Leonora O'Reilly

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Leonora O’Reilly
150pxAugust 22, 20082
Born February 16, 1870
New York City
Died April 3, 1927
Brooklyn, New York City
Occupation Labor leader
Children Alice O'Reilly (Adopted 1907, Died 1911)
Parent(s) John O'Reilly (father), Winifred (Rooney) O'Reilly (mother)

Leonora O’Reilly (February 16, 1870 - April 3, 1927) was an American feminist, suffragist, and trade union organizer. O'Reilly was born in New York state, raised in the Lower East Side of New York City. She was born into a working-class family and left school at the age of eleven to begin working under a sewing instructor. Leonora O’Reilly’s parents were Irish immigrants escaping the Potato Famine; her father, John, was a printer and a grocer and died while Leonora was the age of one, forcing her mother, Winifred Rooney O’Reilly, to work more hours as a garment worker in order to support Leonora and her younger brother.[1]

O’Reilly worked from 1903-1915 an organizer and recruiter for the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). O’Reilly was well documented for her volunteerism and her paid labor related to her political activism; she was paid for writing magazine articles and for printing her opinions in newspapers. On the streets of New York, O’Reilly spoke in public for labor reform and women’s suffrage; her skills enabled her to represent women in a Senate Committee on Suffrage as well as in various public meeting halls.[2]

O’Reilly as a public speaker was thought to be out of place for women at this time in New York’s history. Some historians claim that city residents would often question O'Reilly's and the few paid women public speakers’ feminine essence, as if their profession exclusively required male labor. O'Reilly promoted assertive actions that went against contemporary social norms, sparked change, and made room for more women to rise up in O’Reilly’s wake.[2]

Personal and family life[edit]

Family life[edit]

Leonora O'Reilly was the daughter of John O'Reilly, a printer and member of the Knights of Labor, and Winifred (Rooney) O'Reilly, an Irish-born dressmaker. John O'Reilly died when Leonora was one year old.[2] Upon his death, Winifred O'Reilly supported herself and the child by sewing and taking in boarders.

O'Reilly accompanied her mother to meetings at Cooper Union and her father's friend, Victor Drury, helped instill in her an appreciation for the Italian nationalist Mazzini. O'Reilly counted among her influences radical Catholic priest and social justice advocate Fr. Edward McGlynn and anarchist Peter Kropotkin.

Leonora and Winifred O'Reilly both made their home in Brooklyn.

In 1907, Leonora O'Reilly, who never married, adopted a child, Alice. Alice died in 1911.[3]

Personal life[edit]

Leonora O’Reilly would go to the streets, set up her tree stump in an area where an audience could gather, and she would speak to anyone who was willing to listen to her progressive political agenda. Her notable dialogue would change the way people perceived women as people, workers, and citizens and illuminate the legitimate cause behind the words they preached.[2]

At age 16, O'Reilly joined the Comte Synthetic Circle, a self-education group in the Lower East Side of New York. Through this group, O'Reilly met her mentor, Victor Drury. Drury was a French-born intellectual, Knights of Labor activist, and anarchist; he had introduced O'Reilly to many books which helped compensate for her lack of formal education.[1]

In 1898, Leonora O’Reilly took art courses at the Pratt Institute in New York. She received her degree in 1900.[1]

In 1910, O'Reilly became a member of the Socialist Party of New York.[3]

O’Reilly founded the Wage Earners Suffrage League, a more radical wing of the National Woman’s Party, and had called for more fair wages which many upper-class women were not as likely to support. O’Reilly had an ‘equal pay for equal work’ plan for the movement after they had made a dent in their efforts.[2] O'Reilly served as the president of the Wage Earner’s Suffrage League from 1911-1912. In this capacity she served as a volunteer investigator to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.

In 1912, O'Reilly was appointed as the Chair of the Industrial Committee of the New York City Women Suffrage Party.[3]

Nicknamed as 'the agitator,' O'Reilly worked to empower the voice of women workers, rather than supporting their interests on the public platform alone. When speaking about disenfranchised women workers, she would frequently refer to them as ‘intelligent women’ and ‘thinking women’ because that is how O’Reilly perceived them, despite the patriarchal social-norms that at the time did not think as highly of the women.[2] This was made evident throughout her speeches, but notably in her 1896 speech titled "Organization" in which she put heavy emphasis on providing the unprivileged class of workers a sense of class-consciousness against the big industries, which O’Reilly felt had exploited their hard labor.[2]

In 1915, O'Reilly served as the Trade Union Delegate to the International Congress of Women.[3] At this time O'Reilly was 45 years old and she began to suffer from the early stages of heart disease which would slowly trump her ability to be an energetic activist.[2]

In 1919, O'Reilly again served as the Trade Union Delegate, this time to the International Congress for Working Women.[3]

In 1925 and 1926, O'Reilly taught courses at New York's New School for Social Research; these courses were on topics related to 'the theory of the labor movement'.[2]

In 1927, O'Reilly died at the age of 56 due to heart disease.[1]

Career and political activism[edit]

O'Reilly began working in a factory at age 11 as the assistant to a seamstress in New York.[1]

Leonora O’Reilly early in her life became engaged with the labor reform and women’s suffrage movements and at 16 she joined the Knights of Labor with her mother, Winifred O'Reilly, who soon followed her daughter's lead.[2] Leonora belonged to many organizations composed of both working class and elite men and women. Mentors helped further her education. After attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, O'Reilly and her mother became residents at the Asacog House, a settlement house in Brooklyn. She also taught at the Manhattan Trade School.

After being formally introduced to labor rights efforts, in 1886 O'Reilly formed the Working Women’s Society.[3] At this time, Louise Perkins, a women’s activist and philanthropist, had taken interest in O’Reilly’s work, inviting her to membership in New York’s Social Reform Club as this group would often speak on the contemporary issues surrounding the political economy.[1] Only with the financial support of elite women such as Louise Perkins was O'Reilly able to give up manual labor and become a full-time labor organizer with the Women's Trade Union League.

O’Reilly organized the local women’s United Garment Workers of America faction in 1897, and she spoke publicly on the group’s behalf. In 1901, she gave an address to the National Society for Women Workers, advertising and increasing access/awareness for women seeking opportunities in the civil service.[2]

In 1903, O’Reilly with other labor activists co-founded the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), the popular women’s group which led to O'Reilly’s political fame. In 1903, she served as the WTUL vice-president and was paid as a full-time organizer. She was then active in speaking in public and at meetings, undertaking recruiting, working on event organization, networking connections to support the cause, and served as a spokesperson to the press.[1][2] O’Reilly also served the WTUL by being a member of its executive committee.[3]

The Women’s Trade Union League was a non-prejudiced club which included working class women and also those from middle and upper-class families. WTUL also was open to women of all ethnic backgrounds and races as their diverse membership included Italian, Eastern European Jewish, Irish, and Native American women.[2] The WTUL reported in the year between 1908 and 1909, the young activist O'Reilly had officially given 32 speeches credited to her name alone, while between 1909 and 1913, reports suggest she gave speeches nearly every day.[2]

In 1909, O’reilly was a part of the New York Shirtwaist Strike of 1909, also known as the ‘Uprising of 20,000’; over 370 speakers and activists were arrested at this event[2] New York women workers had demanded fair wages and worker's rights in this mass protest co-sponsored by the Women’s Trade Union League as well as the group later known as the National Woman's Party.[2] This same year, O’ Reilly joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), outwardly supporting minority rights. She also was supporting peace efforts, speaking critically of World War I.[1]

O'Reilly served as the president of the Wage Earner’s Suffrage League from 1911-1912.

An ardent socialist, Leonora O'Reilly was a delegate to the 1915 Hague Women's Peace Convention, sailing through mine-laden waters aboard the MS Noordam. She also cooperated with Indian independence organizations. Around 1918, O'Reilly stopped working on behalf of labor and devoted herself to the radical section of American Irish nationalism in 1918.

In 1919 O’Reilly spoke at the International Congress for Working Women in Washington D.C. Despite O’Reilly’s lack of formal education, she was given the opportunity to teach a course at New York’s New School for Social Research on ‘the theory of the labor movement’ in 1925 and 1926.[2]

International Women's Day[edit]

The first International Women's Day (IWD) was declared and celebrated on February 23, 1909.[4] The American Socialists declared IWD to be on the last Sunday of the month of February. This holiday sought to highlight the 'means by which to unite the popular community around a set of common goals', human rights in the form of equal wages, social status, and voting rights for all women.[4]

On February 23, 1909, in New York City's Murray Hill Lyceum at 34th and 3rd Avenue, Leonora O'Reilly spoke to over two-thousand audience members explaining the principles of equal rights and demanding women's equal right to vote. This was the first official celebration of the holiday which led a path towards historical accountability for women's rights all over the world. The holiday was not widely celebrated as many American and European socialists were less interested in the suffragist movement as the idea of promoting full women's rights was seen as subordinate to the economic advancement of male working class citizens.[4]

There is some controversy between American and European historians and women's rights activists as to when the International Women's Day was first established. Some believe that the first American IWD was on March 8, 1907, a day marking the 50th anniversary of the New York Strike of Female Textile Workers. The European women's rights activists had declared their International Women's Day on March 18, 1911.[4]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Weir, Robert (2013). Workers in America: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 558–561, 851. ISBN 9781598847185. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Mattina, Anne F. (Spring 1994). ""Rights as well as duties": The rhetoric of Leonora O'Reilly". Communication Quarterly. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Commire, Anne; Klezmer, Deborah (2002). Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Waterford, CT: Yorkin Publications. ISBN 9780787637361. 
  4. ^ a b c d Kaplan, Temma (March 1986). "On the Socialist Origins of International Women's Day". Celebrating Women World-Wide. Off Our Backs. 16 (3): 1–2.