The story of a labor activist who advocated for equal pay for equal work and protections against sexual harassment.
Life Story: Leonora Barry
G.H. Norton, Lenora Barry. Special Collections, The Catholic University of America, Washington DC.
Leonora Kearney was born on August 13, 1849, in County Cork, Ireland. When she was born, Ireland was suffering through the Great Famine. Leonora’s father was a farmer and he struggled to provide enough food for his family.
Leonora’s family immigrated to the United States when she was three years old. They settled in the small rural town of Pierrepont, New York.
When Leonora was 16, her mother died. After her mother’s death, Leonora decided to become a teacher. She attended public school but needed to pass a test to become a certified teacher. Leonora reached out to a local girl’s school. The head of the school gave her private lessons. After six weeks of studying, she passed the test. Leonora worked as a teacher for six years.
Leonora married William Barry, also an Irish immigrant, when she was 22 years old. William was an artist who worked as a painter and a musician. They had two sons and a daughter together. After ten years of marriage, William died from lung disease. Her daughter passed away shortly after. Leonora was a 32-year-old widow with two children.
Leonora was not able to find work as a teacher. At that time, only unmarried women were hired as teachers. So instead, she worked as a seamstress in her home. The work was hard on her eyes, and she soon quit.
In 1885, Leonora found a job at a hosiery mill in Amsterdam, New York. She left her children at home with a neighbor during the day while she worked at the mill. After a full workweek, Leonora made only 65 cents. Dissatisfied with this very low pay, she joined the Knights of Labor.
The Knights of Labor was a union that allowed any and all workers to join. This meant that its members included men and women, skilled and unskilled workers, white and Black. At its height, the organization had around 800,000 members. About 65,000 of those members were women.
The women in the Knights of Labor represented a variety of occupations. Women who worked in factories joined, as well as laundry workers, cooks, and domestic servants. Even housewives could join the Knights of Labor. Around a quarter of all female members were domestic workers, almost all of whom were white.
Leonora quickly became an active member of the Knights of Labor. In 1886, female members elected her as the General Investigator of Women’s Work. She was the first paid female labor investigator in the United States.
In her new job as investigator for the Knights of Labor, Leonora traveled around the country reporting on the working conditions of its female members. She met with local members of the Knights of Labor and interviewed workers outside their workplaces.
“I believe women should have every opportunity to become proficient in whatever vocation they choose or find themselves best fitted for.”
Leonora found it difficult to work and care for her children. Her work as an investigator meant traveling all the time. In her first year, she spent only two weeks at home. She sent one of her sons to a boarding school in Philadelphia. Her other son lived with her sister-in-law.
Through her work, Leonora found that most women worked in unacceptable conditions. Low wages, long hours, strict workplace rules, and sexual harassment were common. She also discovered that working women were reluctant to join unions because many didn’t know they could join them.
Leonora advocated for equal pay for equal work and prevention of sexual harassment. She encouraged members of the Knights of Labor to purchase only union-made goods to support fair working conditions.
Gaining access to the workplaces she wanted to investigate was a challenge. Leonora worked for the Knights of Labor, not for the government. Factory owners were not required to let her into their factories to investigate. One member of the Knights of Labor lost her job when she invited Leonora into her workplace. Even though government agencies had more power, they did not have enough funding to conduct the investigations. Leonora was often the only person researching and reporting on women’s working conditions.
Leonora also found resistance within the Knights of Labor. She was the only woman in a leadership position. Most of the male leaders thought that women should be at home instead of in the workplace. While they argued for equal wages and equal rights in the workplace, they believed in the domestic ideal of women staying at home.
Beyond her job with the Knights of Labor, Leonora worked with middle-class women reformers. She gave speeches about the importance of equal pay to women’s clubs who wanted to improve conditions for the working class. Leonora also supported the temperance movement. She believed that the excessive consumption of alcohol by men made women vulnerable to poverty and abuse. Frances Willard, the leading temperance activist in the country, invited her multiple times to speak to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which was the largest women’s organization in the United States at the time.
The power of the Knights of Labor declined in the latter half of the 1880s. Disagreements within the organization and the rise of another union, the American Federation of Labor, weakened them. Employers started to push back against the organization and used the legal system to end strikes and boycotts. Many middle-class Americans were increasingly scared of anti-capitalist radicalism. This fear increased after the Haymarket Affair of 1886. By 1890, the Knights of Labor only had around 100,000 members.
Leonora gave her final speech about her investigations in 1889. She argued that women could only achieve equality in the workplace if they had the right to vote. Still, as she advocated for equal rights for women, she expressed that it would be ideal for women to be able to stay at home while their husbands worked. She lamented that the current economy made that unrealistic and required many married women to work. She supported equal pay for equal work and other protections for women because they had no choice but to join the labor force.
Leonora remarried in 1890. Her new husband, Obadiah Lake, was a printer. She left the Knights of Labor that same year. She continued her activism and pushed for social reform, suffrage, and temperance, mostly through volunteering for Catholic charities. In 1893, she spoke at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She died on July 18, 1923.
Great Famine: Period of mass starvation in Ireland between 1845 and 1852.
hosiery mill: Textile mill where people produced socks, stockings, and tights.
Knights of Labor: National labor organization that advocated for worker’s rights.
radicalism: Belief that great changes are needed in society and can only be achieved through revolutionary means.
temperance: The movement to outlaw liquor in the United States.
union: Worker’s organization that advocates for better working conditions and rights for its members.
What challenges did Leonora face as an investigator for the Knights of Labor?
How did Leonora’s own work experience influence her role as an investigator for the Knights of Labor?
What did Leonora uncover about the challenges women faced in the workplace? What solutions did she offer to create better working conditions for women?
How did Leonora feel about the domestic ideal and how did this shape her personal and professional life?
Explore Leonora’s work as an investigator by having students read her report on women’s work in New Jersey. What did she discover about their working conditions? Why was it important for her to conduct these investigations?
Pair Leonora’s story with the life story of Clara Lemlich Shavelson, another immigrant factory worker who fought for better working conditions for women. How did their different positions affect their activism?