One thousand pine trees were planted across an acre of the Mason state forest in celebration of Kate F. O’Connor’s life. She had died at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, following a heart attack during the spring of 1945 and the members of the 12th district of the Illinois Federation of Women’s clubs wished for a living tribute to honor Kate for her service as the federation’s first president.
During her lifetime Kate made friends easily and was considered a personal friend to many notables including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Secretary of Labor, Miss Frances Perkins, and Illinois suffragists Julia Lathrop and Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms.
Known for her warm heart yet strong character, Kate, a native of Rockford, Illinois, had been the youngest of Cornelius and Mary (O’Malley) O’Connor’s eight children. She was active in all things in the community including St. James Catholic Church, Girl Scouts, Young Women’s Christian Association and the Rockford Riding Club.
After graduating from Rockford High School, she went on to study at Chicago’s Academy of Fine Arts. Kate’s early career gave her high rankings not only as a business woman but as a business person well-respected by community business men she had interaction with. In 1882, Kate was appointed to the position of Deputy to the County Clerk. Illinois Governor Ogilsby would make her a notary public four years later.
Her service as deputy clerk for Winnebago County would continue for sixteen years before she opened her own Rockford office to provide services in pension and probate law, insurance, government claims and real estate. She sponsored petitions, directed inquiries into wrong doings, and fought for Civil War soldiers and soldiers’ widows to receive their husband’s pensions.
Considered a pioneer Illinois suffragist, she was a dedicated advocate for equal rights and pay for women. In January, 1888, she boldly told the Daily Gazette “There is certainly no good reason why a woman should not vote if she wants to, and every argument advanced against it so far, is without foundation, and cannot be substantiated by rational proof.”
As a leader in crusades for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States constitution Kate actively campaigned throughout the country for its support. “I think I was born a suffragette as well as a tomboy,” she once told a reporter of the Register Republic newspaper. “My mother was ahead of her time. She believed in suffrage and I well remember the day she went proudly to the polls with many other heroic mothers to vote for local option, only to have their votes thrown out on a technicality. The injustice of this struck home, as it seemed to me an ignominious insult to those earnest women.”
Throughout her life Kate had the occasion to travel across the United States and enjoyed numerous excursions abroad which included a three-month tour of the West Indies (1903), sailing to northern Europe with special interest in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1906) and taking a trip through the mountains of the Canadian Rockies (1914).
From 1898 to 1919 she opened and moved her successful real estate office from Rockford to Chicago to Detroit. Shortly after accepting an offer of Lambrecht and Kelly of Detroit, Kate had made a quarter million dollar sale decisively settling the question of her ability as a business woman there. She was elected first vice-president of the Woman’s Association of Commerce in Detroit assisting with immigration and labor issues for women and girls in the state. Family was important to Kate and after the death of her niece she returned to Rockford in response to a call from her sister.
In the early part of the century Kate was a major link to the great feminists of her generation. In 1920, Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Women Suffrage association had presented her with a certificate extolling her work and named her a “pioneer” worker for the cause of woman suffrage. The certificate remained one of Kate’s prized possessions. Interviewed later in her life Kate spoke of the thrill as a “barefooted kid” running to “hear Susan B. Anthony speak at Metropolitan hall. I never forgot it, for it seemed to become part of me and later, during the last visit of Miss Anthony to Chicago, I had the privilege of speaking on the same platform at the old Auditorium and receive her commendation.”
By 1921, Kate, along with fellow members of the local Business & Professional Woman’s Club, had given their support to Rockford teachers in a dispute over equal pay for female teachers. Kate was than appointed to serve on the Board of Education. After one year she resigned as she continued to devote her life to the improvement of conditions for women and children in business and industry where she is credited for persuading passage of many Illinois state laws aiding working women and minors.
After Illinois passed suffrage to women Kate became a charter member of the Illinois League of Women Voters; she was an honorary member of the Steamfitters and Plumbers unions; chairwoman of transportation for the General Federation of Women’s clubs and served as membership chairwoman for the Illinois Woman’s Press Association where she had been an active member for many years.
Kate was considered a life-long Democrat and an ardent supporter of Governor Henry Horner and President Roosevelt. Horner appointed her Supervisor of the Women’s and Children’s division of the Illinois Department of Labor in 1933 making her the first woman code officer in the state. By 1935, Kate was responsible for new wage scales for women and minors working in laundries. She also pushed for wage regulations in beauty shops. After her work for Illinois she became assistant regional director of the wage and hour division for the U.S. Labor Department. In the months prior to her death, she resigned as president of the Chicago Lodge, No. 648, American Federation of Government Employees and had been made honorary president for life.
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