Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Margaret Haley, 1861-1939

By Molly Silvestrini and Yvonne Almodovar, Undergraduate students, University of California, Santa Barbara

Margaret Haley was born on November 15, 1861, the second of eight children to Irish Catholic immigrants. She grew up in Joliet, Illinois, and attended the Illinois Normal School in Bloomington. She was heavily influenced by her father, who was an active member of several labor organizations. Due to her family's declining economic status, she began to teach at the age of 16, and moved to Chicago to teach in city schools. She taught as a sixth-grade teacher from 1884 to 1900 on Chicago's South Side. During this time, she observed the extreme poverty of the community in which she taught, which shaped her belief that teachers had a responsibility to fight for change in school and society. Haley believed that the tendency of schools to treat teachers as "automatons, mere factory hands" contradicted the principles of democracy.

In 1897, Haley joined the Chicago Teachers' Federation (CTF), which was dominated by female teachers. Haley became the district Vice President of the CTF and began full-time union work. Under her leadership, the CTF advocated for higher salaries, pensions and tenure, and better school conditions. Haley advised the CTF to join forces with the Chicago Federation of Labor to gain political power. Haley fought for the right "for the teacher to call her soul her own." She led the battle between the CTF and the Board of Education from 1915-1917, which resulted in a state tenure law for teachers. Her participation continued through her efforts against the "tax fight," trying to ensure that public schools received due funding, as well as keeping teachers from having to beg for salary increases and security of pay when the Board of Education pursued inequitable tax and lease policies. This was particularly important to the interests of the CTF, which formed to defend the interest of grade-school teachers, who were mostly women. Haley's involvement in the CTF spanned from 1898 until her death in 1939.

In 1904, Haley made an address to the National Education Association (NEA) convention, and was the first woman and teacher to do so. In a speech entitled "Why Teachers Should Organize," Haley gave what was considered to be a first call for a national effort to unionize U.S. classroom teachers. This speech advocated for unionism, and was particularly impactful because, although female schoolteachers made up the vast majority of the NEA's constituency, only the nation's most esteemed male education administrators were allowed to address the association. Haley advocated for a more professional approach to teaching, including improved teacher education and teacher involvement in school management. Haley and her colleagues encouraged teachers' unions to become a political force for social reform and made such an impact that they were given the nickname "Lady Labor Sluggers."

Haley worked with a plethora of female political leaders, such as Ella Flagg Young, Jane Addams, and Catherine Goggin. Initially, Haley supported Jane Addams's appointment to the Chicago Board of Education. However, she became disillusioned with Addams because she believed Addams had become compromised by her dependence on large corporations for assistance with the projects she had planned. Due to this, Haley believed that Addams would trade away basic teacher rights in favor of corporate support. #x00a0

While Haley contributed significantly to the power of teachers' unions during this time, her ideology had its limits; she refused to align with more radical groups, such as socialists, anarchists, and African-American groups, which limited the power of her movement. In addition, she was excluded from middle-class Protestant women's reform due to her class and religious background, and was also ostracized by male-dominated labor groups, who disapproved of female-led unions.

Even with her lifelong work for teacher unionism, Haley periodically lent critical support to the woman suffrage movement. In 1901 the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association published a leaflet, "Suffrage for Women Taxpayers." The Chicago Teachers' Federation "rendered valuable service" in support of the effort due largely to the work of Margaret Haley. During the 1911 woman suffrage referendum in California, Haley traveled to the state and spoke at a number of rallies.

Haley edited and wrote the Chicago Teachers' Federation Bulletin from 1901 to 1908 and Margaret Haley's Bulletin from 1915 to 1916, and from 1925 to 1931. Haley died in Chicago on January 5, 1939, at age 77. She is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Joliet, Will County, Illinois.


1. Haley, Margaret. Battleground: The Autobiography of Margaret Haley (edited by Robert L. Reid). Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

2. Hoffman, Nancy. Woman's True Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching. Harvard Education Press, 2003.

3. "Only a Teacher: Schoolhouse Pioneers." Accessed April 19, 2019.

4. McCormick, Maureen Elizabeth. "The Female Grade School Teacher and Equal Rights for Women: An Alternative View on the Meanings of Education and the Organization of the American School" Ed. D. diss, University of Cincinnati, 1988.

5. Urban, Wayne J. Why Teachers Organized. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1982

6. Herrick, M.J. The Chicago Schools: A Social and Political History. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1971.

7. "Margaret Angela Haley." Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 19, 2019.

8. Ida Husted Harper, et al., eds., History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 6 (1922) (see state reports for California and Illinois for details).

9. "Margaret Amanda Haley." Find a Grave. Accessed April 24, 2019.

10. Wrigley, Julia. Class, Politics and Public Schools: Chicago 1900–1950. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1982.

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