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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. 

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