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Column: A tribute to Margaret Hinchey, one of Ireland's most remarkable daughters

Irish immigrant, suffragette and labour leader Margaret Hinchey resisted a society which treated her as a should-be-mother first, a woman second and as a human last, writes Liam Hogan.

Liam Hogan

ON 2 FEBRUARY 1914, a delegation of 500 working women marched on the White House. Their aim was to persuade the president to support women’s suffrage. One of the few chosen to speak to the president was Margaret Hinchey, a laundry worker and Irish immigrant who was “shaking and trembling” to speak on behalf of the “working women of the United States.” She asked him to use his power “to wipe out this great injustice” by granting women the vote. President Woodrow Wilson’s head was bowed as he struggled to elicit an appropriate response “I know, I am in an embarrassing position … my party …”

Who was this remarkable woman speaking truth to power in the White House?

Information about Margaret’s early life is not conclusive but it’s likely she was born in Limerick in 1885. Nineteenth century Ireland was time of significant emigration, and the Hinchey family were no exception. They emigrated to New York when Margaret was 10 years old. They were seeking a better life but things were far from easy in the promised land.

Margaret left school when she was 13 and entered the workforce. Working hours were extremely long, conditions were appalling and often dangerous. Child labour was widespread, ie by 1910 over 2 million children under age of 16 were working. Many of the workers in the sweatshops of New York were immigrant women and while some of them were represented by unions, their victories had been limited.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire

One employer that refused to sign any agreement with the unions was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. On the 25 March 1911 a fire started on the first floor of the Asch building. This floor, and the next two above it, were occupied by this company, with around 500 of their workers present. Soon all three floors were aflame. The company had previously ordered the steel doors to be locked to “prevent theft” and to guard against the “interruption of work” that would be caused by their employees using the toilets which were off site. The result was that 146 workers died and 123 of the victims were women. Sixty-two jumped to their deaths trying to escape.

This was a watershed moment in US labour history. For the majority of suffragists (who were middle class) women’s suffrage was a question of principle and justice, but for the working class activist it was now seen as an existential issue. They required the vote to change and then enforce laws which would protect them in the workplace. Hinchey was then a forewoman in a laundry in New York and she soon made the same connection; that working conditions could only be improved through labour agitation and legislative change.

Demanding improved conditions and pay

She joined the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) and proceeded to lead a laundry strike on the 1 January 1912 which demanded improved conditions and pay. The strike grew to over 30,000 women. She testified before the State Arbitration Board, explaining that she worked a 72 hour week, that there were no seats on the work-floor and that male employees had access to the women’s dressing room. Other testimonies before the Board included that of a 15-year-old girl, Margaret Corbett, who worked a 52 hour week (constantly standing), had to walk 32 blocks to the laundry each day, and whose middle finger on her right hand had been crushed by a machine while at work. The Arbitration Board declared that the strike was lawful and a deal was eventually reached.

Hinchey’s natural leadership qualities were noticed by members of the women’s suffrage and labour movement. Leonora O’Reilly, another Irish-American labour activist, asked Margaret to speak at a mass meeting of the Wage Earner’s League in April 1912. Her speech was aimed at anti-suffrage argument, that “family was more important than lawmaking” and thus there was no need for women to have the vote.

You cannot call it a family and go home where the working people go for seven short hours to rest their weary bones. The man cannot make both ends meet; the woman goes out to help, and what becomes of the children? She cannot put them in the nursery when she works 14 and 17 hours – those are not nursery hours. She is too tired to give them care and food when she comes home. Then there is the tuberculosis home for them and another job for the undertaker. We want votes for regular hours, better conditions and the enforcement of laws.

Blacklisted, arrested and imprisoned

Margaret suffered for her efforts. During the Shirtwaist strike of 1913 she was blacklisted by employers in the city, as well as being arrested and imprisoned. She was convicted of assaulting a forewoman who broke the picket line. She spent 30 days in ‘The Tombs’, the city prison in New York. In typical fashion this did little to dent Maggie Hinchey’s resolve. She sent a cheery telegram from prison to the ongoing convention of the Women’s Trade Union League which read “Long live the Women’s Trade Union League. Greetings to all.” When she was released there were over 200 women waiting to greet her and they cheered as she emerged. Most of those present were members of the Henry Street Settlement and had testified for her during the court case.

Maggie approached the Woman Suffrage Party (WSP) asking them to “use me in any way you can for the good of the cause.” In October 1913 she was hired by the WSP as an organiser and “street speaker” to help garner support for women’s suffrage among the working class. When she attended the National Suffrage Convention she felt uncomfortable among “ladies” who did not understand her perspective or class. She felt that she had intruded where she was not wanted and that “not a word of labour was spoken at this convention..”

Her skill in communicating with the working class impressed Jeannette Rankin (Montana’s most famous suffragist) and she requested that Hinchey assist the suffrage campaign in Montana. Hinchey was immensely popular in the Treasure State, her speeches which linked women’s suffrage with the welfare of working women resonated with the audiences she attracted. In July 1914 she shared a stage with Rankin and “several hundred men … with a sprinkling of women … jammed from curb to curb” to listen to them speak for two hours. It was as if the local press was reminiscing about Daniel O’Connell when it described how Hinchey made her audiences “laugh and weep, but applaud little because they fear to lose a word of her powerful appeal on behalf of women.” The East Oregonian claimed that Hinchey was “one of the biggest aids to the suffrage campaign.” When Montana went to the polls on 3 November 1914 they voted in favour of the suffrage bill granting Montana women the vote.

A whirlwind tour of New York

Hinchey returned to New York and began a whirlwind tour of the state of New York canvassing for votes for women’s suffrage. On the 4 May 1915 Hinchey spoke at the first ever suffrage meeting in the Bowery area of Manhattan. When Maggie got up to speak “the Bowery succumbed to a man.” When she asked them if they were going to vote for women’s suffrage “every hand went up to say yes, they would vote for the women.”

She also canvassed the men excavating the new subway lines on Varick Street. Climbing down into the trenches carrying a selection of flags and pro-suffrage leaflets she asked them “brothers, are ye going to give us the vote in November?” “Sure we are!” they cried back. A New York Times reporter quipped “there never was a band of suffrage pilgrims who made such a trip as these women.”

Hinchey went on the six week tour of New York State. Margaret sometimes canvassed up to 300 homes day. She recalls visiting 60 homes in Buffalo one day and drank nearly 60 cups of tea for the cause. Hinchey believed that Catholic groups were “coming out more and more for woman suffrage.” She cited an Irish priest, Rev Felix Scullin of Niagara Falls, as being particularly supportive. He hoped that she would “convert every man and woman” in his parish and offered her the use of the church hall. Despite this gargantuan effort, the suffrage initiative in New York was defeated.

Violent scenes

In 1916 she shared the stage with Mother Jones at Mozart Hall where 500 wives of car strikers were gathered. Jones urged the women to “play hell with the scabs.” They left the hall and began to break the windows of a street car outside. Blanche Brace, a pioneering young female journalist, witnessed the police response which was the indiscriminate use of the baton. She saw an eight-year-old child being struck and when she attempted to intervene she was also assaulted. As she put it “there’s something revolutionising in the smooth, chilly feel of a patrolman’s club in the small of your back.”

Another vote on suffrage in New York was due in 1917 and Maggie was again out canvassing. She assigned to carry the message of suffrage to the women in the tenement homes to try “to make them realise what it would mean to them and their children.” Hinchey was inspired by the 1916 Proclamation and she used it to persuade Irish- American voters that Ireland’s most recent martyrs wished to empower women. She wrote an article that appeared in the Gaelic American the night before the vote which reminded the Irish how “a year ago in Ireland the new Constitution drawn up by Connolly, McDermott and other Irish patriots contained a clause that granted the ballot to Irish women.” The suffrage bill passed.

Margaret Hinchey’s instincts were to resist a society which treated her as a should-be-mother first, a woman second and as a human last. Her efforts to win the vote for women and to empower workers were hugely influential. Leonora O’Reilly fittingly described her as …

Clean of thought, pure of heart, brave as truth itself … her strength, her courage and
big heart have been at the service of every group of girls struggling for the right to
live and enjoy life.

She should not be forgotten. This is for you, Maggie.

Liam Hogan is a librarian and historian. He is a graduate of the University of Limerick and Aberystwyth University and is currently working on his first book, a study of the historical relationship between Limerick and slavery. You can follow him on Twitter@Limerick1914

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