McDowell, Kathleen Mary (‘Kay’) (1897–1975), trade union leader, was born 16 August 1897 at 20 Connaught St., Phibsborough, Dublin, daughter of William McDowell, wine merchant, of that address, and Mary McDowell (née Kirwan). Her father's family, which had roots in the north of Ireland, owned a chain of groceries and off-licence shops on Dublin's northside. Her paternal grandfather, William J. McDowell, was a journalist who, after editing the Belfast Morning News, moved to Dublin in 1883 to join the Freeman's Journal, of which he became editor; sacked for supporting Charles S. Parnell (qv) following the split in the Irish parliamentary party, he successfully sued the paper's owners for wrongful dismissal, the first such case to succeed in Ireland. Orphaned at a young age, Kay and her younger brother Willie were reared in their grandfather's successive homes at 11 Charleville Rd and 11 Belfast Terrace, North Circular Rd; after his death, the siblings remained with extended family at the latter address.
After early education at Holy Faith convent, Glasnevin, McDowell studied commerce at a technical school in Bray, Co. Wicklow, and at Rosses College, Skerries, Co. Dublin. Deeply bereaved on her brother's death in France during the first world war (1916), she abandoned plans to work in the office of her paternal uncle, a Dublin solicitor, and moved to London, where she was employed in a law firm. Under pressure from her family, who feared that she was about to enter an unsuitable marriage, she returned to Dublin in 1921. Introduced by her uncle, who was solicitor to the Irish Women Workers' Union (IWWU), to the union's general secretary, Louie Bennett (qv), she joined the union's staff as an organiser (1922). In 1923 she was assigned to supervise all clerical work within the union office in an effort to cut operating costs and rationalise administrative procedures. She later fulfilled a range of functions within the union, both administrative and official, taking a particular interest in the organisation and representation of printers, mental health nurses, and textile workers. Appointed IWWU representative on the council of action formed by Dublin Trades Council (DTC) to coordinate opposition to the government's trade union bill (1941), she expressed the alarm of smaller trade unions at the provision requiring the deposit of monies in the high court before securing negotiating licences, thus freezing a substantial proportion of union assets.
A founder of the People's College, McDowell was a member of its initial central council (1948). In the late 1940s she chaired the DTC's women's council of action. Though she enjoyed long service on the IWWU executive, her advancement within the union was retarded for many years by the professional longevity of Bennett and Helen Chenevix (qv). When in August 1950 Bennett became IWWU consultative secretary, McDowell and Chenevix became joint acting secretaries, responsible for all routine union work. McDowell took extended leave of absence from the union during her service on the government's prices advisory committee (January 1951–May 1954).
On Bennett's retirement McDowell became IWWU assistant general secretary under Chenevix (1955–7), whom she succeeded two years later as the union's general secretary (1957–69). Her tenure was notable for widespread automation in industries in which women workers were dominant, and the introduction of new work methods, such as part-time, irregular shift work, characteristically by married women returning to paid employment outside the home. McDowell led the IWWU from initial resistance to such practices, to their negotiated introduction, combined with wage hikes, a shorter working week, improved job security, and more definite demarcation lines for full-time women workers. Protesting against the disparate rates of pay for female and male workers, she criticised the evaluation of cost-of-living allowances for women at lower rates than men, arguing that living costs affected adult women and men equally. She was deeply sceptical of the 1964 national wage agreement negotiated between unions and employers: besides being critical of an exclusion clause that deprived women of the £1 minimum basic increase guaranteed to men, she contended that wage increases calculated on a percentage basis merely kept lower paid workers on lower pay, and thus failed to address the issue of low pay for women.
McDowell sat on the administrative council of the Labour Party, the first woman to do so (1958), and was elected to the inaugural national executive of the newly formed ICTU (1959). During the 1960s she served on the ICTU's committee on industrial organisation, thereby arousing accusations from internal critics that she was discussing the merger of the IWWU with a larger union, which she emphatically denied. Stressing the continued necessity of a union specifically focused on protecting women's place in the workforce, she pointed to the traditional practice among male negotiators with other unions of accepting wage settlements that included a women's rate of 50% of the rate for men, while IWWU contracts were securing women's rates of 75%. Nonetheless, amid the upheavals in industry, and competition from larger, better financed unions, IWWU membership numbers continued to decline, from a peak of 6,700 in 1950, to 5,250 in 1960, to 3,550 in 1970. McDowell's tenure was punctuated by several major industrial disputes, including a ten-week lockout of IWWU members in the printing trade (1965), and a strike of sugar confectioners (1966). In 1967 the IWWU pursued a successful claim in the labour court against the ICTU itself, on behalf of the congress's female clerical workers, whose pay was less than the scheduled rate. In the late 1960s the IWWU secured improved benefits for members, including increases in sick pay, marriage benefit, and strike pay, and the introduction of a retirement bonus.
McDowell was effective both in public speaking, and in discussion and debate, with definite and clearly articulated ideas. While her predecessors in the IWWU leadership were described as ‘Victorian ladies’, she was recalled as a ‘bluestocking’, and was said to put one in mind of the film actress Bette Davis. But her instincts and politics were deeply democratic. Ever ready to delegate responsibility, acknowledging competencies distinct from her own, she valued the contributions of staff, and encouraged maximum participation by officials and membership in all aspects of union business, including decisions regarding policy and priorities. After presenting her own analysis of a given situation, she would characteristically conclude: ‘It's over to you now, ladies’ (quoted in Jones, 239). An attractive woman, who dressed well and enjoyed an active social life, she was said to have attracted a series of suitors, but never married. She lived on Northumberland Rd, Dublin, and subsequently at 57 Pembroke Rd. She died 7 March 1975 in Jervis St. hospital, and was buried in Dean's Grange cemetery.