Soapbox Speakers

10. New York, Part three: Free speech in New York’s Union Square – another woman’s voice.

(Union Square: 14th-17th Street, Broadway and Park)

Leonora O’Reilly (1870-1927) was another famous New York orator. A labour activist and teacher at Henry Street Settlement House, Leonora was modest and unassuming. But as soon as she began to speak, her voice, her face, her very personality, expressed a sincerity that won admiration. With simple words and humour, she eloquently delivered to her opponents hard-hitting criticism that impressed the most obdurate.

Leonora was born in New York’s lower east side of poor Irish immigrants. Her speaking career began with the ‘Knights of Labor’ in 1896. She was a regular speaker at nearly every major rally in Union Square and continued soapboxing until shortly before her death in 1927, aged 57. She was not a firebrand anarchist, but a Socialist suffragist.

Her speeches followed a set pattern. She would begin by reviewing the political situation of the day, and then offer her solution. For example, she might begin in a low voice with the words, “You men made a mess of it, and you know it. Your political house needs cleaning and a man is no earthly good when it comes to housecleaning; let us do it.”

She played a leading role in the garment workers dispute (1909-10) and led the investigation into the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company that resulted in the death of 146 people. It is for this reason New York remembers Leonora O’Reilly.

In 2002 the Union Square soapbox orators Leonora O’Reilly, Emma Goldman and Rose Schneiderman (a Polish-born former hat worker who had once led a strike at the Triangle factory) were celebrated, in the form of a musical play, “Women’s voices from Union Square”.

Steve Maxwell. plnsteve@gmail.com

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