A former MSP inmate who helped spear head the movement for prison reform.
“I am dangerous to the invisible government of the United States; I am dangerous to the special privileges of the United States; … I thank God that at this hour I am dangerous to the war profiteers of this country, who rob the people on the one hand and rob and degrade the government on the other;… You can convince the people that I am dangerous to these men, but no jury and no judge can convince them that I am a dangerous woman to the best interests of theUnited States.”
Kate Richards O’Hare’s proclamation in front of the court angered the judge and landed her a 5-year sentence in the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) for publicly opposing America’s intervention in World War I. Her sentencing served as a pivotal moment in her established career as an activist.
Born to a homestead family in Kansas, Kate was one of five children. After teaching for several years, she returned to work as a secretary at her father’s machine shop in Kansas City. Here, she joined the International Association of Machinists and became acquainted with socialist doctrines. Inspired by authors such as Ignatius Donnelly and Henry George, it was a speech by Mary Harris (“Mother”) Jones that spurred Kate to join the Socialist Labor Party in 1899.
After marrying Frank P. O’Hare in 1902, the couple moved to Oklahoma and became entrenched in the leadership of the party; Frank created publications while Kate recruited women and built a strong grassroots socialist organization. Her ability to reach audiences made her a popular speaker, and she was soon touring the country, lecturing about the need for a social democratic system to replace capitalism so workers could enjoy the fruit of their labor. She also championed issues for women including suffrage, educational opportunity, legalization of birth control, and divorce. Kate worked to take her campaign to Washington D.C., running for the United States House of Representatives in 1910 and pioneering as the first female candidate to run for United States Senate in 1916.
Kate served as chair of the War and Militarism Committee at the St. Louis Emergency Convention held in 1917 as the United States entered World War I. She toured the country with an anti-war message, blaming capitalism for the war and stating only socialism could ensure peace. It was in Bowman, North Dakota, that political unrest and Kate’s message caught up to her. She was charged with violation of the Espionage Act, which made it illegal to interfere with the war effort or use speech that portrayed the United States government in a poor light.
After losing an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, Kate entered MSP in April 1919. While incarcerated, she was dismayed at the treatment inside the facility, where she was forced to work an excruciating schedule inside the clothing factory and prohibited from communicating with her husband and children.
“The average length of a prison term for a woman convict in MSP is about two years and the amount of labor demanded is just about sufficient to wear the average woman out and send her forth a wreck, only fit for the human scrapheap in two years.” Kate wrote in her memoir.
She quickly became friends with Emma Goldman, an anarchist organizer, feminist, and anti-war critic imprisoned for obstructing the draft. Together, the women worked to improve prison conditions. While Kate was denied permission to hold night school and had her case study notes confiscated, she did persuade officials to allow women use of the prison library. She was also successful in enabling additional shower baths after pro-testing bathing conditions, as 80 female inmates were allotted three baths with no effort to separate sick inmates.
Kate received a sentence commutation from President Woodrow Wilson in 1920, later receiving a full pardon from President Calvin Coolidge. She then pivoted her focus to prison reform, joining Upton Sinclair’s “End Poverty in California” movement during The Depression. Kate was later appointed as the assistant director of the California Department of Penology, where she served for two years to reform and modernize the state prison system. Her efforts had a major impact on California’s penal policies, many of which were implemented throughout the country.
Kate Richards O’Hare advocated until her death in January 1948. One of the most renowned female activists of her generation, Kate spent the entirety of her life fighting to improve the lives of Americans through reform.
Carrie Kathleen “Kate” Richards O’Hare Cunningham, March 26, 1876 – January 11, 1948