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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 as a seamstress. 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.
O’Reilly worked from 1903 to 1915 an organizer and recruiter for the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). 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 1911 at a New York Senate Committee on Suffrage as well as in various public meeting halls.
LLeonora 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. Upon his death, Winifred O'Reilly supported herself and the child by sewing and taking in boarders.
OO'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.
AAt 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.
In 1898, Leonora O’Reilly took art courses at the Pratt Institute in New York graduating in 1900. She was supported in this and other activities by a wealthy Boston philanthropist named who, in 1897, provided O'Reilly with an annual salary, allowing her to leave wage work for full-time labor organizing. In 1909 O'Reilly was deeply involved in the New York Shirtwaist Strike, the Uprising of the 20,000. In part in reaction to what she thought was the betrayal of wealthy women supporters of the shirtwaist workers, in 1910, O'Reilly became a member of the Socialist Party of New York.
Nonetheless, she remained a dedicated supporter of women's rights and woman suffrage. In 1912 O’Reilly founded the Wage Earners Suffrage League, the "industrial wing" of the Woman Suffrage 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. O'Reilly served as the president of the Wage Earner’s Suffrage League from 1911 to 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.
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. 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.
In 1915, O'Reilly served as the Trade Union Delegate to the International Congress of Women. 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.
In 1919, O'Reilly again served as the Trade Union Delegate, this time to the International Congress for Working Women.
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'.
In 1927, O'Reilly died at the age of 56 due to heart disease.
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