Kate F. O’Connor was born in Rockford, Illinois June 1, 1863 to Irish immigrants. She was the youngest of 8 children and not much is known of her younger life. After graduating from high school, Kate studied drawing and painting for a short while. After temping in the County Clerk’s office, in 1882 she was appointed deputy to the County Clerk.
Kate was well respected in Rockford’s business community and appeared often in the local newspaper for her involvement in social clubs, organizations and new groups she founded. An 1887 article described her as “…small and slight…”, wearing her hair down her back in a braid, and dresses that went to her ankles (much shorter than the long dresses worn by women at that time). Described as ‘girlish’, it was noted that the “…burly men…” who do business in her office respected her (Rockford Daily Register, 12/29/1887). The same article even noted in some amazement that it was odd that she was so popular when she had such outspoken opinions on “…questions of morality and temperance.” Though some of the article attempts to fit Kate into the mold of how a woman ‘should’ appear, she was gaining a reputation for not only her good work but for her strong opinions. She loudly advocated for equal voting rights for women, campaigned constantly alongside other activists, and in 1888 she stated for the paper quite plainly that any argument against women having the right to vote had no foundation.
Kate eventually started her own business, moving her office from Rockford to Chicago, IL. Her vacations were reported in the newspaper, and even her penchant for wearing linen suits (which she found more comfortable) were newsworthy.
After women’s voting rights were won, Kate kept fighting! She fought for equal pay for female teachers in Rockford in 1921 along with her fellow members of the Business & Professional Woman’s Club, served on the board of education, and lectured. In her post-19th amendment talks, Kate concentrated on urging women to exercise their right to vote, reminding them of the years of struggle leading to their win.
Kate’s years of fighting led to her appointment in 1932 by Illinois governor Henry Horner as the supervisor to the state’s new minimum wage law for women and children. While she held this position she pushed for new wage scales and regulations for women and minors and also ran the re-election campaign for Horner. In 1942 Kate was appointed assistant to Thomas F. O’Malley, regional director of the federal wage and hour division of the U.S. Department of Labor.
After a long life of service and advocacy, Kate died in Chicago after a heart attack May 25, 1945. Her legacy was honored and remembered by the many groups she advocated for throughout her life, and her imprint on the lives of women across Illinois and the U.S. will always be felt.
Written for Sheroes of History by Regina Gorham. Regina is a Shero fan and works in a museum in Michigan. Kate O’Connor has been a Shero of hers since she discovered Kate while doing research in her former museum job. Kate shows that no matter the era or cultural restrictions, a Shero says ‘screw it!’ and gets done what needs to get done, no matter what!
*Photo courtesy of Midway Village Museum
Find out more…
The Midway Village Museum has two excellent downloadable resource packs all about Kate. You can download them for free here.