A labor organizer and advocate for women’s suffrage, Margaret “Maggie” Hinchey rose to national prominence in the early decades of the 20th century. Her passionate speeches advocated for both economic justice and political equality for women. A longtime laundry worker, Hinchey intimately understood the struggle to survive in industrial America. She spoke especially of the need for poor and working-class women to gain access to the electoral system, so that their needs would be better represented. In the 1910s, she toured the country from New York City to Butte, Montana, speaking to large crowds of mostly working-class men and union members, urging them to support women’s access to the ballot.
Born in the late 19th century in Ireland, Hinchey immigrated to the United States with her family before the turn-of-the-century.1 She lived in New York City and worked long days and nights in commercial laundries for little pay. In January 1912, tens of thousands of the city’s laundry workers went on strike and Hinchey joined them, even though she held a position as forewoman. Police arrested her during the strike, and afterwards, her reputation as an activist made it hard to find work in the industry.
Hinchey’s skills as an organizer and public speaker caught the attention of women trade unionists and their middle-class allies. She became friends with Leonora O’ Reilley, whose family had also immigrated from Ireland. O’Reilly worked for the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) and was active in the women’s suffrage movement. In subsequent years, Hinchey and O’Reilly would remain friends, and in letters the two women vented their frustrations regarding the largely privileged character of the early 20th century suffrage movement.
In 1913, Hinchey began working as a paid speaker and organizer for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and its New York State affiliate, the Women’s Suffrage Party. She spoke at large conventions, including the 1913 NAWSA national meeting, and to small groups of union members, making the case for women’s access to the ballot. She also appeared at events sponsored by the Wage Earners’ Suffrage League, an organization led by working-class women.
Hinchey continued to support striking workers on picket lines and in protests during this time as well. In fact, she spent 30 days in the New York City jail in 1913 for picketing during a hat makers strike. Afterwards, she authored an article on the experience for the journal Life and Labor, which included a cogent analysis of how poverty itself was often criminalized by the state.2
In February 1914, Hinchey made her way to Washington D.C. She was part of a delegation of working women, numbering in the hundreds, headed to the capital to demand the vote from President Woodrow Wilson. After arriving, Hinchey visited the White House. She was one of four women to address the president directly.
That summer, she continued her efforts as a suffrage campaigner, traveling across the country, including to Ohio, Montana, and upstate New York, arguing for women’s voting rights. Her message in these speeches was clear, supporting women’s suffrage was an act of class solidarity. Speaking to a gathering of male union members in Dayton, Ohio in October 1914, Hinchey stated, “The workingman has a strong sense of justice. He will not refuse the working woman the same protection he himself enjoys…Besides, he knows it is time that his own wife and daughter had a voice in electing the lawmakers of the country which their combined labor helps to make strong and great.”3
Between 1915 and 1917, Hinchey played an important in role in the campaign to win women’s suffrage in New York State. She gave speeches and organized potential supporters in the streets and in the workplaces of New York City. The ballot initiative failed in 1915, but eventually passed in 1917.
The success of the New York initiative, however, led to Hinchey losing her job with the Women’s Suffrage Party. Attention had now turned to passing a national constitutional amendment. Dejected, Hinchey returned to the commercial laundry industry, later taking a job in domestic service. Her changed circumstances are a stark reminder of the challenges faced by working women in their pursuit of political change. While wealthier suffragists could rely on family support, women like Hinchey and Leonora O’Reilly had few such financial resources to turn to in times of hardship. Despite her personal setbacks, Hinchey never lost her passion for women’s rights and labor organizing. She continued to support union organizing and became a staunch advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment. Margaret Hinchey died in New York City on February 29, 1944.
1. Sources differ on Margaret Hinchey's date of birth, as well as when she immigrated to the United States. However, all agree she arrived in New York City sometime before 1900.
2. Margaret Hinchey, "Thirty Days," Life and Labor, vol. 3 (September 1913), 264 - 265.
3. "Workers: An Address by Miss Margaret Hinchey, Woman Labor Leader," Dayton Daily News, October 29, 1914, newspapers.com.
Hogan, Liam. "Isn't your sister and your daughter and your wife a person?" Margaret Hinchey: Immigrant, Labour Leader, Suffragette." Old Limerick Journal 53 (2018): 16-20.
McCarthy, Tara. Respectability and Reform: Irish American Women's Activism, 1880-1920. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, NY, 2018.
Tax, Meredith. The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880 – 1917. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980.
Vapnek, Lara. Breadwinners: Working Women and Economic Independence, 1865–1920. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009.
________. "Hinchey, Margaret (1870-1944), suffragist and labor leader." American National Biography. Accessed March 10, 2020.
"Workers: An Address by Miss Margaret Hinchey, Woman Labor Leader," Dayton Daily News, October 29, 1914, newspapers.com.