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  • Writer's pictureMGMUS

Margaret Foley, the Grand Heckler of Boston

In 1909, suffrage for women was still a decade away. Police in Rochester had arrested Susan B. Anthony for voting in a local election nearly forty years prior. There was some evidence that activists, who mostly hailed from upper-class families, had become restless, opening themselves to less-traditional strategies and more inclusive organizations. In small numbers, working-class women joined the rallies and marches for women's suffrage. Margaret Foley, however, championed what at the time seemed like extreme moves, including dropping suffragist pamphlets from a hot air balloon over Lawrence, Massachusetts, capping off a year of bold tactics and public debates.

Foley, from her first speaking engagements in 1909, distinguished herself by speaking loudly and refusing to back down from conflict – even conflict with huge crowds of men. Because she had gone through classical training as a singer, she knew how to project herself in large venues. At the Boston Stock Exchange, she handed out more pamphlets, and after Boston police threatened to arrest her, she took to standing atop a building and shouting at the crowds below.

In time, the newspapers began to refer to her as "The Grand Heckler." Her strategies garnered attention but just as importantly, won her allies. During a debate at the Tammany Hall Club in Boston, she took on local politician and anti- suffragist Timothy Callahan. In the audience, there were more than a thousand men. Nonetheless, her debate performance won her a standing ovation.

Serving on the board of the Boston Women's Trade Union League, Foley became as fierce a proponent for working-class rights as she was for women's rights, two sets of issues that she talked about as inseparable. One of less than a handful of Irish Catholic suffragists from Boston, she bridged the gap between the upper-class leaders of the suffrage movement and the first- generation Irish women whose support they needed.

Her flamboyant public profile, though, did not always work to her benefit. Throughout the 1910s, she struggled to earn a living for herself, working mostly odd jobs. It was only in 1920, the year that the 19th Amendment passed the Senate, that Foley's situation changes. Boston Mayor John F. Fitzgerald, the maternal grandfather of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, nominated her for a role in his government – within the Children's Institutions Department.

Foley's story, although unique, is also similar to that of many of the working- class women born to Irish immigrants in Boston. In their numbers, they found, there was power, but in that power, there were unwritten rules – rules that did not always align with their direct and straightforward ways. Their role in American history, showing up on the shores in their huddled masses, is inestimable. Today, with Irish immigrants accounting for 9.7% of the US population, their progeny carry their ways on, through directness and straightforwardness learned from Irish mothers and grandmothers who would have counted Margaret Foley among their own.


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