilly’s health began to fail, she found that the friendships she had formed through the W.T.U.L. stayed strong. The labor activists Pauline Newman and Rose Schneiderman visited her every Saturday.

About 60 years later, Newman, at 94, “could not talk about O’Reilly without tears,” Ms. Orleck wrote in her book.

O’Reilly died of heart failure on April 3, 1927. She was 57.

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