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The Reports of Leonora Barry, Knight of Labor: Chronicling Women Workers in the Gilded Age

A black and white photograph of women and a baby posing for the camera.

Woman delegates to the 1886 General Assembly of the Knights of Labor. Leonora Barry is at the center of the back row. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

This piece is a response to our recent Call for Submissions: Histories of Labor in the U.S. For our submission guidelines, click here.

The sweat and struggles of Gilded Age women helped make the United States the largest industrial economy in the world. Leonora Barry was their chronicler, their champion. Born Leonora Kearney, Barry immigrated from Ireland at age three, becoming a teacher at fifteen. She gave up that profession when she married fellow Irish immigrant Thomas Barry, settling down to raise three children. When her husband died young in 1881, Barry returned to work. She did not return to the classroom, because women were only offered work for less of the year at lower pay than men, and that would not support herself and her two surviving children (her eldest daughter Marion died not long after Thomas). Barry instead became a mill hand in Potsdam, New York. As another woman in the industrial army, undervalued and underpaid, she earned less than a dollar in her first week on the job.

Barry’s path then intersected with the first great national movement of American workers: the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. The Knights had amassed 729,000 official members by 1886, an astounding number that was probably an undercount of the rapidly growing organization. Roughly sixty to seventy thousand of the Knights were female, women who had accepted the hand of friendship and membership extended to them by a movement which demanded, as part of its Declaration of Principles, “equal pay between the sexes for equal work.”  Leonora joined in 1884 and rose rapidly through the organization’s ranks. In 1886, she became General Investigator for Woman’s Work, the first woman to head the first Woman’s Department of any major labor organization.

For the next three years Barry travelled North America, investigating the conditions under which women worked, organizing them, and supporting female Knights and their local assemblies. She even spoke before international congresses of women’s rights activists as a representative of the Knights of Labor. Barry went to nearly every state in the continental United States, as well as Ontario and Quebec in Canada. As requested by the General Assembly, the Knights’ annual convention, Barry left detailed reports of what she saw and did to successive General Assemblies in 1887, 1888, and 1889. Her reports were intended to help the General Assembly craft demands and draft legislation in the interests of working women, and to fire male and female members’ enthusiasm to bring their unorganized sisters into the fold.

Barry’s Reports of the General Investigator for Woman’s Work are some of the richest sources available to historians of American working women. They were included with the printed proceedings of the General Assemblies, documents sent to tens of thousands of assemblies of Knights of Labor across North America, and dozens established in Europe and Australasia. For thousands of woman Knights, these Reports helped earn Barry the title of “Sister Barry,” a woman leader equal in stature to the Order’s leading men. The reports were not written by some mere observer of human suffering in industrial America, but by a participant in the struggles of women and men to upend the society of slums and robber barons and build a cooperative future on its ruins.

Fear and Injustice

The Knights of Labor charged Barry with recording the wages received and hours worked by laboring women across the country. That she did, but as that work was already duplicated by statisticians working for state and federal bodies, the significance of her Reports lies less in numbers than in her excavation of the injustices endured by women on the job. That list extends across dozens of pages. The textile workers of Paterson, New Jersey, fined for eating, laughing, or singing at work. The maid of a wealthy merchant family in Springfield, Ohio, forced to accept castoff dresses in lieu of payment, sending herself and her young child “supperless to bed.”[1] The sewing machine operators across the United States required to pay their employer for power and thread, and forced to buy their machines by instalment knowing that many unscrupulous managers fired workers just before the final payment. The women robbed by contractors, often themselves women, so much so that they might make a bare fifty cents for a twelve-hour shift. Barry’s Reports catalog every conceivable trick used against nineteenth-century working women.

The reports expose the sleazy underbelly of a system that gave male overseers the power to promote or fire women at will. “A custom is rapidly increasing in this country,” Barry reported in 1888, where many working women were “made to understand that the price of her position is, that she ‘stand in with the boss.”’[2] Put simply, Barry added in 1889, in many cases “men use the power which their position as employes, superintendents or foremen give them to debauch girls in their employ whose employment is dependent on their good-will.”[3]

Then, as now, women feared for their job and their honor if they publicly accused their harassers. “Those who resent such pernicious approaches shrink from giving publicity to their humiliation,” Barry reported in 1888, “and those who do submit will not make their misfortunes public until, perhaps, they can no longer hide their shame.” Without sworn affidavits from the women involved, Barry feared to publicize their accusations. “Neither myself or the Order was in a position to stand a libel suit,” she explained, “with all the power of wealth against us wherewith to influence a decision against honor and truth.”[4] There would be no nineteenth-century #MeToo. All that Barry could do was to point to the problem, and to hint at its scale.

Her Reports allow us to access the emotional atmosphere breathed by women in nineteenth-century workplaces. Fear was the odor of industrial life—fear that one misstep could leave them and their children hungry and homeless. Notes from a cordage works in Elizabeth, New Jersey, sum up what that smelled like:

The cordage works at Elizabeth port were reported as employing children under the age prescribed by law, paying them 30 cents a week, and the machinery is so close together that life is endangered on every hand. The forewoman told me she had to hold her skirts tightly around her when passing, for fear of getting caught. Girls are fined 25 cents for remaining too long in the toilet room or any part of the building away from their machines. But here, as in many other places, they refused to talk of their condition for fear the boss would hear of it, and they were bad enough off now.[5]

That fear extended to Barry’s work as an organizer for the Knights of Labor. Her Reports documented employer’s unsubtle attempts to intimidate women away from associating with unions. In Auburn, New York, she found women laboring under “the fear of being discharged by their employer if it were known that they were organized, as frequent threats to that effect had been made by the bosses.”[6]  Mill bosses in Norristown, Pennsylvania, even offered women twenty-five dollars for the names of any coworkers enrolled in the Knights.

This great anti-union offensive by employers sent the Knights of Labor into permanent decline after 1886. Barry’s Reports chart the reverses and the internal squabbles that overtook the movement in that period from the point of view of an organizer desperately working to bring women into it. Though trying to remain upbeat, Barry was repeatedly confronted by women previously organized and now on their own, as in Manchester, Virginia, in 1889. “The employes in the cotton mills of Manchester were at one time well organized,” she wrote, “and through their organization secured a reduction in the hours of labor from twelve to ten, and, had they continued to keep up their organization, might have remedied many other evils of which they now complain, such as low wages and child labor.”[7]

Then she encountered assemblies of women laid low by internal feuds of one sort or another. At Baltimore in 1888, she wrote that “the situation here is even worse than at my last report of it. Ignorance, apathy and internal bickering, caused by petty jealousies, have done their work effectively and caused the death of many Locals, among which was the Barry Assembly.”[8]

These repeated failures, and her inability to stem their tide by sheer hard work, took a toll on Barry’s emotional state. The 1887 and 1888 Reports burst with enthusiasm for the cause of women workers and her determination that the Knights should specially protect their interests through the Woman’s Department. Weighed down by setbacks and long months on the road, the 1889 Report reveals a woman temporarily overcome by despair. Reversing her earlier position, Barry called for the abolition of the Woman’s Department. “When I took a position at its head I fondly hoped to weld together in organization such a number of women as would be a power for good in the present, and a monument to their honor in the relief it would establish for the women of the future,” she told the delegates. But she now thought that was impossible. “Instead of supporting a Woman’s Department,” Barry concluded that the Knights ought to “put more women in the field as Lecturers to tell women why they should organize as a part of the industrial hive, rather than because they are women.”[9]

Soon after, in 1890, Barry resigned her position, remarried, and for all practical purposes severed her ties with the Knights of Labor.

Illustrated profile portrait of Leonora Barry. She wears a dark high-necked dress and earrings.

Illustration of Barry in 1890, Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Silences in the Record

Leonora Barry’s Reports are so richly layered in their description of the lives of working women that it is tempting to forget that no primary source tells us everything. Missing from the 1889 Report is the depression that overtook her that year on her return from a tour through the South where, after witnessing the human toll of early Jim Crow, she contracted malaria. Missing too is the secret campaign orchestrated against her by General Secretary-Treasurer John Hayes, a noted misogynist who wanted Barry out and the Woman’s Department ended. Internal correspondence from the Knights of Labor suggests that Barry’s pessimistic conclusions in her 1889 Report were written under duress from Hayes.

Also missing from the Reports is much mention of race. The Knights energetically organized almost 100,000 African American workers, despite hostility from some white members. Barry’s 1889 Report (briefly) detailed her tour through the South, and praised the devotion and duty of Knights there. What it does not mention is her private horror, expressed to General Master Workman (President) Terence Powderly, at many white southern Knights’ racism. In many cases, they would not even let African Americans enter the hall to hear Barry speak. Barry privately urged Powderly to appoint “colored lecturers” to redress the balance. Indeed, the only real reference to racial questions in the Reports concerns Chinese immigrants. She, like most Knights, considered them immoral and undesirable. In that, at least, the Reports mark the depths of anti-Asian racism in even the most progressive wings of the American labor movement.

These Reports were not Leonora Barry’s final or only words in public. After leaving the Knights, she became a leading campaigner for temperance and women’s suffrage. Her oratory sped along the successful campaign to give women the vote in Colorado in 1893. Barry then became an official for the Catholic Total Abstinence Union, a popular lecturer across North America, and a writer on social and political issues. She lived to celebrate the victory of female suffrage and Prohibition in 1919. She died in 1931, just before the latter was repealed. The Reports were only a tiny fraction of her printed words, during her time as a Knight and after, but they remain her great testament, her seminal work. They still help us understand the emotional and material world of women workers in the Gilded Age, and to be one trying to have her sisters take up their oppression and, by their own action, end it.

Steven Parfitt is the author of numerous books and articles on American, British and global history, including Knights Across the Atlantic: The Knights of Labor in Britain and Ireland (Liverpool University Press, 2016). His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines from the Guardian to JacobinIn These Times, and OpenDemocracy. He is working on books about the work of two influential women trade unionists, Emma Paterson and Leonora Barry, and on the South African and global histories of the Knights of Labor.

[1] Proceedings of the 1888 General Assembly of the Knights of Labor p. 5.

[2] Proceedings of the 1888 General Assembly of the Knights of Labor, p. 13.

[3] Proceedings of the 1889 General Assembly of the Knights of Labor, p. 5.

[4] Proceedings of the 1888 General Assembly of the Knights of Labor, p. 13.

[5] Proceedings of the 1888 General Assembly of the Knights of Labor, p. 12.

[6] Proceedings of the 1888 General Assembly of the Knights of Labor, p. 3.

[7] Proceedings of the 1889 General Assembly of the Knights of Labor p. 3.

[8] Proceedings of the 1888 General Assembly of the Knights of Labor, p. 2.

[9] Proceedings of the 1889 General Assembly of the Knights of Labor, p. 6.

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