Women & the BTU

The Boston Teachers Union began as an idea in the 1910s, a murmur of organization among the Suffrage Movement. These concepts and goals came to fruition in 1945 through the efforts of fifteen women and one man, all working within the Boston education system. At that fateful meeting, female leadership led to the birth of the BTU as a charter member of the American Federation of Teachers.

From the beginning, the BTU was led by the voices of women. The first president of the union, appointed unanimously, was Dr. Mary Cadigan, a high school English teacher in Dorchester. An outspoken advocate for women’s rights and labor rights, Cadigan represents both the voices that formed the BTU and those that new leadership attempted to silence.

Birth of the BTU

At the 1945 organizational meeting, a group of teachers, majority women, formed the Boston Teachers Union. Nearly all of the administrative positions were filled by women as well. “Minutes of BTU Organizational Meeting.” Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, UMass Boston.

These women in Boston’s education system were primarily driven by the fight for an equal salary. Across the country, female teachers were paid less for their work than their male counterparts, despite making up the majority of educators. Administrators justified the disparity for a number of reasons, including the continuous promotion of a patriarchal hierarchy and the erroneous argument that men were superior educators.

“For many early women teachers, the fight for salary equalization was inseparable from the fight for women’s rights, and they turned cautiously toward organized labor to achieve both.”

-Diana D’Amico, “An Uneasy Union: Women Teachers, Organized Labor, and the Contested Ideology of Profession during the Progressive Era”

Prior to the formation of the BTU, other unions serving Boston’s educators existed but were not well received by both local teachers and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) due to accusations of socialist alignment. Some women fought ardently against these allegations while others felt the need to distance themselves from the male-led union. Organizations became divided and cooperation waivered until the issue of a new charter for Boston teachers. Fifteen women and one man formed the Boston Teachers Union and was charted by the the AFT in 1945.

Not long after these women claimed leadership for teachers unions, deliberate antagonism drove them from their positions. In 1948, just three years after being appointed president of the BTU, Dennis Haley, superintendent of Boston Schools, forced her to either transfer to another position she was not qualified for or step down. Haley used this conflict as a means of extinguishing the work of labor rights activists like Cadigan. The BTU president dissented, refusing to take on the new position. Her hearing ruled in her favor, and Cadigan was reinstated at Jeremiah E. Burke High School. Following this victory, she was pushed out from her position as BTU President, leading to a long era of male administration that went on for three decades.

Dr. Mary Cadigan, first president of the BTU, is reinstated to her teaching position at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester in 1948. “Boston Union Teacher, 2007 November.” Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, UMass Boston


While the BTU’s leadership became overwhelmingly male after 1948, women were still an essential force within the organization. BTU President Fred Reilly may have led the negotiating team that bargained the BTU’s first contract, but it was executive board members Joan Devlin and Kathy Kelly, who would later become the union’s second female president in 1979, who brought the first grievance.

In the heat of the Women’s Liberation Movement, the BTU was not immune to the principles of equal rights based on sex and the call for action. Women of the BTU faced the issues of the education system that plagued the entire union while simultaneously dealing with misogyny and sexist practices in the workplace.

The stirrings of gender equality brought on the creation of the BTU Women’s Committee in 1974. Irene Garrity wrote in the Boston Union Teacher newsletter that December:

The goals of the Women’s Committee are to strive for equality throughout the system on every level for men and women, students and teachers.

– Irene Garrity, Boston Union Teacher December 1974

The committee addressed issues of sexual discrimination in Boston Public Schools, providing child care for union members during meetings and fighting for maternity leave and child care leave for all parents. Their work culminated into annual Women’s Conferences, which included sessions and workshops aimed towards the end of this sexual discrimination in the classroom such as sexist curriculum and the lack of women in administrative positions. Women of the BTU wrote of their support for a state Equal Rights Amendment in the Boston Union Teacher, which was passed in 1976. The newsletter became a platform for women of the BTU and the Boston Public School system to amplify their voices once more.

The BTU’s presidential election of 1979 was a landmark year for the women of the Boston education system with the election of Kathy Kelley. Kelley fulfilled multiple administrative roles for the union throughout the 1970s, but the push for women’s voices in the BTU brought her to the head of the organization. “Boston Union Teacher, 1979 July.” Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, UMass Boston

Helyn C. Hall, Boston educator, discusses her career as a teacher and administrator. Hall, at one point, served as Vice Principal for her school. In this interview, she discusses what it was like being a Black woman in an administration full of white men. “Helyn C. Hall at the Boston Teachers Union Digitizing Day: Video Interview.” Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, UMass Boston