Leonora O'Reilly: 'We Need the Vote for Self-Protection'

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Tenth in a series commemorating Women's History Month by spotlighting a significant speech or testimony delivered by a woman in the U.S. on this date.

Note: On this date we have two different speeches (actually, testimony) delivered by the same woman, Leonora O’Reilly — on the same subject — in two different locations. They’re part of the same story, so let’s include both.

True to her nickname, “The Agitator,” Leonora O’Reilly stirred things up when she spoke in public — in support of working-class women, women’s suffrage, and trade unionism. Using colorful and often incendiary language, she delivered speeches in meeting halls, on street corners, and once to an audience of 8,000 at Manhattan’s famed Hippodrome Theatre.

On March 13, 1912, O’Reilly joined a women’s delegation from around the country to testify in Washington, D.C., in support of a constitutional amendment on suffrage, described by The Washington Post the next day as a “crusade in skirts.”

First, she testified before the House Judiciary Committee, accusing the congressmen of selling out working-class women: “You believe you protect us,” she said. “You say you want to take care of the women. I can tell you as a working woman we know you have made a very bad job of the protection and caretaking.”

Leaving that hearing still in progress, O’Reilly sped from the north to the south side of the Capitol to deliver her second address of the day — this time to a combined meeting of two Senate committees, also taking testimony on suffrage. Again, she didn’t mince words: “You men do not care. You want this country to get rich, and you do not know the only riches of a nation are its people.”

The writer from The Washington Post called O’Reilly’s remarks “picturesque” and noted they caused “some little merriment.”

Statement to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee

By Leonora O’Reilly 

House Judiciary Committee, Washington, D.C.

Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the committee. I ask this committee in all seriousness to understand that we working women are not asking for the vote for fun; we need the vote for self-protection.

Gentlemen, you may tell us that our place is in the home. Do not make fun of us, please. There are 8,000,000 of us in these United States who must earn our daily bread. Now, in all seriousness, because we must earn that bread, we come to tell you that while we are working in the mills, the mines, the factories, and the mercantile houses, we have not the protection that we should have. Gentlemen, you have been making laws for us; now, we want to make laws for ourselves, because the laws you have made have not been good for us. Year after year, working women have gone to the legislature in every state; they have tried to tell their story of need in the same old way. They have gone to you, believing as they do believe, in the strength of the big brother; believing that the big brother could do for them what they should, as citizens, do for themselves.

They have seen, time after time, the power of the big interest come behind the big brother and say to him: “If you grant the request of these working women you die, politically.” It is because the working women have seen this that they now demand the ballot. In New York, and in every other state, we plead for shorter hours. When the legislators learn that women today in every industry are being over speeded and overworked, most legislators would, if they dared, vote protective legislation for the women. Why do they neglect the women? 

We answer, because those who have the votes have the power to take the legislators’ political ladder away from them, a power that we, who have no votes, do not have. The getting of the vote and the use of the vote for self-protection as a class is another thing we working women are going to do; we are going to do it as well as we have done our work in the factory, mill, office, and shop. The world today knows that the women in industry are making good. But we working women maintain that the rest of the world are not keeping faith with us, in that they are driving us like mad, burning us alive, or working us to death for profits.

We, of New York, remember the Triangle fire cases; we saw our women burned alive, and then when our people appealed to the courts and tried to get justice, we got instead the same old verdict from the courts, “Nobody to blame.” The ballot is a matter of necessity with working women. We come to you today to say we want you to put behind you all your prejudice against votes for women; we ask you for fair play. Deal with us as you would want to be dealt by. When the workingmen come to you with the power of the ballot, they make you listen. We want the power of the ballot for the same reason. If there is a man who will not be just, we mean to put him out of politics. If there is a man in office who is serving humanity fairly, we will keep him in office to help make our land what it ought to be.

Gentlemen, that is my message to you from working women in general, and from all organized working women and workingmen in particular. Working women want the power to protect themselves. Working women want the opportunity to work effectively for decent factory laws, sane labor laws. Working women know that we will never have a universal child-labor law until we have the heart of all the women of the land behind the framing and the enforcing of such a law.

While the doors of the colleges have been opened to the fortunate women of our country, only one woman in a thousand goes into our colleges, while one woman in five must go into industry to earn her living. And it is for the protection of this one woman in every five that I speak.

You may say the vote was never given as a right, but rather as an expedient to any group of people. Then we demand it as an expedient. It is time that these women who work in the factories, or wherever they work, contracting the diseases known as occupational diseases, were given the opportunity to clean our political house of its disease germs.

It is in a wretchedly unhealthy condition today. Men, let the women come in and help you in this political house cleaning. You have got it into an awful mess; we only ask you to do the thing you have done since Adam, namely, turn the burden of responsibility over to woman when it gets too big for you or you fear the consequences. Let us help you now, or if you will not it will look as if you are afraid of the kind of house cleaning we will give you. Well, we will give it to you, as sure as fate, because we are on this job to win. We see that there is not a thing in the way of this right which we are asking but prejudice or fear; we are pleading for the right to use our intelligence, as you use yours at the ballot box.

You believe you protect us. You say you want to take care of the women. I can tell you as a working woman we know you have made a very bad job of the protection and caretaking. A working woman has to deal with the facts of life; she knows when she is overtired, when her finger is taken off by a machine just because she was too tired to take it out. That is what one of my girls calls a “fac’.” Now, men, we working women deal in “fac’s.” We want the ballot in order that we may straighten out all of this economic and political mess that your superior intelligence has gotten us into. Is that straight? Well, that is what the working woman wants. 

Source: Hearings before the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, 62nd Congress, 2ndSession, March 13, 1912 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office), 1912, pp. 8-10.

Statement to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and the Woman Suffrage Committee

By Leonora O’Reilly 

Joint Committee of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Woman Suffrage Committee, Washington, D.C.

Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the committee: Yes; I have outdone the lady who went to work at 18 by five years. I have been a wage earner since I was a little over 13. I, too, know whereof I speak; that is the reason I do not want to play a bluff game with you any longer. You cannot 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. We have got to have it.

We work long, long hours and we do not get half enough to live on. We have got to keep decent, and if we go “the easy way” you men make the laws that will let you go free and send us into the gutter.

We can not believe in man-made laws any longer. We have gone from one assembly to another, from one state senator to another, and we have heard the same old story. You think only of output; there is not a soul among you who cares to save human beings. We have grown rich, as a nation, but we have grown very rotten. As a people — gentlemen, I use the term “rotten” advisedly — for, as far as the working women are concerned, the foundation we are building on is rotten. To purify the life of the nation we women know we have got to do our part, political as well as industrial duty. Government, as a whole, rests on industry. You men say to us: “Go back to the home. Your place is in the home,” 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.

“Pay your way” we are taught in school and in church — the greatest thing on earth is to be able to pay your way. Well, if any people on earth pay their way in life, we working women do. The return we get is that most of us become physical wrecks along the roadside of life. When you gentlemen hear what it costs a working woman to “pay her way” in life, you sit back in your chairs and say, “The story is terrible, but they manage to live somehow.” Somehow — that is it, gentlemen. I want to make you realize the somehow of life to the hundreds of girls I have seen go down in the struggle. You men do not care. You want this country to get rich, and you do not know the only riches of a nation are its people. 

We have gone before legislature after legislature making our pleas for justice. We have seen the game as you play it. What is it? We go there and we are told the same old tommyrot — let men do this for you. I tell you as a bit of business experience, if you let anybody do a thing for you, they will do you. That is business.

Now, while we have had the colleges opened to women, only one woman in a thousand goes to college, while modern industry claims one woman in every five today. It is industrial methods which are teaching the women the facts I am telling you. “Do the other fellow before he gets a chance to do you” — do him so hard that he can not stand up again; that is good business. We know that, and we women are sure that there must be some higher standard for life than business.

We are not getting a square deal; we go before legislature after legislature to tell our story, but they fail to help the women who are being speeded so high in the mills and in factories, from 54 hours to 72 hours in stores in New York, and 92 hours in one week in sub-cellar laundries. Who cares? Nobody! Nobody does; nobody cares about making laws so long as we get cheap and nasty things in the market.

Working women come before you and tell you these things and think you will do something for them. Every man listening is convinced that the girls are telling the truth. It is only when you think of them as your own girls that you have the right to make laws for them. Every man listening wants to do the fair thing, but just as soon as our backs are turned, up comes the representative of the big interest and says, “Lad, you are dead politically if you do what those women ask.” They know it is true, and we get nothing, because all the votes are owned.

Every vote you cast is owned, and it is the owned vote which has fought our women. Go before legislatures as you will; the only argument that you can bring in to the man in politics — he is there to go up the ladder, decently if he can, but he will go up anyhow, if he can – the only argument that you can bring to that man is the power of the ballot. When we can say to him, “Man, do this and we will return you so many million votes,” he will listen and act.

This is what we want, because it is for the good of the women, because it is for the good of the whole people. It is for the reason that the working woman, facing the hard facts of life and having to fight her way, has come to the conclusion that you men in politics — I am not going to give you any taffy — 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.

The working women send me to you with the plain, honest truth; because, working beside you in the same mill or factory, we know you with your evening suit off and your tall hat in the box, or wherever it belongs; you are just a competitor with us there; we tell you the truth there, as I have come to tell you the truth here.

Let women have the ballot, in order that you may once more throw the burden which you have carried, or thought you carried, onto them; that is the thing you have done since the beginning of time; when the load was too heavy for you you piled it onto Eve’s back. You have got us in a devil of a mess, economic and political. It is so rank it smells to Heaven, but we will come in and help you clean house. We will start all over again, because we belong together shoulder to shoulder. We must get on to a better time. It is only because you will not, in your prejudice and your ignorance, let us into the political field with you that the situation is as bad as it is today.

We working women want the ballot, not as a privilege but as a right. You say you have only given the ballot as an expediency; you have never given it as a right; then we demand it as an expediency for the 8,000,000 working women. All other women ought to have it, but we working women must have it.

Source: Hearings Before a Joint Meeting of the Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Woman Suffrage, U.S. Senate, Woman Suffrage, 62nd Cong., 2nd sess. (13 March 1912): 22–24.

Dana Rubin is a speaker and consultant focused on women’s voice and speech. She’s the founder of Speaking While Female, the first-ever online collection of contemporary and historical speeches by women from across time and around the world. Dana recently gave a TEDx Talk on “Unlocking the Secret History of Women’s Speech,” and she’s working on an anthology of women’s speech. For more on how she helps organizations attract, retain and develop their women leaders, visit SpeakingWhileFemale.biz.



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