Leonora Barry (1849-1923) was the first woman paid to be a labor investigator.
Barry rose to high levels in the Knights of Labor reporting on the unfair practices for women workers. In 1885, she was elected as president of District Assembly 65. This group included fifty-two local branches and more than nine thousand members. Barry was later voted as the head of the Department of Women’s Work by the Knights of Labor.
She reported unsatisfactory working conditions for women and girls in New Jersey. The Knights of Labor was the first national labor union that welcomed the organization of working women. Barry joined the union in 1886 and was tasked to inspect the labor conditions of the women at Trenton’s woolen mills and potters. She also visited Newark’s garment factories and the linen mills at Paterson. Barry discovered evidence of illegal contract labor practices. Her report stated that, among other issues, female workers received poor wages for labor-intensive employment.
While in Newark, Barry found the system of fines at the factory unfair. For instance, a corset factory imposed a fine of 10 cents for singing, talking, eating, or laughing. Barry held several public and private meetings to tackle the issue of fair treatment for women laborers. Her series of reports made her the first person to collect national statistics about the working American woman.
Kepes, Betsy. Leonora Barry: First Voice for Working Women. Labor’s Heritage 12, no. 1 (2003): 38-49.
Whitman, Alden. 1985. American reformers: an H.W. Wilson biographical dictionary. New York: H.W. Wilson Company. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/11621754
Woloch, Nancy. 1997. Early American women: a documentary history, 1600-1900. New York: McGraw-Hill. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/34705100
Questions to Explore
How did Leonora Barry’s report for unsatisfactory working conditions for women and girl help working conditions for women?
What are some of the statistics Barry was able to collect about working American Women? How did it help improve women’s working conditions?
Who are some other women that worked for the Knights of Labor?
Chorlian, Meg. Women Trailblazers of the 1800s. Peterborough, N.H: Cobblestone Pub., 2018.
Woloch Nancy. 2013. Early American Women : A Documentary History 1600-1900 Third ed. New York NY: McGraw-Hill a business unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies. https://worldcat.org/title/826899294
American Reformers. Second edition. Ipswich, Massachusetts: The H.W. Wilson Company, a division of EBSCO Information Services, Inc., 2017.