Kate Mullany brought together over 200 laundry workers to protest low wages and unsafe working conditions.
In 1864, there were 14 commercial laundries in the city of Troy. Over 3,700 workers, nearly all women, were employed to wash, starch and iron collars and cuffs. These items were first conceived by Hannah Montague, the wife of a local blacksmith, who revolutionized men’s fashion in the 1820s when she first attached separate collars and cuffs to her husband’s shirts by studs as a way to cut down on laundry. By the 1860s, Troy, New York was the nation’s leading producer of detachable collars and cuffs.
Working in a laundry was grueling and often unsafe. Women labored 12-14 hours a day for $2-$3. Laundresses used boiling water, dangerous chemicals, and hot irons. If an item was damaged by a laundry worker, the cost of replacing the article was taken out of her weekly wages.
Kate Mullany experienced firsthand the hardships that came with laundry work. Inspired by the success of men’s labor unions, she convinced her fellow workers to strike against unsafe conditions and low wages. After six days laundry owners gave into their demands and raised their wages by 25 percent.
Mullany later served as the first female officer of the National Labor Union. William H. Sylvis, the union’s president, appointed Mullany assistant secretary in 1868. He stated, “We now have a recognized officer from the female side of the house, one of the smartest and most energetic women in America.” In 2000, Kate Mullany was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY.