( 1870-1927), working woman orator
ANNE F. MATTINA
Leonora O'Reilly was born in 1870 on New York's Lower East Side and was celebrated in her day as an inspirational orator who embodied the cause of the working woman. She is most remembered for her career as an organizer and recruiter for the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) from 1903 to 1915. While her work with the league is the most documented aspect of her public life, she was an active reformer both before and after her tenure with the WTUL. Her public speaking career appears to have begun in 1896, and it continued until shortly before her death in 1927.
Although O'Reilly died at the relatively young age of 57, her life and rhetoric spanned the progressive era. Her legacy is composed of her speeches and articles, many of which can be found in her papers. Although she may have toiled in factories, her life's work was labor reform, and her rhetorical legacy is worthy of analysis by those interested in women's progress and development in U.S. society.
Unlike many activists of her day, O'Reilly had personal knowledge of the need for reform, and in that fact lies the significance of her rhetoric. As has been routinely noted, most women who violate the sanctions regarding female public activism have done so from the safety of middle- and upper-class backgrounds. O'Reilly came from poverty.
O'Reilly's father died when she was a year old, leaving her mother, Winifred, solely responsible for the care of "Nora," as she was known. Her mother supported the small family through her work in a garment factory, as well as through "home work"--the system of parceling out garments to be finished at home. O'Reilly left school and went to work at age 11. By 1886 both she and