Leonora O'Reilly

Leonora O'Reilly

Leonora O'Reilly, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was born in New York City on 16th February 1870. The family were poor and at the age of eleven she began working in a collar factory. Five years later she joined the Knights of Labor.

O'Reilly became active in trade union activities and eventually helped form a female chapter of the United Garment Workers of America. She also continued her academic education by attending the Brooklyn Pratt Institute. Later she taught at the Manhattan Trade School for Girls (1902-09).

O'Reilly was also involved in the formation of the Woman's Trade Union League. The main objective of the organization was to educate women about the advantages of trade union membership. It also support women's demands for better working conditions and helped to raise awareness about the exploitation of women workers.

The Woman's Trade Union League received support from the American Federation of Labour and attracted women concerned with women's suffrage as well as industrial workers wanting to improve their pay and conditions. Early members included Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, Margaret Robins, Mary McDowell, Mabel Gillespie, Margaret Haley, Helen Marot, Mary Ritter Beard, Rose Schneiderman, Alice Hamilton, Agnes Nestor, Eleanor Roosevelt, Florence Kelley and Sophonisba Breckinridge.

O'Reilly developed a reputation as an outstanding orator. The New York Call reported in 1909: "Miss O'Reilly was simply attired, modest in appearance and unassuming in her manners. But no sooner did she begin to speak when her voice, her face, her very personality, told of a sincerity that won admiration. She gained the audience with the beginning of her first sentence. In addition to her sincerity she is eloquent and humorous. In simple words but in a decided tone, she hit hard at her opponents, and said words that impressed the most obdurate."

O'Reilly played a leading role in the garment workers dispute (1909-10) and led the investigation into the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company that resulted in the death of 146 people. O'Reilly, who campaigned for woman suffrage and the Wage Earners' League and was active in the Henry Street Settlement House, was also a member of the Socialist Party of America and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Leonora O'Reilly died on 3rd April 1927.

Primary Sources

(1) New York Call (1st March, 1909)

In accordance with a request made by the national committee, the Socialist party all through the country yesterday afternoon gave demonstrations to the woman suffragists, and held many meetings at which the principles of equal rights were explained and votes for women were demanded. In this city the principle meeting was held at Murray Hill Lyceum, at 34th street and Third avenue, with an enthusiasm that foretold an active and energetic campaign and successful results. The two wanting numerically, but the two thousand people who were present were alive to the principles of equal rights and gave much spiritual encouragement to the workers in the movement. The speakers were frequently applauded, and the arguments were greeted with a boisterous approval. There were four women and two men speakers, and each spoke with a sincerity that filled the audience with enthusiasm and appreciation.

The one who made the strongest appeal for her sisters was Miss Leonora O'Reilly. She was introduced by the chairman of the meeting, Mrs. Meta L. Stern, whose literary name is "Hebe," as "the woman who went to Albany with the suffragists, and who was responsible for the phrase 'We do not want the ballot, we need it.' A phrase that will become the slogan in the working woman's ballot for the right to vote," said Mrs. Stern.

Miss O'Reilly was simply attired, modest in appearance and unassuming in her manners. But no sooner did she begin to speak when her voice, her face, her very personality, told of a sincerity that won admiration. She gained the audience with the beginning of her first sentence. In addition to her sincerity she is eloquent and humorous. In simple words but in a decided tone, she hit hard at her opponents, and said words that impressed the most obdurate.

She began her address by telling of the hearing in Albany last Wednesday. She did not know what to call that meeting. She was not sure whether it was a comedy, a tragedy or a farce. She quoted one anti as saying that what was wanted was not an extended franchise, but a restricted one.

"Now, is it not time for you men," said the speaker, "to consider the significance of these words? This demand will be made and carried out as soon as it will be realized that you want more than they care to give. The restrictions will be made. First it will be an educational qualification, then a property qualification, until the workingmen will be disfranchised and only the idiots who support the ruling class will be left to do the voting."

"One woman," she said, "spoke on the fallen woman, and called the attention of the Senators that she would vote. But she did not mention the fact that her companion is allowed to vote."

After reviewing the political situation of today she said in a low voice: "You men made a mess of it, and you know it. Your political house needs cleaning and a man is not earthly good when it comes to housecleaning; let us do it." Speaking of the suffragists who are jailed, she said she wished they would jail her.

"But then there would be so many jailed with me," she said, "that all the jails would be packed. Nay, you would have to build new ones. In such event I would like you men on the outside to see to it that the jails be equipped with modern improvements so that they be fit for schools when we get the vote."

(2) New York Times (20th December, 1909)

Maud Malone appeared yesterday afternoon as the champion and supporter of Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont at a meeting of the Socialistic women of New York at the Labor Temple on Eighty-fourth Street, where that energetic organization had gathered in a conference to repudiate, as far as their support is concerned, the "bourgeois suffrage movement" because it is "by its very nature antagonistic."

The repudiation of the suffrage women by the Socialistic women in refusing to accept the invitation of the National Woman's Suffrage Association to cooperate with it was apparently cut and dried before the opening of the conference. It was so far decided that the suffragists, in their headquarters at 505 Fifth Avenue, had news of it the day before. But that did not prevent the women Socialists from having three different resolutions up, and they discussed the matter pro and con from 2:30 in the afternoon to 7:30 at night. The resolutions refusing to cooperate with the suffragists was passed when a large part of the members had left, and then almost unanimously.

The women Socialists declared themselves with one voice to be woman suffragists but they say the organized woman suffragists belong to the capitalistic class and can never have anything in common with them. They do not believe in the millionaire women who are assisting the suffragists.

"You make a mistake if you think you can work hand-in-hand with the suffragists," said Mrs. Theresa Malkiel. "When I was down helping the strikers a man in Mrs. Belmont's employ came to me and said: 'My dear lady, this is a great cause and if you wish to help in it Mrs. Belmont will be glad to pay you.' But I will never organize the girls into clubs to suit Mrs. Belmont. I was a suffragist before Mrs. Belmont ever dreamed of it. There is lots of work we can do, but why take the work on Mrs. Belmont's platform? Why not take it on our own?

"Mrs. Belmont, Miss Shaw, and Mrs. Blatch are only interested in us because they think through us they can get the working girls."

"I want fair play and want to give fair play," said Miss Leonora O'Reilly. "If this is an educational work and these other women say, 'Come on our platform,' why not go and use it as a school for educating older people. Sometimes you have to close your ears to the name of a school you don't like. If you can get work done with money why not let them do it? If you go on their platform you gain a stanch heart."

"I don't know why we should educate Mrs. Belmont and Miss Morgan," said Dr. Anna Ingerman, a Russian woman. "If there is any educating to do we had better do it among our own people. The Suffragists ask us to go to a mass meeting and sit in a box we pay $10 for and put our banner outside it, but they don't ask us to speak.

"I'm ashamed of those poor girl strikers, taken up among the Four Hundred with Mrs. Belmont on one side and Miss Morgan on the other. It is enough to demoralize them. Poor girls who only know enough to scream when they are hurt. When it is said that Mrs. Belmont pays for the meeting places of the strikers that is enough to blind the working classes."

"I was responsible for taking those girls to that meeting said little "Comrade" Rose Schneiderman. "Just as I think it will do good when the girls tell the reporters what has happened to them so I think it was good to have them talk to the people. You can't limit their education."

Here is where Miss Malone came to the rescue of Mrs. Belmont. "I don't believe in attacks on an individual woman," she said. "You are taking a lower stand when you do that as was done in our recent political campaign. And the regular suffragists are not capitalists. Their interests are not distinct from those of the working woman and I am not a Socialist. The suffragists have always been kept back because of the need of money, which is a great help.

"You should not condemn the whole suffrage movement because a few people do not live up to the ideals. All people do not live up to the ideals. All people do not think alike. I believe in militant methods and others do not but there is no reason for disagreeing."

"This is a special woman's problem," said Mrs. Meta Stone, a German newspaper woman. "We lay too much stress upon the millionaires among the suffragists and forget that we have them in our own party. If there is a Mrs. Belmont in the suffrage party there is also a Leonora O'Reilly. If we take sides against the suffragists our common enemies, the 'antis' , who go around to 'scab' workmen and speak of 'freedom of contract' will use it as a weapon against them."

"The suffragists don't like us; they hate us," said Mrs. Carrie W. Allen. "I happen to know that when Emma Goldman came out as an anti-suffragist the other day one suffragist wrote to an 'anti' friend, saying: 'You accused us with mixing up with the Socialists and now you are hobnobbing with an Anarchist.'"

The resolution which was adopted said that the beliefs of the women would undoubtedly bring them "into frequent conflict with the organized suffrage movement," and that the work of the Socialistic women for suffrage "must be carried on along separate and independent lines."