Women of Troy (N.Y.): The Teenaged Irish Immigrants Who Started the First Permanent Women’s Union in the Middle of the Civil War

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Reenactment of the Troy Collar Laundress Strike of 1864.

Suffragist Susan B. Anthony recalled the Collar Laundry Union of Troy, New York as “the best organized” union of women workers that “I ever knew.” The union was started by teen-age Irish immigrants in the burgeoning manufacturing city of Troy during the Civil War. Irish-born Kate Mullany* led the union in negotiations with wealthy businessmen and in militant strikes against the exploitation of women workers. Many historians credit Mullany with the founding of the first permanent women’s labor union in the United States. Mullany’s accomplishments would lead to her induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls and to the preservation of her home by the National Park Service.1

When Mullany was inducted into Labor’s International Hall of Fame in 2016 she and her sister unionists were portrayed by reenactors.

Susan B. Anthony described her impression of Kate Mullany whom she met after the Civil War. The women’s rights advocate and the union leader met to discuss the position of women in the workplace. According to Susan B. Anthony, Mullany was a “bright young Irish girl.” While Anthony saw the poor treatment of factory women as the result of gender discrimination, Mullany said that the interests of employers to exploit all wage workers, male and female, could not be ignored by the feminist. Anthony, from the native-born middle class, did not seem to understand Mullany’s argument that while women workers faced special disadvantages in the workplace, they also had much in common with their male brothers in the labor movement. Unity across gender was desirable, but unity of the working was essential for women workers to make gains.2

The Kate Mullany National Historic Site was dedicated a National Park Service ceremony in 2008 attended by Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Troy is now a sleepy companion city to New York’s capital Albany. In the decades of the Civil War and Reconstruction it was one of the most technologically advanced cities in the United States and a destination for immigrants from England, Ireland, Scotland, and French Canada. The city’s Irish workers, in particular, spurred the growth of the labor movement in Troy and statewide.3

The first group of workers to form a strong union were the iron moulders. These men made the iron stoves and other moulded iron products that were part of the new mass production economy. Moulders worked long hours under dangerous conditions, but they were relatively well-paid. Unlike Irish men in cities like New York, where immigrants could spend their lives at the lowest economic rung as day laborers, in Troy a poor immigrant could go to work in an iron foundry and earn a modicum of financial well-being and security.4

Iron moulders at work.

When the Trojan iron moulders organized their union they involved broad swaths of the city’s Irish community in its struggles. With three-out-of-five of the city’s residents being either immigrants or the children of immigrants, the mobilization of such a mass of support held political and economic promise. That solidarity was shown at the start of the Civil War when whole groups of members of the Iron Moulders’ Union of Troy enlisted together in the Union army. Those who remained behind worked in war-related production. For example, Scottish immigrant Henry Burden’s iron foundry turned out horseshoes for the Union army. It would help propel the union workers to political power.5

Troy produced more horseshoes for the Union army than all other cities combined. Burden’s Iron Works founded by a Scottish immigrant used a patented machine that could turn out a horseshoe every second.

The mill owners differed significantly from their workers. If most of the workers were Irish Catholic immigrants, eight out of ten owners were not only native-born, but their fathers were native-born as well. The owners did not live in the same communities as their workers, or belong to the same churches or social organizations as their employees did. The wealthy bosses lived lives apart from the workers, often not even being a familiar sight on the foundry floor. In the 1850s, the bosses controlled not only business, but the local government as well. The Irish immigrants resented the monopoly of power in the hands of this elite.6

Troy was unique as a mid-19th Century industrial city. At the time, factory work was gender-determined. Jobs were typically considered either “men’s work” or “women’s work.” Irion moulding was a man’s job, and laundry and textile work was reserved for women. In most small cities, only one type of work was readily available. For example, in the mill towns of northern Massachusetts, workers were primarily female. This meant that men could not find jobs in these towns, and that women workers tended to live alone in boarding houses. Troy was different. It had decent paying jobs for male iron moulders, two thirds of whom were Irish, but it also had plenty of work for women in the “removable shirt-collar” industry.7

Removable shirt collars were a Trojan innovation. In the 19th Century nearly all laundering of clothes for a family was done by hand by the women of a household. A woman in Troy came up with the idea of lessening the burden by inventing a collar that could be removed from a shirt to be washed separately. A shirt could now be worn for several days, with a clean fresh collar every day being attached to it. Women were employed in all aspects of this work in Troy. One of the largest groups of women workers were the Collar Laundry workers. These women took the newly made collars, washed them to remove dirt and chemicals, and ironed them preparatory to sale. These jobs were tough, women toiled over vats of boiling water, but they paid among the highest wages in the country for Irish women workers.8

The development of a gainfully employed solid Irish immigrant working class contrasted dramatically with the situation many of the same men and women had found themselves in just a decade earlier. In the late 1840s, as refugees from Ireland’s Great Hunger poured in, the city had to set up sheds to shelter these sick and poor victims of their native country’s famine. This wretched influx led to pressure from what would become the Know Nothing movement to make the area less hospitable to these new immigrants.  Fortunately, Troy’s leaders did not heed nativist calls to drive the Irish away. By the Civil War, the immigrants lived in solid buildings and had founded churches, club, and workers’ groups.9

Kate Mullany’s grave in St. Peter’s Cemetery. Photo by Pat Young.

Because the unionized iron moulders and the shirt collar women lived in the same communities and shared the same cultural institutions, and often the same homes, the Irish women workers absorbed the same attitudes towards unionization as their brothers, husbands, and fathers. The women in an Irish family often lived with other women, sisters or mothers, who worked in the mills or laundries, and they discussed together the ways in which they could work for the same recognition of their rights as workers as the men in their community had achieved. 10

The economic changes wrought by the Civil War would supply the catalyst for the women of Troy to start the first permanent women’s union in the country.  The next installment will look at the first history-making strike by the collar workers.11

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*Kate Mullany’s name is alternately spelled “Mullaney” and both spellings appear in the scholarly sources.

Recommended Source: This article would not have been possible without the excellent scholarship of Carole Turbin who wrote the first study of women workers and unionization in 19th Troy. Here is the citation for her book, which deserves to be read by anyone interested in the intersectionality of labor, immigration, and gender.

Working Women of Collar City: Gender, Class, and Community in Troy, 1864-86 by Carole Turbin published by the University of Illinois Press (1992)

Thanks to Michele Ascione for her assistance in preparing this article. 

Sources:

  1. The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony Including Public Addresses, Her Own Letters and Many from Her Contemporaries During Fifty Years Vol. 2 by Ida Husted Harper published by Hollenbeck Press (1898) pp. 999-1000; Worker City, Company Town: Iron and Cotton-Worker Protest in Troy and Cohoes, New York, 1855-84 by Daniel J. Walkowitz published by University of Illinois Press (1981); Working Women of Collar City: Gender, Class, and Community in Troy, 1864-86 by Carole Turbin published by the University of Illinois Press (1992); The Dawning of American Labor: The New Republic to the Industrial Age by Brian Greenberg published by Wiley (2017); “To Toil the Livelong Day”: America’s Women at Work, 1780-1980 edited by Carol Groneman, Mary Beth Norton published by Cornell University Press (1987); The Daughters Of Maeve: 50 Irish Women Who Changed World By Gina Sigillito published by Citadel Press (2007). National Park Service page on Kate Mullany House; Kate Mullany page at National Women’s Hall of Fame; Report on the Condition of Women and Child Wage-earners in the United States U.S Department of Labor Volume 9 (1910) pp. 106-107; America’s Working Women: A Documentary History, 1600 to the Present edited by Rosalyn Baxandall, Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall, Linda Gordon, Susan Reverby published by W.W. Norton (1995); The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families, 1600-1900 By Stephanie Coontz published by Verso (2016); Workers in America: A Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 1 By Robert E. Weir published by Clio Press (2013).
  2. The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony Including Public Addresses, Her Own Letters and Many from Her Contemporaries During Fifty Years Vol. 2 by Ida Husted Harper published by Hollenbeck Press (1898) pp. 999-1000
  3. Worker City, Company Town: Iron and Cotton-Worker Protest in Troy and Cohoes, New York, 1855-84 by Daniel J. Walkowitz published by University of Illinois Press (1981); Working Women of Collar City: Gender, Class, and Community in Troy, 1864-86 by Carole Turbin published by the University of Illinois Press (1992)
  4. Worker City, Company Town: Iron and Cotton-Worker Protest in Troy and Cohoes, New York, 1855-84 by Daniel J. Walkowitz published by University of Illinois Press (1981) pp. 1-13
  5. Worker City, Company Town: Iron and Cotton-Worker Protest in Troy and Cohoes, New York, 1855-84 by Daniel J. Walkowitz published by University of Illinois Press (1981) pp. 13-25
  6. Worker City, Company Town: Iron and Cotton-Worker Protest in Troy and Cohoes, New York, 1855-84 by Daniel J. Walkowitz published by University of Illinois Press (1981) pp. 24-28
  7. Working Women of Collar City: Gender, Class, and Community in Troy, 1864-86 by Carole Turbin published by the University of Illinois Press (1992) pp. 33-62
  8. Working Women of Collar City: Gender, Class, and Community in Troy, 1864-86 by Carole Turbin published by the University of Illinois Press (1992) pp. 26-28, 33-62.
  9. Worker City, Company Town: Iron and Cotton-Worker Protest in Troy and Cohoes, New York, 1855-84 by Daniel J. Walkowitz published by University of Illinois Press (1981) p. 33

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