Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Matilda Orr Hays, 1853-1937
By Therese Boyd, Pennsylvania State University
Matilda Orr Hays, daughter of William and Nancy (Hornish) Hays, was born in Washington, Pennsylvania, on December 7, 1853, the tenth of eleven children. Her father was a shoemaker, and the family moved to Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, shortly after her birth.
Hays worked as a music teacher and committed her life to social causes. Her students often gave recitals to benefit scholarships and charities such as orphans' funds. A charter member of the League of American Pen Women, Hays wrote articles regularly for Pittsburgh-area newspapers on activities of the local women's clubs or issues of the day. Late in her career she worked in advertising, a rare position for a woman at the time.
Hays made the most significant impact in her activities as a clubwoman. By 1906 she was a member of the Woman's Club of Pittsburgh and had begun her work toward suffrage. She served as a delegate for the Allegheny County Equal Rights Association at both the national and state meetings. That year she also spoke at a memorial service for Susan B. Anthony on "What Miss Anthony Has Done for Higher Education."
Through the following years Hays was very active in both suffrage organizations and women's clubs throughout the Pittsburgh area. She served as president of the Allegheny City Equal Rights Club, corresponding secretary of the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania, treasurer and then president of the state suffrage association, followed by treasurer and then president of the Woman's Club of Pittsburgh. In 1913 she was elected president of the Congress of Women's Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. She would later serve as two-term president of the Forum Club.
Hays turned her suffrage work toward efforts for peace; at the time many thought that if women could vote, war would be abolished. She served as chair of the Congress Committee on Study of Citizenship (formerly Suffrage) and by 1914 she was president of the Universal Peace Federation of Western Pennsylvania, organizing and holding peace marches in Pittsburgh. In 1916 Hays became chair for the Brashear Memorial movement, intended to preserve the work and memory of Dr. John Brashear, an astronomer who had founded the Universal Peace Federation of Western Pennsylvania.
Utilizing her writing and speaking skills Hays worked to improve a number of significant social issues. She regularly gave speeches about the dangers of white phosphorus matches, which poisoned the workers who made them. She became known for her "anti-spitting" campaign, an effort to improve public health by preventing men from spitting in public. Other talks she gave concerned "Mothers' Pensions," an idea that would later be used in the creation of the Aid to Dependent Children welfare payments as part of the Social Security Act, and "The Business of Being a Club Woman," which she said required concentration and specialization. During and after World War I she participated in a number of charitable efforts for soldiers, such as learning how to care for disabled soldiers and raising money for the War Children's Christmas fund. In 1921 Hays was treasurer of the Madame Curie Radium Fund and met Madame Curie when she visited Pittsburgh.
Composer Stephen Collins Foster's life and work was a favored subject for Hays; she gave talks about him and raised money for a memorial and scholarship in his memory. She also published "A Handbook of History, Containing a Genealogic Chart of Stephen Collins Foster and His Immediate Family" in 1932, which can be found in the Foster Hall Collection at the Center for American Music, University of Pittsburgh.
After a few years of illness, Hays died in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, on January 1, 1937, and is buried in Alexandria Presbyterian Cemetery, Alexandria, Pennsylvania.
Due to her many civic activities, the majority of existing information about Matilda Orr Hays—as well as some articles she wrote—can be found throughout Pennsylvania newspapers, especially in the Pittsburgh area, during her lifetime (see Newspapers.com). Additional family information, including census records, can be found on Ancestry.com.