Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Marie Leahey

Marie Leahey (21 October 1869–30 November 1951), civic activist, was born in Richmond, Virginia, and was the daughter of Thomas Leahey and his first wife, Mary Ryan Leahey. The record of her birth gives her name as Mary Alice Leahey, and adjacent to her typed name on her death certificate is the name Mary handwritten in parentheses. Her father, a stonecutter, was born in Ireland, and her mother was born in Canada. After her mother died when Leahey was about seven, her father remarried and had several more children. Leahey never married and had no children.

As a young woman, she began teaching music and elocution at various private schools in the city, and later she also offered private lessons in dramatic art and public speaking. Throughout her life she gave public readings, music recitals, and performances around Richmond, and about 1905 Leahey spent time performing in New York City. She also directed numerous plays, operettas, and other entertainments with local theater groups, and in the 1920s helped establish a community theater in Richmond. She was a drama consultant for the city's Community Recreation Center and wrote and directed the nativity play, which was annually produced at Capitol Square from 1924 until World War II and afterwards at the World War I memorial Carillon in Byrd Park, a larger space.

Leahey was an early advocate for woman suffrage and a founding member of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia in November 1909. This group of activists, many of whom were from Richmond, worked to educate citizens and legislators, win their support for woman suffrage, and recruit women and men to the cause. A member of the board of directors, Leahey traveled throughout the state, organized chapters, and used her public speaking training to campaign on behalf of votes for women. She admonished members not to neglect rural areas of the state and believed that "a spiritual appeal" would reach opponents of woman suffrage and those who were "indifferent." She served on the membership committee, helped out in the headquarters office when necessary, and attended the league's state conventions. Leahey was also a board member of the Equal Suffrage League of Richmond, chaired its welfare committee, and in February 1914 participated in its performance of How the Vote Was Won.

After ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, Leahey and other league members continued their political activism, and she became a charter member of the Virginia League of Women Voters. She was a ward officer and helped register new female voters and get them to the polls. In the autumn of 1920, she was a member of the organizational committee for the Richmond League of Women Voters and helped draft its constitution and program of work. Leahey was vice chair and later chair of the state league's Social Hygiene Committee, which was a program of the National League of Women Voters to focus on public health issues with its primary emphasis on abolishing prostitution, controlling sexually transmitted diseases, providing sex education, and establishing protective measures to help young people.

A woman of faith, Leahey devoted her life to teaching and being an advocate for social reform issues affecting women and children. She was a member of Saint Benedict's Catholic Church in Richmond and was a leader in local religious, educational, and charitable work. Leahey served on the board of the Bureau of Catholic Charities and was president of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul of Richmond. She was a founding member of Richmond's Social Service Federation, which focused on the needs of children. Leahey was a charter member of the Woman's Democratic Club of Richmond, served on the executive committee of the city's Democratic Committee, and lobbied for legislation benefitting woman and children. In 1912 she was one of several women from the Social Service Federation who petitioned the city for a police woman at one of the city's police stations. Early in the 1920s she sat on the board of the Tabb Memorial Free Library for Children, named for a priest and in 1922 and 1923 housed in the State Library Building on Capitol Square until incorporated into the new Richmond Public Library.

Marie Leahey died of a cerebral thrombosis on 30 November 1951 at her Richmond home and was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery in the city. An editorial tribute in the Catholic Virginian noted that "Miss Leahey seldom followed in the paths of others; she blazed the trail."

Sources Consulted:
Birth date and name Mary Alice Leahey in Birth Register, Richmond City, Bureau of Vital Statistics (BVS), Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia (LVA); civic activity documented in Richmond newspapers, 1900s–1930s, including Richmond Times-Dispatch, 15 Jan. 1915 (first quotation) and 12 Jan. 1926 (portrait); suffrage activity documented in the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records, Accession 22002, LVA, and in the Adèle Goodman Clark Papers, James Branch Cabell Library, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond; Death Certificate (with surname misspelled Leahy and given name Mary added), Richmond City, BVS; obituary in Richmond News Leader, 30 Nov. 1951; obituary and editorial tribute in Catholic Virginian, 7 Dec. 1951(second quotation); paid death notice with surname Leahy in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1 Dec. 1951.

Image courtesy of Virginia Historical Society.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Frances S. Pollard.

How to cite this page:
Frances S. Pollard, "Marie Leahey (1869–1951)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2019 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Leahey_Marie, accessed [today's date]).

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