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Margaret Haley (1861–1939)

Early Career, The Chicago Teachers Federation, American Federation of Teachers, Politics, Haley's Contribution

Margaret Angela Haley was the formative leader of America's first teacher union. In her forty years of leadership with the Chicago Teachers Federation, Haley advocated teachers' right to be involved in school decision-making, the promotion of Progressive educational practice, and the expansion of protective legislation for teachers.

Margaret Haley was born in Joliet, Illinois, of working-class Irish immigrant parents and she attended local rural schools. She developed an early interest in politics from her father, who was a labor activist in the Knights of Labor and the Farmers' Grange. At age sixteen, as she recalled in her autobiography, she was "catapulted" into teaching by her father's persistent financial troubles, and she began to teach at local country schools. She continued her education at local teacher training institutes where she learned principles of the "new education" that rejected old-fashioned rote memory learning and promoted problem solving and close analytical work.

Early Career

At the end of her fifth year of teaching, Haley made a further commitment to her education by registering for a four-week summer session at the Normal School at Illinois State University where she studied under leading proponents of Herbartian curriculum theory. But indicative of Haley's emerging interest in school politics, her favorite class at Illinois was not about pedagogy but about political economy. Her favorite teacher was Edmund Janes James, a scholar of education and economics whose research interests included the labor movement, tax reform, and school finance. In James's economics class, Haley read Henry George's recently published Progress andPoverty (1879), a book that was revolutionizing liberal American economic theory with its proposal for a single tax system that would allow a more egalitarian and benevolent operation of the capitalist system. George's theory, Haley recalled, opened up to her "a wide world" of economic restructuring for social improvement and helped her develop her own ideas about teachers' responsibility to engage in social change.

In 1883 Haley moved with her family to Chicago, and from 1884 to 1900 she taught sixth grade in an elementary school in the Stockyards district. During this time, she studied Progressive child-centered education under Francis Parker at the Cook County Normal School, where she paid particular attention to Parker's ideas about the role of the teacher. Along with his influential ideas about pedagogy, Parker believed that the individual classroom teacher needed to have the authority of a policymaker–a novel role for female elementary schoolteachers. In later years, Haley studied Progressive pedagogy again at the Buffalo School of Pedagogy in New York State, where she heard William James deliver his "Talks to Teachers on Psychology." In another summer, she attended a Catholic summer school in Wisconsin that was part of the liberal social movement of the American Catholic church designed to expose parochial and public school teachers to contemporary social problems and secular intellectual debates. From these varied educational experiences in different parts of the Progressive education movement, Haley learned about the importance of academic freedom, the professional role of the teacher, and the value of shaping the school as a community.

Contrasting with these ideals was Haley's experience as a teacher in one of Chicago's poorest school districts. For sixteen years, Haley taught sixth grade in the Hendricks school in the heart of the povertystricken meatpacking district of Chicago. Her students were the poorest of the city's immigrant children, and her classrooms were crowded, under-serviced, and for most of her students, the last education they would ever experience. By her late thirties, Haley had merged her Progressive educational training with her readings in labor and political theory to develop a strong belief about teachers' right to shape and control their own workplace, and about the responsibility of the state to support public schools.

The Chicago Teachers Federation

In 1897 Haley joined the Chicago Teachers Federation, which was recently organized by a group of women elementary teachers to defend a legislative attack on a newly instituted pension law. She quickly rose to district vice president of the federation and began an investigation of the board of education's claim that a shortage of school funds necessitated a freeze on a promised salary increase for teachers. Haley found that the shortage was due to the tax underassessment of a number of Chicago's largest corporations, and she led a successful lawsuit in state courts to assess the corporations their full value and assure the promised salary increase. Haley's leadership of the tax equity battle gained national attention, drawing the praise of a wide variety of social, political, and educational reformers. The fight also spurred teacher membership to the federation so that by 1900 more than half of all Chicago elementary school teachers were members of the federation, making it the largest women's union in the country.

Haley quickly molded the federation into a powerful political force in Chicago politics. She shared the leadership with another Irish-American elementary teacher, Catharine Goggin, who balanced Haley's aggressive and legalistic mind with more politic organizing skills. Under their leadership, the federation developed a weekly news bulletin, teacher education programs, and a well-oiled political organization of teachers across the city. With the federation, Haley consistently advocated for a stable pension plan and tenure laws, arguing that the single women who made up the bulk of the elementary teaching staff were in particular need of job and pension security. She battled repeated attacks on federation authority in the state house, and directed a relentless publicity campaign that kept the federation in the public eye.

American Federation of Teachers

To strengthen the federation's authority, she negotiated an unprecedented affiliation with organized labor by joining the predominately female federation with the industrial Chicago Federation of Labor in 1902. In 1916 the federation became Local 1 of the newly formed American Federation of Teachers.

Haley also fought for women teachers' rights in the National Education Association (NEA), which she accused of being administratively biased, excluding the voice and interests of elementary teachers. In 1901 she became the first woman and first elementary school teacher to speak at a public forum of the NEA, and she promoted the reorganization of NEA elections to facilitate the election of candidates who were women classroom teachers. In her notorious 1904 speech before the NEA, "Why Teachers Should Organize," Haley laid out her reform proposals not only for the organization of protective unions for teachers, but also for an expanded notion of teacher professionalism that included the opportunity to develop progressive pedagogy, improve educational practice, and promote the democratic participation of teachers in school administration. In 1910 she orchestrated the election of Chicago school superintendent Ella Flagg Young as the first woman president of the NEA.


Haley's individual politics took her across a wide spectrum of the American Left. She supported women's suffrage, child labor laws, direct primaries, and tax reform, and was a member of the Women's Trade Union League. She lived and worked in a wide circle of women political leaders, including Ella Flagg Young, Jane Addams, and Catharine Goggin. A self-educated legal scholar and political tactician, Haley was a popular consultant to fledgling teachers' organizations and women's groups.

Yet Haley's persistent commitment to women teachers' rights kept her on the margins of other social reform movements. She was excluded from much of middle-class Protestant women's reform because of her class and religious background, and because of her staunch affiliation to labor. Yet maledominated labor groups also marginalized Haley and her teachers, holding them out as white collar feminized workers who threatened the solidarity of the industrial working class. Haley's refusal to align with more radical groups, including socialists, anarchists, and African Americans, also limited her power. Furthermore, Haley's strong identification of the federation as an elementary teachers' group for women kept her apart from newer organizations. As a broader teacher union movement grew in the 1920s, Haley was left behind by other groups that sought to include secondary teachers, male teachers, and teachers of color.

Haley's Contribution

Haley's federation was at its peak influence between 1909 and 1915 when federation friend Ella Flagg Young was superintendent of the Chicago schools. In 1915 a city law prohibiting teachers from joining labor unions forced Haley to withdraw the federation from the Chicago Federation of Labor. In 1916 her long-time colleague Catharine Goggin was killed in a traffic accident. Through the antilabor 1920s the federation declined in power, and Haley's influence faded through the 1930s as a new generation of teacher union leaders joined the American Federation of Teachers. Jealously guarding the authority of the federation, Haley refused to merge with the new groups. Her strong and opinionated character furthered her marginalization during the difficult economic years of the Great Depression, when she opposed the militant street tactics of the striking teachers in Chicago's American Federation of Teachers. To younger teachers, she may have appeared an outdated bossy spinster of a previous century.

Although Haley was a swaggering giant in Chicago and educational politics, in physical appearance she was a petite and stylishly attired woman. Haley could disarm her opponents by her quick wit and charm that she used to maneuver loyalties among city, labor, and education officials. Margaret Haley never married, and she left almost no personal records with which historians could describe her private life. Clearly, however, she led an intense and peripatetic life in which her professional life doubled as her private life. Throughout her career with the Teachers Federation, she lived with various women federation members, including Goggin. Her few recorded words of personal affection are about her parents and her five younger brothers and sisters, with whom she felt a deep affection and almost mystical connection throughout her life. She died January 5, 1939, at age 77. She is buried next to her sister Eliza, a fellow teacher and federation member, in Joliet.


CREEL, GEORGE. 1915. "Why Chicago Teachers Unionized." Harper's Weekly June 19.

HARD, WILLIAM. 1906. "Chicago's Five Maiden Aunts." American Magazine September.

HOGAN, DAVID. 1985. Class and Reform: School and Society in Chicago 1880–1930. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

MURPHY, MARJORIE. 1990. Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA 1900–1980. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

REID, ROBERT. 1982. Battleground: The Autobiography of Margaret Haley. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

SANDBURG, CARL. 1915. "Margaret Haley." Reedy's Mirror December.

URBAN, WAYNE J. 1982. Why Teachers Organized. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

WRIGLEY, JULIA. 1982. Class, Politics and Public Schools: Chicago 1900–1950. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


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