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Altared States: Marriage Ends an Organizer’s Career

In 1889, Knights of Labor General Investigator Leonora Barry surprised the union by recommending that the Woman’s Department, which she headed, be disbanded. “There can be no separation or distinction of wage workers on account of sex,” she argued, “and a separate department for the interests of women is a direct contradiction of this.” The Knights rejected her recommendations, and Barry continued her organizing work. What finally halted Barry’s organizing efforts—and the work of the union’s Woman’s Department—was her marriage in 1890 to Obadiah Read Lake, a St. Louis Knight and printer. Terrence V. Powderly, the head of the Knights, had not always fully supported Barry’s efforts and his readiness to see her marriage as the equivalent of her death (as this letter to a fellow Knight revealed) showed the limitations of the Knights’ commitment to women’s full participation. Although Barry’s labor organizing ended, she remained active in temperance, women’s suffrage, and other progressive causes.

The request for the services of Sister Barry comes from other localities but she can not comply, in fact, Sister Barry’s days are numbered. You will never, in all probability, rest eyes on her again. I know you will unite with me in sorrowing over this, for us, unhappy event, but the fates are against us and soon the name of Sister Barry will exist only in the fond remembrance of the members of our Order and her many friends outside of it. She has not yet been called across the dark river but she will soon be buried in the bosom of a Lake that shall wash away all claim that we may have to her, and the papers will chronicle the event in this way: On April 17th, at St. Louis, Mrs. L. M. Barry of Amsterdam, N.Y. to O. R. Lake of St. Louis, Mo., the Rev. Mr.—officiating. The bride was dressed in a—. Brother Glocking, words fail and you will have to describe the bridal outfit yourself. . . .

Source: Terence V. Powderly to R. Glocking, Esq., Letterbook 48, 10 April 1890, Terence V. Powderly Papers, Catholic University of America. Reprinted in Rosalyn Baxandall, Linda Gordon, and Susan Reverby, America’s Working Women (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), 125.