O'Reilly, Leonora (1870–1927)

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O'Reilly, Leonora (1870–1927)

Labor leader, suffragist, advocate of vocational training for women and an early leader of the Women's Trade Union League, who struggled for many years, seeking a balance between feminism and labor politics. Name variations: Nora. Born on February 16, 1870, in New York City; died at home in Brooklyn,New York, on April 3, 1927, of heart disease; daughter of John O'Reilly (a printer and grocer) and Winifred (Rooney) O'Reilly (a garment worker); attended public school until age 11; graduated from the Pratt Institute, 1900; never married; children: Alice (adopted in 1907 and died in 1911).

Started work at 11 in a collar factory (1881); inducted into the Knights of Labor (1886); formed the Working Women's Society (1886); joined the Synthetic Circle (1888) and the Social Reform Club (1894); organized a women's local for the United Garment Workers Union (1897); was a founder of the National Women's Trade Union League (1903) and a member of its executive committee (1903–15); was a founding member of the New York Women's Trade Union League (1904); was a founder of the group that became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909); joined the Socialist Party (1910); appointed chair of the industrial committee of the New York City Woman Suffrage party (1912); served as a trade union delegate to the International Congress of Women (1915); was a trade union delegate to the International Congress of Working Women (1919).

Leonora O'Reilly published little in her lifetime, leaving behind only a handful of articles. Yet, in the early years of the 20th century, at the height of her career as a labor organizer and reformer, O'Reilly made on the average of one speech a day. She was a powerful orator who could move an audience with plain talk about the conditions women faced as industrial workers. And she spoke from her own experience.

In 1912, Leonora O'Reilly appeared before a Joint Senate Committee then hearing testimony regarding women's suffrage. This woman who went to work in a garment factory at age 11 was not afraid to speak her mind before the political leaders of her day. Representing working-class women, she told the U.S. Senators there assembled: "You can not or will not make laws for us; we must make laws for ourselves. We working women need the ballot for self-protection; that is all there is to it."

Such determined candor came from a lifetime of hard work and a childhood spent in poverty. O'Reilly was born in New York City, the daughter of Irish immigrants. Her father John O'Reilly had worked as a union printer before opening up his own small grocery store shortly before his daughter's birth in 1870. Her mother Winifred Rooney O'Reilly had come to America in the 1840s, escaping the devastation of the Irish potato famine only to live on the edge of poverty in her new homeland. Winifred worked as a garment worker before marriage, a trade she returned to when the grocery store failed and her husband and young son died in 1871. Leonora was not yet two years old.

Leonora and her mother were always close; the older woman had a strong influence on her daughter. It was Winifred who taught Leonora to sew, and the two worked into the night finishing garments Winifred brought home from the factory. It was also Winifred who instilled in Leonora an interest in trade unionism as a remedy to the harsh conditions industrial workers then faced. As a young child, Leonora had attended union meetings with her mother. Not surprisingly, only a few years after leaving school and starting work in a collar factory, O'Reilly became a union member herself when she joined the Knights of Labor in 1886. She was then 16 years old.

I suffer torture dividing the woman's movement into the Industrial Group and all the other groups. Women, real women anywhere and everywhere, are what we must nourish and cherish.

Her induction into the Knights of Labor was sponsored by a family friend, Jean Baptiste Hubert. Known as Uncle B, Hubert encouraged the young Leonora to learn French and to stay true to the trade unionist sentiments espoused by her mother. After joining the Knights, O'Reilly also met the Italian socialist Victor Drury; he would be her lifelong mentor. Before coming to America, he had been involved in radical politics in Europe, including the Paris Commune of 1870. This radicalism, and the need to sacrifice for a greater cause, was passed on to Drury's young protégé. With his encouragement, O'Reilly established the Working Women's Society in 1886. Years later, she would repay the older man's support by caring for him during the last few years of his life, until his death in 1918.

Although she worked long hours in the collar factory, O'Reilly devoted her evenings to organizing this group which sought to educate workers and the public in general regarding the exploitation of labor. Led by O'Reilly, the Society's activities came to the attention of the wealthy and reform-minded Josephine Shaw Lowell who helped generate more publicity and went on to establish the National Consumers' League in 1890. With the assistance of the League, the data collected by the Working Women's Society would help persuade the New York State Assembly to pass the Mercantile Inspection Act of 1896.

Winifred O'Reilly also inspired her daughter to continue her education, even though the young girl had left school at age 11. This Leonora did as part of a circle of self-taught workers interested in philosophical and social issues of the day. In 1888, she joined the Synthetic Club, a study group devoted to the philosophy of Positivism. Through the club, and her later membership in the Ethical Culture Society's Social Reform Club which she joined in 1894, O'Reilly became part of a lively, intellectual working-class environment, where she developed a philosophical basis for her lifelong activism on behalf of working-class women.

By the mid-1890s, O'Reilly was working ten hours a day in a shirtwaist factory and taking classes at night. She learned shorthand and went to the YWCA gym. She was still a leader of the Working Women's Society, and her activities there brought her to the attention of another well-to-do reformer, Louise Perkins . Perkins, then associated with the Henry Street Settlement House, came to see something quite special in the younger woman and encouraged her to become involved with the various programs offered at Henry Street. Using the settlement house as her base of operations, O'Reilly organized a women's local of the United Garment Workers.

However, it soon became clear to Perkins that O'Reilly's special talents as a labor organizer and public speaker had to play a secondary role as long as she was obliged to support herself. Therefore, in 1897 Perkins enlisted the aid of several other wealthy women and raised enough money to give O'Reilly a year off from the factory, enabling her to work full-time at Henry Street. During her year in residence, O'Reilly was in charge of a boys' club, investigated conditions in local sweatshops, and ran an experimental cooperative garment factory. Unfortunately, the cooperative soon proved to be unsuccessful as the goods produced were of too fine a quality to be sold on the regular market. Nonetheless, O'Reilly learned a valuable lesson as manager and instructor of the cooperative's employees. Not only did she discover in herself a particular talent for teaching, she also became increasingly aware of the importance of vocational training for women workers. O'Reilly saw in such training a way to instill pride in one's work and a greater self-appreciation of the worker's part in production. Quite possibly, such training might even "act as an incentive to unionization."

With that in mind, O'Reilly enrolled in the domestics arts program at the Pratt Institute, again relying on the financial support of her middle- and upper-class friends. She graduated in 1900, trained now as a sewing teacher. However, because she had not taken the necessary academic courses, she could not be certified to teach in the New York public schools. Instead, O'Reilly worked briefly as head resident at yet another settlement house, the Asacog Settlement in Brooklyn, and taught sewing through the privately funded Alliance Employment Bureau. In 1902, she began work at the Manhattan Trade School for Girls.

While she would remain at the school for seven years, for most of which as head of the sewing machine operating department, O'Reilly was frustrated by her experiences as a faculty member. The school's head, Mary Schenck Woolman , was much more conservative than O'Reilly regarding trade unions and discouraged her from engaging in any organizational activity. At the same time, O'Reilly was deeply disappointed that she, or any other working-class woman, was not made a member of the school's board of directors.

In this omission, she saw a genuine lack of concern for the viewpoints of the people the school had been established to serve. Although O'Reilly had been associating with women from outside her class for years, she still harbored doubts about the motivations of middle- and upper-class reformers. While she had been involved with them in organizations such as the Working Women's Society, worked alongside them in various settlement houses, had even benefited from their generosity, O'Reilly frequently felt that many reformers were condescending and lacked a true appreciation of working-class life. Her experiences as a teacher at the Manhattan Trade School for Girls only reinforced her fears.

Yet, her nascent feminism encouraged O'Reilly to continually seek out like-minded women of whatever class, working together to address the concerns of working-class women. O'Reilly's attempts in 1897 to organize female garment workers into their own local had been frustrated from the start by the ambivalence of a male-dominated trade union movement. She frequently found much more support for her activities among those women of moderate, even great wealth, many of whom had attended college but soon realized that few if any careers were open to them despite their education.

At the same time, many of these educated women of means were sincerely troubled by the

harsh conditions under which industrial workers labored and lived. They felt a particular bond with women of the working class because the gender ideology of the day made all women, regardless of status, second-class citizens. In this spirit of sisterhood and in recognition of the apparent inability or lack of interest on the part of male trade unions in organizing women workers, the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) was formed in 1903. The WTUL was to be a cross-class alliance of both working-class women and their middle- and upper-class allies, dedicated to organizing women workers into viable unions. Ambiguously affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) from its inception, the WTUL also sought to educate women workers as well as agitate for protective labor legislation.

Historian Meredith Tax has written that Leonora O'Reilly "was in many ways the soul of the WTUL." Her abilities as an organizer and speaker and her passion carried the WTUL through its early years. O'Reilly was at the initial meeting, along with settlement house workers William English Walling and Jane Addams and veteran labor organizer Mary Kenney O'-Sullivan , which gave birth to the WTUL. She was for the next dozen years a member of the national executive board as well as a founder of the New York branch of the WTUL in 1904.

O'Reilly's correspondence and diary entries from this period testify to her concerns that the WTUL was fated to be yet another organization of "Lady Bountifuls" condescending to the needs of working-class women. Her concerns were realized when the New York branch supported the publication of a supposed autobiography of Dorothy Richardson (not to be confused with British author Dorothy M. Richardson ), The Long Day: The Story of a New York Working Girl, as Told by Herself. For O'Reilly, this book written by a middle-class ally was not only untrue, it was a "rank exploitation of the working women of New York." In response, O'Reilly briefly resigned from the WTUL in 1905. She soon rejoined the WTUL and for the next few years continually sought to balance feminist politics with the interests of the working class. Such a balance was precariously maintained, fraught with tension. O'Reilly's personal struggle was mirrored in the WTUL itself until its demise in 1950.

Upon her return to the WTUL, O'Reilly devoted herself to that organization with her usual fervor despite lingering misgivings. She also encouraged the involvement of other women who would be of vital service to the WTUL in the years ahead. Mary Dreier , a middle-class woman from Brooklyn, was an old friend who had worked with O'Reilly at Asacog House. Dreier would soon become president of the New York WTUL. Her sister, Margaret Dreier Robins , also joined and went on to be a leader of the Chicago branch and president of the WTUL on the national level. Both Dreier sisters were greatly impressed by O'Reilly's speaking talents and her tireless devotion to the cause of working women. Concerned that O'Reilly's health was suffering from overwork, Dreier gave her a lifetime annuity in 1909, enabling O'Reilly to quit her teaching job and become a full-time organizer for the WTUL. In that same year, O'Reilly was elected vice president of the New York branch.

For the working women of New York, the next few years were volatile ones. Given her organizing experience and her position within the WTUL, O'Reilly was constantly on call. As one of the leaders of the 1909 strike of women garment workers, known as the "Uprising of the Thirty Thousand," she demonstrated, picketed and made daily speeches. As chair of the New York WTUL's fire-protection committee, O'Reilly spearheaded an investigation into workplace safety after the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company where 146 women died in 1911. In that effort, she was assisted by her friend and fellow working-class organizer, Rose Schneiderman . Upon release of their official report, both women received the thanks of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union at the 1912 ILGWU annual convention.

The security provided through the lifetime annuity from Mary Dreier also allowed O'Reilly to become involved with a variety of activities, some not directly related to working-class women. In 1909, she was among those, including Ida Wells-Barnett, Mary White Ovington , and W.E.B. Du Bois, who signed the call for the National Negro Conference, out of which would be formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); she would also serve on the first NAACP General Committee. A year later, O'Reilly joined the Socialist Party and was active in the New York faction. Long interested in women's suffrage as a partial remedy to the harsh conditions of industrial labor, she became chair of the New York City Woman Suffrage Party's industrial committee. She made numerous speeches on the need for women's suffrage, including her April 1912 appearance before the U.S. Senate.

The annuity from Dreier also made possible a change in O'Reilly's personal life. In 1909, she bought a home in Brooklyn. Her mother, who lived with her, was now in failing health. In their Brooklyn home, O'Reilly also cared for her daughter Alice, whom she had adopted in 1907. The child's death in 1911 was an event from which O'Reilly never fully recovered. Her grief, along with the stress of caring for her mother while engaged in her varied reform activities, caused her already fragile health to further decline.

At the same time, circumstances within the WTUL once again caused O'Reilly to break ties with the organization she had helped form. She was opposed to the minimum wage for women legislation which the WTUL started campaigning for in 1909. While O'Reilly supported legislation regarding maximum hours, she and several other WTUL members agreed with the official AFL stance against the minimum wage, fearing that "the floor would become the ceiling." While the minimum-wage issue split the New York WTUL chapter, that branch was further threatened by a divisive 1914 election for local president after the resignation of Mary Dreier.

Despite the fact that both candidates, Rose Schneiderman and Melinda Scott , were working class, their support fell along class and ethnic lines. Scott had the support of the allies while Schneiderman's support came from the primarily Jewish working-class members. The nasty politicking surrounding this election, which eventually went to Scott, was the last straw for O'Reilly. She had always been quick to condemn the middle- and upper-class allies for what O'Reilly perceived to be their inherent class prejudices. After the 1914 election, she told Mary Dreier that the WTUL "ought to die, the sooner, the better."

While the organization did not soon die, one of its primary leaders did resign from office. Citing health problems, O'Reilly ended her daily association with the WTUL in 1915. Indeed, she was suffering from heart disease, yet her frustrations from working for change within a crossclass alliance were as much responsible for her resignation as her declining health. She spent her last active years focused on international causes.

In 1915, as a trade union delegate to the International Congress of Women, held at The Hague, O'Reilly made a stirring speech regarding women workers. As a pacifist, she was against American involvement in World War I. As a socialist, she enthusiastically supported the Russian Revolution of 1917. Two years later, with the end of World War I, the WTUL appointed O'Reilly to their committee on social and industrial reconstruction. That same year, 1919, O'Reilly went to Washington as a delegate to the WTUL-sponsored International Congress of Working Women. There, she met a Hindu woman, Parvatbai Athavale , who eventually lived with her a year or so and sparked O'Reilly's interest in the education of Indian women. O'Reilly also became involved with the cause of Irish independence.

Her participation in the 1919 Congress was to be O'Reilly's last major effort on behalf of working women. Her final years were consumed by her own poor health and the care of her increasingly senile mother. O'Reilly managed to rally briefly in 1925, when she presented a yearlong course on labor movement theory at the New School for Social Research. The woman who had been an activist for 40 years could now only address the theoretical aspects of the cause of labor. She died at age 57 in her Brooklyn home of the heart disease which had plagued her for years.

In her accomplishments as a woman of the working class, O'Reilly was certainly exceptional. Yet, her worldview never allowed her to forget her origins. It was the source of her strength as an organizer and as an orator. It was also the source of much tension as she sought to balance her class loyalties with the feminism espoused by her middle- and upper-class allies and friends. This tension was never resolved, and it frustrated her efforts on behalf of her primary goal. Leonora O'Reilly dedicated her life to improving conditions for those countless millions who, as she had in her early years, labored merely to survive. She did so with some success and much dignity.


Bularzik, Mary J. "The Bonds of Belonging: Leonora O'Reilly and Social Reform," in Labor History. Vol. 24, 1983, pp. 60–83.

Lagemann, Ellen Condliffe. "Leonora O'Reilly, 1870–1927," in A Generation of Women: Education in the Lives of Progressive Reformers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Tax, Meredith. "Leonora O'Reilly and the Women's Trade Union League," in The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880–1917. NY: Monthly Review Press, 1980.

suggested reading:

Dye, Nancy Schrom. As Equals and As Sisters: Feminism, the Labor Movement, and the Women's Trade Union League of New York. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1980.


Correspondence, papers, and memorabilia located in the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.

Kathleen Banks Banks , Manuscripts Processor at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts

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