Primary election day in New York is a fitting time to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of Caroline O'Day, long-time Rye resident (and grandmother of current resident Dan O'Day, Jr). The information in this post is taken largely from an excellent article written by Paul DeForest Hicks, also a Rye resident, which can be accessed via the following link: http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/nyh/88.3/hicks.html.
Caroline Love Goodwin was born in 1869 on a plantation near Perry, Georgia. Her father and other members of her family were Confederate army veterans, a remarkable fact given her strong commitment as an adult to pacifism, civil rights and social welfare causes. After graduating from the Lucy Cobb Institute. a prominent secondary school for girls in Athens, Georgia, Caroline moved to New York City to study art at Cooper Union. She then moved to Paris to continue her studies, including studying under Whistler.
While living in Europe, she met Daniel O'Day, an American businessman whose father was a close associate of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company. At the time, she was over 30 (well beyond typical marriage age of the time) and enjoying her independent life in Paris. Nevertheless, O'Day persuaded her to abandon her artistic career and move to NY where they were married in 1902.
In 1910, the O'Days with their 3 children moved to Rye, first into a rented house near Grace Church St. and then into the house they built on what is now Sunset Lane. Daniel O'Day was an enthusiastic supporter of women's suffrage and encouraged Caroline to enter the political arena. According to a New York Times article in 1940, "It was not until the later stages of the struggle for suffrage that Mrs. O'Day's political career might be said to have been launched. Although sympathetic, she was not active until her husband, the late Daniel O'Day, turned to her from the curbstone where both of them were watching a parade of suffragettes and asked why she was not among them." (New York Times, Nov. 6, 1940)
After her husband's sudden death in 1916, leaving Caroline with a large house and several young children to manage, she became active in both the suffrage and pacifist movements. During WWI, she also became increasingly involved in a number of social welfare groups, including the National Consumers League and the Women's Trade Union League. Through these and other organizations, she came into contact with many of the leading female reformers of the day. She also joined the League of Women Voters and began her political work in Westchester County, helping to establish the Women's Division of the New York Democratic Committee. It was through that connection that she met Eleanor Roosevelt, which led to a long-lasting bond among O'Day, Roosevelt, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman. O'Day was deeply involved with the other women in the Val-Kill Partnership and edited a monthly journal that the 4 women started, the Women's Democratic News.
O'Day developed close ties to FDR as well as Eleanor Roosevelt, working on his 1930 reelection campaign for NY governor and his presidential campaigns of 1932 and 1936. O'Day herself was elected to Congress in 1934 as a representative-at-large from New York. She went on to serve 4 terms, advocating for progressive causes, including particularly child labor protection, employment opportunities for the disabled, immigration rights and anti-lynching legislation. O'Day even played an important role in Marian Anderson's historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial. As Hicks so eloquently describes, "As the great singer made her way to the microphone that memorable Easter morning in 1939, Caroline O'Day was by her side."
On January 4, 1943, one day after her fourth term ended, Caroline O'Day died at her home in Rye. In a note of condolence to O'Day's family, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: "Your mother and I have been friends for a long time.... Her high ideals and integrity were an inspiration to all who knew her or felt her influence, and her generosity touched many people and many causes in which she believed. Her passing is a loss not only to her family but to the world, especially at this time when women like your mother are needed to fight for justice." (As quoted in Hicks's article).
Caroline O'Day's remarkable legacy will be celebrated at a dedication of the Rye Post Office in her name later in October. Please watch for news of the date and time, and please be sure to attend the ceremony in honor of this extraordinary gentlewoman of Rye.