Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview
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KATE RICHARDS O'HARE CUNNINGHAM
(1876-1948), socialist, antiwar activist, prison reformer

DEBRA K. JAPP

Kate Richards O'Hare has been called the United States' "premier barnstorming orator." She was active in the Socialist party in the first two decades of the twentieth century and was a well-known and popular lecturer and writer for the socialist cause. She championed the causes of women workers, tenant farmers, and those whose voices were not heard. She was convinced that under socialism, a more just, democratic, and Christian society would result. According to Neil Basen, a noted authority on her life, by 1910, she had "carved a national reputation as a scintillating spellbinder second only to [Eugene] Debs in popularity on the socialist platform" ( 1980:174). She "covered more territory and delivered more lectures on the Socialist hustings than almost any other member of the party" ( Basen, 1980:168). With the onset of World War I, she joined other socialists in protesting U.S. involvement. Her antiwar rhetoric eventually led to her arrest and conviction of sedition under the Espionage Act of 1917. After her release from prison, she fervently pursued prison reform.

But despite her successful career as a socialist speaker, antiwar activist, and prison reformer, Kate Richards O'Hare Cunningham has been virtually ignored by both historians and rhetorical scholars. There are several possible reasons. First, she was a member of a nontraditional U.S. political party. Second, as a woman, she has taken a backseat to her male counterparts in the Socialist party-- Eugene Debs, Morris Hillquit, Victor Berger. Finally, when she divorced her first husband, Frank P. O'Hare, he destroyed most of her correspondence; a significant part of her work is still available, however. Historians are beginning to recognize the important role Kate Richards O'Hare Cunningham played in the socialist movement of the early twentieth century.


BACKGROUND

Christened Carrie Katherine, Richards was born on a farm in Ottawa County, Kansas, in 1876. She was one of five children and the second of three daughters born to Andrew and Lucy Richards, "well-to-do" landowners. According to Richards' reports, her early years were idyllic. Later, in her speeches and writings, she romanticized her early years on the ranch:

Those were wonderful days and I shall never cease to be thankful that I knew them. Days that laid the foundation of my whole life, gave me health and strength and love of freedom, taught me to depend on myself, to love nature, to honor rugged strength of mind and body and to know no shams in life. Everything is very real, very much alive and in close touch with nature on the broad sweep of the prairie amid the longhorns. ( "How I Became a Socialist Agitator,"4)

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