One hundred fifteen years ago this week, on May 31, 1887, Kate Kennedy went to court. All her life she’d fought for various social justice causes, but this one was personal. Demoted and then fired from her job as a school principal, she decided to sue the city of San Francisco for reinstatement. When the court subsequently ruled in her favor, it was a victory not just for her, but for all teachers in the state of California.
Kate Kennedy was born in 1827, the second of seven children. She grew up on a fairly prosperous family farm in Gaskinstown, Co. Meath. She received an excellent education at a nearby convent school but was forced to leave formal study forever at age 13 when her father died. Instead she became a teacher — to her five younger sisters.
The Kennedy family’s teetering fortunes toppled with the Famine. Having some land and money meant they were better off than most. But by 1849 they decided to head for America. Kate left with a sister and brother that year and settled in New York. Two years later, they sent for their mother and four sisters. In 1853, two sisters, like many Irish immigrants in that era, followed the gold rush migration to California. They sent back encouraging word and the rest of the family, including Kate, soon joined them.
San Francisco in the 1850s was still in its early stages of development, having been only a tiny outpost when gold was discovered in 1849. It thus afforded Irish immigrants many opportunities not available in eastern cities. Had she stayed in New York, Kennedy would have likely faced a life of work as a seamstress or domestic servant. In San Francisco, however, the self-educated Kate Kennedy had little trouble finding the job she’d always dreamed of: teaching.
After a year of teaching in a nearby small town, she was appointed to a San Francisco school. A fine teacher and administrator, she was quickly promoted to principal of the North Cosmopolitan Grammar School.
Kennedy’s first foray into activism came shortly after she received her first paycheck at her new job as principal. Instead of receiving the established salary of a grammar school principal, she was paid at the lower rate of a primary school principal. As a woman, school officials explained, she could hardly expect to receive a salary equal to her male counterparts.
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Kate Kennedy did expect it and soon launched a campaign for equal pay for equal work. She wrote letters, organized petition drives, gave impassioned speeches, and lobbied state legislators. Finally, in 1874 she won passage of a law that declared “females employed as teachers in the public schools of this State shall in all cases receive equal compensation as allowed male teachers.” Not surprisingly, when women’s rights leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony visited San Francisco, they made a point of seeking out Kennedy to offer her their thanks and congratulations.
Kennedy continued her radical activism for the rest of her life. A popular and accomplished speaker, she became an outspoken champion of women’s suffrage and the rights of labor and a harsh critic of political corruption and corporate influence. In 1879, she read Henry George’s book “Progress and Poverty” and became a staunch advocate of his program of land reform and the “single tax.” In 1886 she tried her hand at politics and ran for the job as superintendent of instruction. She lost the contest but took enough votes away from the incumbent to deny him the election. Kennedy defied convention in her personal life as well. She left the Catholic church, never married, and traveled on her own across Europe for a year.
Kennedy’s last push for social justice came a year later in 1887. At age 60, a weakened heart began to take its toll. In February she took a two-month leave of absence to recover her health. Eager to get rid of their troublesome employee, the Board of Education transferred her to a smaller school and reduced her salary from $175 to $100 a month. When Kennedy protested, they fired her.
And so it was that on May 31, 1887 the frail but determined Kate Kennedy filed her suit against the city of San Francisco. She sought no damages, only reinstatement at North Cosmopolitan Grammar School with back pay. The case dragged on for three years before the state supreme court ruled in her favor. In declaring it illegal to demote a teacher or administrator without cause, the court established the precedent of teacher tenure. Kennedy received her reinstatement and $5,700 in back pay.
Sadly, Kate Kennedy had only a few weeks to savor her victory. She died on March 19, 1890. In accordance with her wishes, she had a secular funeral service and was buried in the public cemetery. Nearly all the city’s newspapers published obituaries lauding her career as a teacher, principal, and activist. All agreed that in her 33 years in San Francisco, she’d certainly left her mark.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
May 30, 1806: Future president Andrew Jackson kills fellow lawyer Charles Dickinson in a duel.
June 3, 1932: New York Giants manager John McGraw retires. He won 10 National League pennants and three World Series.
June 5, 1968: After winning the California primary, Robert F. Kennedy is shot and killed in Los Angeles.
May 31, 1920: Lawyer Edward Bennett Williams is born in Hartford, Conn.
May 31, 1894: Radio and TV host Fred Allen is born in Cambridge, Mass.
June 5, 1925: Pro football Hall-of-Famer Art Donovan is born.
Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.