Margaret Foley was born in northern Vermont where her father worked as a farmhand. Her only way to attend school was to work as a maid, which covered her room and board. Foley became a schoolteacher and worked in a mill, but was encouraged to pursue art because of her skillful carvings of cameos. With the help of a Vermont politician who recognized her talent, Foley went to Rome to study and to build a career as a sculptor. Her talent led to commissions from such distinguished sitters as the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the abolitionist senator Charles Sumner. Foley continued sculpting after the onset of a neurological disease that eventually took her life.