One thing that’s been consistently true in our country’s history: immigrants often endure harsh and difficult lives when arriving in the U.S. This was Kate Mullany’s experience—before she decided to change her fate. Born in 1841 to Irish parents living in England, Mullany’s family sailed to New York in 1850 and settled in Troy three years later. After her father passed away, and with her mother ill, Mullany became the family’s breadwinner. In 1860s Troy, that meant working in the shirt collar industry.
Troy produced about 90 percent of the nation’s detachable collars, a fashion fad that earned it the nickname “Collar City.” At its height, the industry employed more than 3,000 women, about half of all female industrial workers in the city. They toiled exhausting, 14-hour days in stifling heat for as low as $2 a week, and they were docked pay if there was any damage to the products. These were sweatshops, of course, but immigrants were grateful for the jobs. However, when factory owners installed new, scalding-hot laundry machines that increased production but made working conditions much more dangerous, 23-year-old Mullany stepped in and organized the first woman’s union in Troy.
In February 1864, Mullany and about 300 other workers formed the Collar Laundry Union. At noon on February 23, the women went on strike at the 14 commercial laundry establishments across the city and demanded a 20–25 percent wage increase. The business owners denied their request. The strike lasted another six days before a few owners gave in on February 28; the next day, the rest of the owners did, too.
Mullany and her fellow union leaders were able to keep wages higher for their members than most working women earned. They also built a larger treasury than many male unions had, and even offered benefits to their members, a rarity in the mid-19th century. Mullany became nationally recognized in 1868, when National Labor Union President William Sylvis made her the first-ever woman appointed to a national labor office.
She led another strike in 1869—but this time the laundry owners opposed the union and effectively destroyed it. Although the Collar Laundry Union dissolved soon after in February 1870, it had lasted more than twice as long as other women’s unions. Around that time, Mullany moved into a three-story, brick double-row home on 8th Street in Troy and lived there for about five years. Mullany was married to ironworker John Fogerty, and after 1875, she just about disappears from the records.
Mullany died in Troy on August 17, 1906, and was buried in the Fogerty family plot at St. Peter’s Cemetery. Her house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1998 and became a National Historic Site, part of the National Park System, ten years later. In 2000, the trailblazer was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Today, plans are underway for a National Trade Union Women’s Memorial at the site. You can learn more and donate to the cause at katemullanynhs.org.