Caroline O’Day: A Life of Service and Purpose
For this year’s Women’s History Month, we are honoring Caroline O’Day, US Representative from 1935-1943, for her many contributions and their relevance today. Our country is currently experiencing shifts that are unfamiliar for many of us, and politics have risen to the forefront of our daily discussions. Within the layers of media, we see messages about women’s rights, immigration, and the rights of disabled people, among many other concerns. We consider what it means to be a community, what issues are most central for us, and how we can work together to support one another in building a promising future. For an example of leadership in driving change, we can take a closer look at Caroline O’Day, a woman who helped shaped Rye and our nation during a critical time. O’Day changed the way women are viewed in politics and brought human rights to the forefront of discussions, using her strong ideals as guidance to implement practical changes.
One of the most interesting pieces of Caroline O’Day’s life is her transition into politics. Like some of our neighbors today who are seeking roles in local and regional office, O’Day began to get involved because she felt an urge to turn her emotions and sympathy into action. Before getting married in her early thirties, O’Day had lived in Paris, working as an artist and fashion writer. She was used to earning her own way and being independent, but when she fell in love with Daniel O’Day, she left her art career behind to move to NY and start a family. Daniel O’Day supported Caroline’s beliefs and ideals, and encouraged her to take a more active role in politics, seeing her interest in suffrage and human rights. They moved to Rye in 1910 with their three young children, and when Daniel died suddenly in 1916, O’Day turned her loss into purpose and began a life of public service first on the local level, then nationally.
In 1917, O’Day began volunteering and joining committees for social justice, and by 1921 she received her first political appointment when she was named to the state board of social welfare. Locally, Caroline O’Day was elected president of the Rye School Board. As O’Day began to pursue her interests in service, a snowball effect seemed to quickly build. People liked her confidence and substance, and she developed a network of influential people who trusted her increasing abilities as a leader and advocate. She earned leadership roles within the Democratic committee and a deepened her involvement in both local and regional politics, a balance in which O’Day thrived. When, in June 1933, she was appointed to represent New York as the Democratic National Committeewoman, the Rye Chronical described her by saying, “Mrs. O’Day is unquestionably one of the most influential leaders in the national Democratic organization, yet the affairs of Rye Village are by all odds her closest and dearest interest.” Soon after this, in 1934, O’Day was elected to the US House of Representatives as a representative at large for New York.
Caroline O’Day’s election victory and her subsequent four terms in the House of Representatives helped to redefine the landscape for women in politics. In the decade prior to her election, as she found her passion and voice as a human rights advocate, O’Day developed close ties with many other prominent female leaders, among them Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt became the first First Lady to campaign on behalf of a congressional candidate, making speeches and serving as a campaign chair for O’Day. Eleanor Roosevelt stood by her right to publicly support a candidate, stating, “I am doing this as an individual. I believe in certain things, and…I am justified in making this effort.” O’Day became one of the most recognizable women in Congress and gained the respect of her colleagues on both sides of the aisle for her pragmatism and perseverance.
The time in which Caroline O’Day served in Congress was a time, much like today, when our country was experiencing major changes amid an atmosphere of national and global unrest. As an idealist, O’Day took on more than her share of causes, advocating for world peace, women’s rights, labor reform, immigrant rights, civil rights and funding for the arts under the WPA. She was the second woman in history to chair a Congressional Committee, proof of her strong reputation in this tense pre-war time. O’Day worked tirelessly to improve the lives of all people, and the little-known Wagner-O’Day Act, passed in 1938, demonstrates the impact her work had for blind Americans. This act provided government support for blind people by creating jobs in manufacturing, and then designating funds for the government purchase of blind-made goods. The country was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, and O’Day’s efforts built on momentum of FDR’s New Deal to provide opportunities for some of the Americans hardest hit. It exemplifies O’Day’s outlook on people and possibility: she saw individuals and groups not in terms of their disabilities and shortcomings, but their abilities and potential.
Caroline O’Day’s legacy in our town extends beyond her many impressive titles, political connections and credits in history books. Her life of purpose serves as a reminder that activism and a positive attitude can create change and unite people for a greater good. Early in her time in Congress, Caroline O’Day was asked to set the cornerstone for the new post office in Rye. During the ceremony, she expressed her belief that Rye could serve as a model of neighborliness for the rest of the country and globally. She described the town’s history and how it has changed since the time of the first settlers on Manursing Island, and even in her time as a resident. Caroline O’Day encouraged Rye residents to “be proud and live up to our heritage” for even with growth, “We have never lost the feeling of the good neighbor.” By standing for peace, progress and tolerance, Caroline O’Day left a positive mark on our town and our country. Next time you visit the Caroline O’Day Post Office in Rye, take a moment to reflect on this dedicated Rye resident and US Congresswoman who envisioned a better world for everyone.
Thank you for visiting the Rye Historical Society’s blog. For more information on sources for this story, please contact us on our website or visit the Square House Museum.