U.S. Ambassador Claire Cronin unveiling the Kate Kennedy bust.

Pioneering Irish Immigrant Honored

One of the most ground breaking but relatively unknown female Irish immigrants to the U.S. has been honored at a special ceremony in Duleek, County Meath to mark UN International Women’s Day.

U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, Claire Cronin unveiled a bust on Wednesday March 8 to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of local woman Kate Kennedy who entered the history books towards the end of the 19th century when her persistent agitation persuaded the San Francisco Board of Education to introduce equal pay for equal work.

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According to journalist Ken Murray, who led the project, Kate Kennedy was a game changer for women.

“She achieved equal pay for equal work in 1874, was the first female to run for public office in California, and won a landmark court case that set the legal precedent for determining when teachers could and could not be dismissed from their positions.

“She was years ahead of her time and yet her achievements were practically unknown in Ireland until recently."

Ambassador Cronin, who unveiled the specially commissioned bust, told those in attendance at Duleek Girls’ Primary School that Kate Kennedy set a benchmark that many females around the world are still pursuing today

"There are countries where girls cannot go to school, there are countries where women risk their lives to go and vote, so as far as we have come, we can not roll that back," Ambassador Cronin said. 

“We must continue in our work and in our efforts to make sure that the gains that have been made continue to be held and that we continue to go further.”

According to a release, the story of Kate Kennedy is a modern-day reminder of the many Irish emigrants who left in search of a better life but through circumstances, vision and sheer determination, made an outstanding mark elsewhere for future generations.

Born in in the townland of Gaskinstown, west of Duleek in 1827, Kennedy attended the local national school followed by a brief spell at Loreto College in Navan, County Meath before immigrating to San Francisco in early 1856.

Having secured a position as a principal teacher at North Cosmopolitan Grammar School in San Francisco in 1867, she learned some years later that male principals were paid more than females.

After intense and persistent lobbying, Kennedy eventually persuaded the California State legislature to change the law in 1874 and the legal precedent of equal pay for equal work was established in law.
The rebellious Duleek woman then found herself demoted for political activism and undertook legal action in 1887.

Her successful court action against the local Board of Education three years later saw a landmark decision rule that teachers could not be demoted unless for misconduct or incompetence ensuring security of employment for male and female teachers.

Kennedy achieved another unique claim to fame when she contested the position of California Superintendent of Public Instruction. Even though she didn’t win, she became the first female to run for public office in the State of California. 

“I first became aware of her achievements in 1993 when I came across her details in a book and having eventually tracked down her relative Pat, who lives in Randalstown outside Navan, we formed a committee,” said Ken Murray.

“We entered into talks with County Meath Sculptor Betty Newman-Maguire to develop this project and the work progressed nicely despite a three-year setback due to the Covid pandemic.”

Fianna Fáil Councillor Stephen McKee, who lives in Gaskinstown and is part of the organizing committee, said the proposed commemoration was long overdue.

 “It is extraordinary that so many decades have come and gone since her passing in 1890 and yet so little is known about her in Ireland,” McKee said.

According to Ken Murray, the unveiling event will not be the last public display of respect for Kate Kennedy.

“We hope to unveil a large sculpture in Duleek village in the coming years. However, these things are expensive and we’ve just launched a Kate Kennedy gofundme page to try and secure $60,000 to make it happen in the years to come,” he said.

The writer, political activist and former candidate for Lord Mayor of San Francisco in 2003, David Giesen, in an essay on www.FoundSF.org (San Francisco) about Kennedy wrote, “that if there was ever an example of real US citizenship, it’s Kate Kennedy.”

Kate Kennedy died in Oakland in 1890 and an elementary school in her name still functions to this day at 1670 Noe Street, San Francisco.