Kate Kennedy, San Francisco's First Female Schoolteacher

Historical Essay

by Dennis Kelly


Kate Kennedy

Kate Kennedy was a fighter. She was born on May 31st, 1827 in Ireland. She emigrated to New York escaping the potato famine and the oppression of the British when she was 22 and found work in the needle trades. Seven years later the family moved across this nation and arrived in San Francisco to put down roots.

Kate Kennedy was hired as a teacher at the Greenwich Primary School in 1858.

Let’s talk a little bit about the San Francisco Unified School District that Kate Kennedy came to join. Before there were teachers or schools, there was a school board. Originally established in 1851, the first school board election was invalidated because there had not been a general notice. So, born of scandal, the school district wobbled to its feet when the second election was ratified. There were seven school board members, seven schools, and seven teachers. And they were all men.

Schools were usually just a room or two rented in some existing building. There were no standards and some merchants rented pretty unpleasant places to the City to use as schools.

Thirteen years later, the foundation of the California Teachers Association was laid when several of the male teachers got together and decided that schools should be run by men, teachers should be men, and they were the men to determine entry into the profession. This is the academic, ivory tower, world in which Kate Kennedy found herself when she and a brother led the family west.

Within a few years of her hiring, Kate moved up to become a principal teacher at the North Cosmopolitan Grammar School. There were Grammar schools for the upper grades and Primary schools for the lower grades. As a woman, Kate Kennedy was paid as a Primary principal despite having the responsibilities of a Grammar school principal. The difference was $22.50 per month, $202.50 versus $180.

Remember that Kate Kennedy was a fighter.

By 1870 she was recognized as an outstanding teacher, as evidenced by her role as an officer of the statewide Teachers’ Institute, the in-service effort of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. By 1872, Kate Kennedy was chairing public meetings on pay disparity. And in 1873 she used her involvement in the tax movements, and the Irish and labor communities to challenge the pay policies of the Board of Education.  Her case was carried to the legislature by her friend Judge James McGuire. A law demanding the same compensation for “Females employed as teachers” as “Male teachers for like services when holding the same grade certificate” was enacted, and she won.

According to a printed recollection written by a member of her family, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited her school to congratulate her. (I have found no corroboration of this family story.) However, Kate Kennedy was the first woman who ever received equal pay for equal work under the law. So, naturally, there was a move to repeal the law and also bar women from holding any school office in 1875. But the fighter prevailed.

Despite the clear victory, all was not roses. The board simply assigned men to most of the grammar schools and women to the primary schools and based the pay disparity on the grade levels and not the sex of the teacher. Kate Kennedy won the battle while the war raged on.

Kate Kennedy is called the first union teacher, even though actual teacher unions did not come to San Francisco until 29 years after her death in 1890. Kate Kennedy was a member of the Knights of Labor, and in 1886 was a candidate for California Superintendent of Public Instruction on the Labor Party ticket. The Democrat candidate in that election was her boss, San Francisco school superintendent Andrew Jackson Moulder. Although women could not vote in that election, Kennedy took enough votes from her fellow San Franciscan that he lost the election. She then took a three month leave, and when she returned to work, she was denied her previous position despite school board policy that specifically returned teachers to their same positions in the same schools. Again she fought.

The Board had transferred her from a central school with twelve teachers, to the Ocean View primary school, four miles from the center of town with only one other teacher. An obituary of the time characterized the move as an effort to disgrace Kate Kennedy and remove her from the schools because the Board members feared her.  The assignment also cut her pay nearly in half.

When Kate Kennedy protested, the Board voted to amend their policy and transfer her anyway. Two weeks later, without a resolution of the matter, the Board summarily dismissed Kate from the schools without cause, without notice, and without a hearing. So, on May 31st, 1887, her sixtieth birthday, suit was filed. Three years of litigation followed and the case was settled in Kate Kennedy’s favor in the California Supreme Court.

Kate then resigned after demanding and receiving 33 months of back pay, $5700.75, the largest pay warrant ever cut by the school district. This second victory effectively established the basis for teacher tenure and the end of political spoils system in the schools.

Kate Kennedy was a fighter and her fight continues. Sixteen years after her death, the Superintendent of the Oakland Schools (and a former CTA president), James Carr, conducted a survey for the SchoolMasters, an all male organization of school leaders. Carr was collecting the reasons that men should be paid more than women to teach.  The results that he published included:

—Boys need someone who has been a boy to teach them.
—Men are dominant in world affairs.
—Men see things more broadly.
—Men are more in touch with the realities of life.
—And, Men are not concerned with trifles.

Clearly, the fight continues.

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