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Leonora Barry (August 13, 1849 – July 18, 1923) was born in County Cork, Ireland, to John and Honor Granger Kearney. As the only woman to hold national office within the Knights of Labor, she brought attention to the conditions of working women through her involvement in the labor reform movement while also furthering the progress of woman’s rights during the period following the American Civil War and Reconstruction.[1]

Contents

Early life

Leonora ’s early life did not indicate future involvement in any reform movements.[2] Her father, an Irish farmer, relocated his family to the rural community of Pierrepont, New York in 1852, to escape a potato famine.[3] While she attended the local school, her early life was marked by trial and hardship.

In 1864 her mother died at a young age and, upon her father’s remarriage to a woman five years Leonora's superior, Barry decided to attend teaching school. After moving out of the house to escape the tension between her father's new wife and herself, she took the initiative to contact the head of a girls’ school in nearby Colton, New York, from whom she received private instruction for six weeks.[4] At the age of sixteen Barry received her teacher’s certificate and, over the following years, taught at a local school.[5]

Activism

Leonora Barry married William E. Barry, an Ireland native who emigrated to Canada and then to New York, on November 30, 1871. A painter and musician, he moved with his wife to Potsdam, New York, where the couple had their first child, Marion Frances, in 1873.[6] Teachers were in considerable need following the Civil War, however upon her marriage to William E. Barry, she first encountered discrimination in the workplace in a substantial way: state law required her to give up her vocation as a teacher since she was a married woman. Thus she had few other choices than to settle for manual labor. The family moved frequently, including to Haydensville, Massachusetts, and Amsterdam, New York, and their family grew with the birth of two sons, William Standish in 1875 and Charles Joseph in 1880. When her husband died of a lung disease, and her daughter shortly afterward, Barry was left widowed with two sons and even fewer options. Barry then began work as a seamstress but found the job too tiring.[7] She then took a job in an Amsterdam hosiery factory where she and her fellow working women faced harsh conditions, long hours, and low pay.[8] She often found herself working upwards of 70 hours a week, and with pay based on output, she made only eleven cents her first day and only 65 cents her first week.[9] Before the death of her daughter, she later recalled her plight, “I was left, without knowledge of business, without knowledge of work, without knowledge of what the world was, with three fatherless children looking to me for bread.”[10]
As a means of taking action against the injustice faced by women in the workforce, Barry joined the local women’s branch of the Knights of Labor in 1884, a time when the national organization’s membership reached its peak. The organization originally served as a secret organization for Philadelphia garment workers but transformed into an association with the objective of promoting the labor reform movement from a uniform position.[11] Barry represented the organization’s ideal working woman: one forced out of the private female sphere of antebellum ideology into the world of factory labor because of economic necessity.[12] Barry’s local branch of the Knights held about 1,500 members at this time.[13] Barry rose within the Knights of Labor and soon became the master workman, or president, of her local branch.[14] In 1885 she became president of District Assembly 65, which included fifty-two local branches and over nine thousand members.[15] One year later she attended the district convention in Albany and served as one of the district’s five delegates to the General Assembly of the Knights of Labor in Richmond, Virginia[16] With the endorsement by the Knights of Labor national leader, Terence V. Powderly, delegates of this convention voted her as head of the recently created Department of Women’s Work.[17] (The General Assembly created a committee to gather information on women’s conditions in the labor industry, and the findings led to the creation of the Department of Women’s Work to be led by a general investigator.[18]) With her duties, she was to “investigate women’s employment conditions, build new assemblies, agitate for the KOL’s principle of equal pay for equal work, and integrate women into the Knights.”[19] Indeed she was the first woman to be paid to be a labor investigator and organizer.[20] Further, she was the “only woman to hold national office in the order.”[21] As the primary investigator, Barry dedicated her life to improving wages and working conditions for women throughout the United States, traveling across the nation to organize others and investigate the female working conditions while also serving as the spokesperson for the female laborer.[22] Her reports to the General Assembly in 1887, 1888, and 1889 described the horrific conditions in factories, conditions tantamount to the abuse of women and children. These reports made Barry the first person to collect national statistics on the American working woman.[23] About 65,000 women belonged to the Knights at this time; the organization offered jobs and affordable goods to women while also organizing boycotts in support of female factory laborers’ interests.[24] About four hundred of the Knights’ local branches included women; membership in two-thirds of these was limited to women.[25] Barry, however, found herself unable to build a solid following due to the apathy of working women, divisions within the Knights of Labor, and difficulties faced by a woman attempting to organize men in a male-dominated society.[26] Employers also refused to allow her to investigate their factories.[27] Due to this employer resistance, organizing women within the movement was a challenge, and often better paid workers were reluctant to join labor movements for fear that their conditions would worsen. As Barry remarked, some women had a “habit of submission and acceptance without question of any terms offered them, with the pessimistic view of life in which they see no ray of hope.”[28] These factors pushed Barry to support state and federal legislation as a means of protecting laborers.[29] Her efforts in this regard are most visible in the 1889 passage of the first Pennsylvania factory inspection act. Barry, however, would not lobby politicians because she considered such activity “unladylike.”[30] Yet Of her more than five hundred speeches during the course of her career including her popular speech, “The Dignity of Labor,” one July 4th speech in 1888 in particular before three thousand people in Rockford, Illinois prompted the local women’s assembly to rename the holiday, “Foremothers’ Day.”[31] Whether her efforts were always successful or not, she left an enduring legacy for the women's rights movement. Barry always kept moving forward amidst setbacks, and she willingly made personal sacrifices for the cause in which she believed. After all, “the movement demanded a difficult choice between more traditional feminine concerns and a significant role in public life.”[32] Given her self described goal to liberate “from the remorseless grasp of tyranny and greed the thousands of underpaid women and girls in our large cities, who, suffering the pangs of hunger, cold and privation, ofttimes yield and fall into the yawning chasm of immorality,” one can understand the motivation and passion that drove her in her cause.[33]

Barry felt women should not work outside the household except in cases of economic need, and, upon her marriage to Obadiah Read Lake in 1890, Barry resigned from her position within the Knights of Labor, bringing an end to the Department of Woman’s Work.[34]

At her resignation from the KOL, she seemed to backtrack on her entire mission by stating, “If it were possible, I wish that it were not necessary for women to learn any trade but that of domestic duties, as I believe it was intended that man should be the bread-winner”. While such a sentiment appears contrary to her entire cause, she went on to qualify her statement by adding, “But as that is impossible under present conditions, I believe women should have every opportunity to become proficient in whatever vocation they choose or find themselves best fitted for.”[35] Lake, a trained printer and the proofreader and telegraph editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, resided in St. Louis.[36] Barry continued to travel and speak on behalf of the woman’s suffrage movement and the temperance movement, among other reform movements, after her retirement in St. Louis.[37] She persevered in her pursuit of labor equality for women but in a less organized manner. Barry served primarily as a public speaker on issues of reform, as illustrated by her 1893 speech before the World’s Representative Congress of Women at the Columbian exposition in Chicago on “The Dignity of Labor.”[38] (Interestingly, Barry never used prepared texts.)[39] She also proved vital to the successful campaign for woman suffrage in Colorado.[40] In 1916 she moved to Minooka, Illinois, and became active in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America while also placing much emphasis on building public support for Prohibition and, later, the Volstead Act.[41] A baseball fan, Barry frequented Chicago to enjoy games.[42] Later in life known as Mother Lake, Barry died on , of cancer of the mouth.[43] Her influence on the labor movement, as well as the woman’s rights and temperance movements, well succeeded her.

Notes

  1. ^ Susan Levine, “Labor’s True Woman: Domesticity and Equal Rights in the Knights of Labor”, The Journal of American History 70, no. 2 (1983): 331.
  2. ^ Women in World History. A biographical encyclopedia, s.v. “Barry, Leonora M” (Connecticut: Yorkin Publications, 2002), 186.
  3. ^ Dictionary of American Immigration History, s.v. “Barry, Leonora Kearney” (New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1990), 67.
  4. ^ Eric Arnesen, Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History (New York: Routledge, 2007), 145-146.
  5. ^ Notable American Women, 1607-1950. A biographical dictionary, s.v. “Barry, Leonora Marie Kearney” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1971), 101.
  6. ^ Alden Whitman, ed., American Reformers (New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1985), 57.
  7. ^ Ibid.
  8. ^ Charles Van Doren, ed., Webster’s American Biographies (Massachusetts: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1974), 68.
  9. ^ “Leonora Marie (Kearney) Barry, Labor Organizer,” Women of Courage Profiles, http://www.northnet.org/stlawrenceaauw/barry.htm
  10. ^ John A. (John Arthur) Garraty, Mark C. (Mark Christopher) Carnes, and American Council of Learned Societies, American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 252.
  11. ^ Whitman, American Reformers, 57.
  12. ^ Levine, Labor’s True Woman, 333.
  13. ^ Notable American Women, 101.
  14. ^ Van Doren, Webster’s American Biographies, 68.
  15. ^ Women in World History, 187.
  16. ^ Notable American Women, 101.
  17. ^ Dictionary of American Immigration History, 67.
  18. ^ Notable American Women, 101.
  19. ^ Eric Arnesen, Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History (New York: Routledge, 2007), 146.
  20. ^ “Leonora Marie (Kearney) Barry, Labor Organizer,” Women of Courage Profiles, http://www.northnet.org/stlawrenceaauw/barry.htm
  21. ^ Susan Levine, “Labor's True Woman: Domesticity and Equal Rights in the Knights of Labor,” The Journal of American History 70, no. 2 (September, 1983), 332.
  22. ^ Van Doren, Webster’s American Biographies, 68. However, this complicated her views on traditional female society, for it forced her to leave her children and live in the public sphere. For further information, See Opdycke, “Barry, Leonora,” and Levine, Labor’s True Woman.
  23. ^ Whitman, American Reformers, 57.
  24. ^ Sandra Opdycke, “Barry, Leonora,” American National Biography Online (2000): http://www.anb.org/articles/15/15-00042.html.
  25. ^ Levine, Labor’s True Woman, 325.
  26. ^ Notable American Women, 102. Opdycke, “Barry, Leonora.”
  27. ^ Whitman, American Reformers, 57.
  28. ^ Quoted from John A. (John Arthur) Garraty, Mark C. (Mark Christopher) Carnes, and American Council of Learned Societies, American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 253.
  29. ^ Levine, Labor’s True Woman, 334.
  30. ^ Notable American Women, 102.
  31. ^ Susan Levine, “Labor's True Woman: Domesticity and Equal Rights in the Knights of Labor,” The Journal of American History 70, no. 2 (September, 1983), 333-335.
  32. ^ Susan Levine, “Labor's True Woman: Domesticity and Equal Rights in the Knights of Labor,” The Journal of American History 70, no. 2 (September, 1983), 333.
  33. ^ John A. (John Arthur) Garraty, Mark C. (Mark Christopher) Carnes, and American Council of Learned Societies, American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 252.
  34. ^ Opdycke, “Barry, Leonora.” For more information on labor and women, see Eleanor Flexner, Ellen Carol DuBois, and Jacqueline Van Voris, 1895?-1995 (inclusive). Papers, located at the Jefferson School of Social Sciences in New York, NY.
  35. ^ Susan Levine, “Labor's True Woman: Domesticity and Equal Rights in the Knights of Labor,” The Journal of American History 70, no. 2 (September, 1983), 334.
  36. ^ Notable American Women, 102.
  37. ^ Van Doren, Webster’s American Biographies, 68.
  38. ^ Women in World History, 187.
  39. ^ Notable American Women, 102.
  40. ^ Ibid.
  41. ^ Van Doren, Webster’s American Biographies, 68.
  42. ^ Notable American Women, 102.
  43. ^ Ibid.

References

  • Arnesen, Eric. Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Dictionary of American Immigration History, s.v. “Barry, Leonora Kearney.” 67. New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1990.
  • Garraty, John A. (John Arthur), Mark C. (Mark Christopher) Carnes, and American Council of Learned Societies. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Kenneally, James J., "Eve, Mary and the historians: American Catholicism and women." "Horizons" 3, no 2 Fall 1976, p 187-202.
  • “Leonora Marie (Kearney) Barry, Labor Organizer.” Women of Courage Profiles. http://www.northnet.org/stlawrenceaauw/barry.htm
  • Levine, Susan, “Labor’s True Woman: Domesticity and Equal Rights in the Knights of Labor.” The Journal of American History 70, no.2 (1983): 323-339. http://www.jstor.org/search.
  • Notable American Women, 1607-1950. A biographical dictionary. 101-102. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1971.
  • Opdycke, Sandra. “Barry, Leonora.” American National Biography Online (2000). http://www.wnab.org/articles/15/15-00043.html.
  • Van Doren, Charles, ed. Webster’s American Biographies. Massachusetts: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1974.
  • Whitman, Alden, ed. American Reformers. New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1985.
  • Women in World History. A biographical encyclopedia, s.v. “Barry, Leonora M.” 186-187. Connecticut: Yorkin Publications, 2002.
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