Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Claire O'Brien, 1871-1945
By Ève Bourbeau-Allard, MA, MSI
Treasurer of the Equal Suffrage League of Baltimore
Based in Baltimore, Maryland, Mary Claire O'Brien was a staunch suffragist and political activist with connections to the Catholic Church, trade unions, and proponents of Irish freedom. According to contemporary censuses, several women named Mary C. O'Brien lived in Baltimore in the early 20th century.* Due to her activism with the Catholic Church and the Irish cause, the suffragist in question probably had family ties to Ireland. A likely candidate is Mary Claire O'Brien, who was born in 1871 to William J. O'Brien (1835-1905), a second-generation Irish-American who worked as a lawyer, and to Catherine (also spelled Katherine) McCarthy (1836-1899), who was born in Ireland. As of the 1900 census, Mary Claire O'Brien worked as a teacher and was single. Newspaper articles reporting on her activism refer to her as "Miss" Mary Claire O'Brien throughout the 1910s, suggesting she may have never married. It is possible she lived in New York City in the 1930s, but she passed away in July 1945 in her hometown of Baltimore.
Between at least 1914 and 1918, Mary Claire O'Brien was affiliated with the Equal Suffrage League of Baltimore, also known as the Equal Franchise League of Baltimore. She served as its Treasurer and as a delegate to the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) annual conventions in Nashville, Tennessee in 1914 and Washington, DC in 1915. To train for the demands of her activist work, O'Brien completed a public speaking class in 1915 organized by the Equal Suffrage League of Maryland. While not Maryland's capital, Baltimore included so much of the state's population that Ida Husted Harper deemed the city "the real battleground of the [suffrage] movement" in Maryland, hence the importance of O'Brien's local involvement.
At the state level, O'Brien supported the Woman's Suffrage Party of Maryland, founded by Edith Houghton Hooker in the early 1910s with the hope of uniting all Maryland suffragists under one organization. However, the Woman's Suffrage Party's hard stance against the generally anti-suffrage Democratic Party alienated many Maryland suffragists otherwise aligned with Democratic policies. According to a report in the Baltimore Sun, the Party's third annual convention in October 1915 witnessed "bitter factional feeling" and disagreements over the Party's purpose in relation to other local and state organizations. O'Brien's proposal that the Party should from now on function only as a "clearing house" for local suffrage leagues to accomplish their legislative work, not as a centralized publicity and propaganda organization, was met with some opposition. The matter was relegated to another meeting. That very day after debating the future of the Party, O'Brien headed out to New York City to participate in the October 23rd Fifth Avenue suffrage parade.
O'Brien also participated in important debates about the governance of the Just Government League of Maryland, another product of Edith Houghton Hooker's organizing efforts. The League, founded in 1909 by Hooker, was an affiliate of the NAWSA. At its 1915 annual meeting, a heated discussion arose as to whether the affiliation with NAWSA was worth the $150 dues or not. O'Brien worried that withdrawing from the NAWSA would negatively affect the reputation of Maryland suffragists, which would then diminish the influence of the Woman's Suffrage Party.
Outside of these formal organizations, O'Brien associated in 1917 with a group of Baltimore Catholic women to discuss the suffrage cause with Cardinal James Gibbons. The women hoped to convince the Cardinal that supporting suffrage was not antithetical to traditional Catholic values since they, while being suffragists, were against birth control and "free love." They wished to obtain the Cardinal's advice on combating these aspects of the "modern woman movement."
Two other causes of interest to O'Brien were the fight for Irish freedom and the defense of children's rights. A member of the Friends of Irish Freedom, O'Brien volunteered in 1920 to picket at the British Embassy in Washington, DC. Though the picket line was stopped before O'Brien could make it to DC, she remained sympathetic to the picketing strategy and was "unwilling to criticize any measure that the leaders think may help to secure freedom for Ireland." This same Mary Claire O'Brien also served as Secretary of the Children's Playground Association. She represented the Association before the Maryland legislature to advocate against the suspension of child labor laws as a war measure in 1917.
O'Brien's activism on behalf of women's political rights continued in the 1920s. In 1921, O'Brien was acting as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of the Maryland League of Women Voters, providing leadership for the League's budget and finances. A Mary Claire O'Brien is also reported among the attendees of a 1920 Baltimore Women's Trade Union League's meeting in Annapolis discussing the suffrage amendment presented to the Maryland state house of representatives. Though this woman may be the same as the suffrage activist, she could also be one of the other Mary C. O'Briens mentioned in the note below who worked in a trade.
*Note on identification:
Other possible candidates appearing in the 1910 census with ties to Ireland include:
- Mary C. O'Brien (Ward 3), born circa 1894 to an Irish father and a mother from Maryland, who worked as a milliner in 1910 at age 16.
- Mary C. O'Brien (Ward 4), a third-generation Irish-American born circa 1887 and listed without an occupation.
- Mary C. O'Brien (Ward 4), born circa 1879 to an Irish father and a New Yorker mother, who worked as a salesperson in a shoe store.
Other candidates without family ties to Ireland listed in the 1920 census are:
- Mary C. O'Brien (Ward 2), a white woman born in 1891 to an American father and a German mother, who worked as a telephone operator as of 1920.
- Mary C. O'Brien (Ward 11), a black woman born to a Maryland family in 1881, who worked as a secretary in 1920.
None of the census entries includes the full middle name.
Mary Claire O'Brien (1871-1945) also appears as Mary C. O'Brien in the census, but is identified fully in a family tree on Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/family-tree/person/tree/19053474/person/20334955823/facts). The June 4, 1931 Baltimore Sun obituary for William J. O'Brien Jr., a lawyer who is identified as Mary's brother in the family tree and in the 1880 census, mentions he was survived by a sister, Miss Mary Claire O'Brien of New York. [We are going with this Mary Claire O'Brien as identified in Ancestry.com, understanding that we cannot be 100 percent certain given the alternatives noted above.]
1880 United States Federal Census, Baltimore (Independent City), Maryland; Roll 499, page 479C; Enumeration District 070. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.
1900 United States Federal Census, Baltimore (Independent City), Maryland, Ward 15; Page 13; Enumeration District 0189. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.
1910 United States Federal Census, Baltimore (Independent City), Maryland, Ward 3; Roll T624_553, page 18A; Enumeration district 0026. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.
--- Ward 4; Roll T624_553, page 3B; Enumeration District 0043.
--- Ward 4; Roll T624_553, page 7B; Enumeration District 0044.
1920 United States Federal Census, Baltimore, Maryland, Ward 11; Roll T625_661, page 19B; Enumeration District 169. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.
--- Ward 2; Roll T625_656, page 8B. Enumeration district 24.
"Antisuffragists Appeal Letter Sent To Maryland Clergy In Fight On Women's Vote," Baltimore Sun, February 10, 1920. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
"Child Labor Bill Hammered - Women Make Effective Pleas Against Work for Youngsters," Baltimore Sun, June 22, 1917. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
"Decides to Affiliate - Just Government League Clings to National Suffrage Association," Baltimore Sun, April 21, 1915. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
"The Equal Suffrage League of Maryland," Maryland Suffrage News 3, no. 39, December 1914, page 307. Retrieved from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn89060379/1914-12-26/ed-1/seq-3/
Harper, Ida Husted, editor. History of Woman Suffrage volume 6. [New York]: National American woman suffrage association, . Pages 248, 266 [LINK].
"Meeting Finance Com. League Women Voters," Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, June 9, 1921. Retrieved from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1921-06-09/ed-1/seq-1/
National American Woman Suffrage Association, The Handbook of the NAWSA and Proceedings of the Forty-Six Annual Convention. New York: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1914. Page 184. Retrieved from https://htext.stanford.edu/dd-ill/womansuffrage.pdf
"New Suffragist Host - National Association Arrives as Rival Delegates Depart," The Washington Post, December 13, 1915. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
"Suffrage League Elects," Baltimore Sun, June 1, 1918. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
"Their Sympathies with Pickets for Irish Cause," Baltimore Sun, April 4, 1920. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Weaver, Diane E. "Maryland Women and the Transformation of Politics, 1890s-1930." PhD diss. University of Maryland, 1992. Page 103. Retrieved from the Digital Repository of the University of Maryland https://drum.lib.umd.edu/bitstream/handle/1903/20232/1169853.pdf
"Women Balk at Honors - Suffragists Have Hard Time Filling Officers' Chairs," Baltimore Sun, October 23, 1915. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
"Women to See Cardinal - Catholic Suffragists Want Advice on Woman's Movement," Baltimore Sun, February 13, 1917. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.