NYPL’s Maud Malone: Radical Feminist, Union Leader, Equal Pay Advocate

By NYPL Staff
March 15, 2021
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

In honor of Women's History Month, the Library is taking a look back at some of the remarkable women who changed The New York Public Library—and the field of librarianship—forever with our new series, Foreword: Women Who Built NYPL. Each week this March, we will be sharing reflections from our current staff on how the impact of these trailblazing figures from the Library's 125-year history are still felt today. 

Maud Malone speaking amid a crowd of suffragettes.

Bain News Service, 1914 , via Library of Congress

About Maud Malone

Maud Malone is known by history as a radical suffragist, but her work at the Library had its own activist bent. Born and raised in Brooklyn in a family of activists, Malone worked as a librarian at the Seward Park branch. While there, she led the formation of The New York Public Library Employees Union, the first such organization for public library workers in the country. The union focused on making sure women, who made up the majority of library assistants, received equal pay and opportunity for advancement. Malone’s passionate, personal beliefs (and desire to make Library staff part of New York City’s Civil Service) did put her at odds with the administration and, at times, other staff, but her contributions were still significant.

Maud Malone’s Legacy

Reflection by Susan Kriete, Librarian II, Maps, Local History & Genealogy

Being forgotten is something Maud Malone should be remembered for.

A bold and fearless activist, Malone’s pioneering tactics were instrumental to winning voting rights for women. She led the first suffrage parade, introduced women to the practice of giving pro-suffrage “stump speeches” on public streets, and became the first American suffragist to go to jail, for “heckling” male candidates to support suffrage for women. She was also a master of media publicity, winning widespread and admiring coverage at a time when most journalists were still hostile to suffragists.

Malone’s contributions, egregiously overlooked by past historians, are finally beginning to get the recognition they deserve. But what I most admire about Malone are the qualities that led to her being forgotten: integrity, an unswerving commitment to her convictions, and a willingness to embrace unpopular positions. 

At a time when most suffrage leaders were racist and elitist, Malone was an outspoken supporter of equality for all. In 1908, she resigned from a suffrage organization she had co-founded when it failed to live up to her ideals, stating, “To me the movement to be truly progressive should recognize no prejudices of race, color, difference in clothes or creed, whether religious or economic.” However strongly this message resonates with us today, it was out-of-step with the mainstream suffrage movement of her time, and Malone was increasingly elbowed out of the suffrage spotlight. Although Malone’s name began disappearing from the papers, her tactics—once deemed too “radical” by the suffrage vanguard—were firmly entrenched and became a hallmark of feminist activism.

Even after she dropped out of the limelight, Malone remained committed to activism, not only in the suffrage movement but within The New York Public Library. In 1917, she helped found the Library Employees' Union, the first labor union in the United States representing public library employees. As controversial a library activist as she had been in the suffrage movement, Malone was fired from NYPL in 1932 and later became a librarian for the Communist party paper The Daily Worker.

Malone was an uncompromising activist who courted the media to promote her causes, rather than herself. If this cost her a place in history, it should earn her a place in our hearts.

This is part of the Foreword: Women Who Built NYPL series.  Find out  how the Library is celebrating Women's History Month with recommended reading, events and programs, and more.