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Thursday, August 20, 2020

Margaret Foley, Dorchester's Irish Suffrage Leader


Labor organizer and women's rights advocate Margaret Lillian Foley (1873-1957) was born to a working class Irish-American family at Meeting House Hill in Dorchester, Boston's largest neighborhood.  

With only a high school education from Girls' High School in Roxbury, Foley had a daring personality and a "voice like a trumpet."  

She worked in a hat factory organizing women workers and was a board member of the Women's Trade Union League, founded in Boston in 1903 by Mary Kenney O'Sullivan as part of the American Federal of Labor. 

As equal rights issues moved from the workplace to the political front, Foley became involved with the campaign to let women vote in all government elections, becoming  a member of the Massachusetts Women's Suffrage Association. 

During this time, she earned and enjoyed the nickname The Grand Heckler for her willingness to confront male politicians in public settings such as the Boston Stock Exchange and the Chamber of Commerce, and on the campaign trail, demanding the right to vote for women.  

As a working class Irish Catholic, she encountered resistance and indifference from the elite leadership of Boston's suffragist movement, which objected to her in-your-face tactics.  She moved onto the national stage, helping to gain the women's vote in Nevada in 1914.  According to historian Dennis Ryan in his book, Beyond the Ballot Box, "she crisscrossed the state for two months, talking to more than 20,000 men.  She braved dust storms, rode horseback, and socialized with ranchers and cowboys who often proposed to her."

Foley returned to Boston in 1918 and continued her work with the suffrage movement, but again was at odds with the elite officers, according to author Susan Deutsch in her book, Women and the City.  When the federal government finally allowed women to vote in 1920, Foley went on the lecture circuit, speaking mainly at Catholic Women's clubs.

The Collected Papers of Margaret Lillian Foley are held at Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, Boston Irish Suffrage Leader



In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the 19th Amendment (August 26, 1920) giving women the right to vote, here's our shout-out to Mary Kenney O'Sullivan (1864-1943), tireless labor organizer and suffrage leader during her accomplished life. 

Born in Missouri to Irish immigrants, Mary worked in Chicago and New York as a union organizer before moving to Boston’s South End in 1893. She organized rubber makers, shoe makers and garment workers, shops where women were paid poorly and suffered bad working conditions. 

When her husband John O’Sullivan died, she continued her work, creating the National Women’s Trade Union League and taking part in the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, MA.  

She wrote an important broadside, Why the Working Women Need the Vote, that was widely circulated and an influential part of the debate. 


The Massachusetts State House has a plaque entitled Hear Us, honoring Kenney and five other women.  The literature that accompanies this exhibit, written by Ellen K. Rothman of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, describes Mary Kenney O'Sullivan in this way:


As leader of the WTUL, Mary O'Sullivan forged alliances between middle-and working-class women.  A leader in Massachusetts reform circles, she focused her efforts on woman suffrage, housing for the poor, prohibition, and pacifism.  However, her highest priority remained the advancement of working women.

Mary Kenney O'Sullivan is part of BITA's Irish Women of Massachusetts series in celebration of Irish Heritage Month and Women's History Month. 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Boston Common Signage Tells the Story of the Shaw Memorial, 54th Black Regiment, Colonel Shaw and the Irish-born Sculptor


A corridor of 900 feet of interpretive signs is now encircling a section of Boston Common where the famous Colonel Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial, part of a $3 million restoration of the city’s most famous statue.

The interpretive signage tell the story of the American Civil War, the 54th Black Infantry, the Shaw Memorial and the immigrant sculptor who created the masterpiece, Augustus Saint-Gaudens.  In addition, the panels include handwritten letters by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and initial sketches and portraits by Saint-Gaudens.

Boston’s most iconic public monument, the Shaw Memorial, was officially unveiled on May 31, 1897.  The homage to the 54th Black Infantry Regiment of Boston is considered one of America’s most significant Civil War memorials.   It was the first public monument to accurately depict black soldiers in military uniform.

A group of partners have come together to oversee and fund the restoration, including the National Park ServiceCity of Boston, Friends of the Public Garden and Museum of African American History

According to the Friends of the Public Garden, all of the bronze and stone is being removed from the plaza level up.  These materials are being taken offsite to a conservation studio, and new waterproofing will be installed under the plaza’s brick. A new concrete foundation is being built under the bronze.


Saint-Gaudens was born of French and Irish parents in Dublin, Ireland, and moved to Boston with his family in September 1848, at the height of the Irish Famine.  The family later moved to New York, where Saint Gaudens began studying art and sculpture, later moving to Paris, France to enhance his skills and knowledge of classical sculpture traditions.

It took Saint-Gaudens fourteen years to complete the memorial, partly because there was an early disagreement within the memorial commission about how the piece should look, but also because  the perfectionist artist approached the project in a painstaking manner: seeking out forty black men in New York to use as models, from which he chose 16 to appear on the final memorial.  He also spent considerable time wrangling with the commission about the exact wording of the inscriptions.

Of the delay, Saint Gaudens wrote, “My own delay I excuse on the ground that a sculptor’s work endures for so long that it is next to a crime for him to neglect to do everything that lies in his power  to execute a result that will not be a disgrace….A poor picture goes into the garret, books are forgotten, but the bronze remains, to amuse or shame the populace.”

Created in 1634, Boston Common is the nation's oldest public park, and the site of important gatherings over the past 390 years.  

The Shaw 54th Memorial is part of the Black Heritage Trail and the Irish Heritage Trail