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

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.

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