Born this day in 1877: Kate Richards O’Hare Cunningham (1877–1948), socialist and social reformer
Cunningham was born Kate Richards in Ottawa County, Kansas. She was very briefly a school teacher before apprenticing to the machine shop where her father worked in 1894. She joined the machine shop union, even though it was not in the practice of admitting women. During this time she also engaged in social reform work, supporting temperance and the local Florence Crittendon mission.
Cunningham became disillusioned with social reform work and sought a deeper, structural change in society to prevent social ills. As a result, she became a socialist and one of the leading proselytizers for socialism in the Plains states. It was in this capacity where she met her first husband, fellow socialist Francis Patrick O’Hare. The couple had four children. The O’Hares published a socialist magazine, which ran under various titles over the years.
While campaigning against U.S. entry into World War I, Cunningham was arrested on espionage charges, accused of saying “that the women of the United States were nothing more nor less than brood sows, to raise children to get into the army and be made into fertilizer”—words she denied. She was sentence to five years in prison. (She was imprisoned alongside anarchist Emma Goldman, who admired Cunningham but found her intimidating.) An amnesty campaign led to a commutation of her sentence and eventually a full pardon by President Coolidge. Upon her release Cunningham worked for the amnesty of other political prisoners and also worked on behalf of Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs.
As the socialist movement declined (and being staunchly opposed to communism), Cunningham turned her attention to prison reform, including the use of prison-contract labor. She was a founding trustee and original faculty member of Commonwealth College, a worker’s school founded by the socialist Llano Co-operative Colony of Louisiana.
Cunningham divorced O’Hare in 1928 and later that year married attorney and mining engineer Charles C. Cunningham. The couple lived in California. Cunningham lectured for Upton Sinclair’s anti-poverty crusade. She was also heavily involved in prison reform. She was a whirlwind of reform as the assistant director of the California Department of Penology (1939–1940). Among the many reforms she instituted for the state was the establishment of different institutions for different levels of offense. She transformed California’s prison system to one of the most advanced in the country.
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