Julia Harrington Duff

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Julia Harrington Duff (November 30, 1859 – 1932) was an American educator and community leader, known as the first Irish-American woman to serve on the Boston School Committee.

Early life[edit]

Julia Elizabeth Harrington was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the eldest of her parents' seven children.[1] Her father, John Harrington, a hatter, was from Ireland; her mother Mary Agnes Noonan Harrington was American-born. Julia Harrington attended Boston Girls' High School and graduated from the Boston Normal School in 1878.[2] Her brother Arthur Harrington was a lawyer who served in the Massachusetts legislature.[3]


After normal school, Julia Harrington taught school in Boston for fourteen years, until marriage disqualified her from continuing that employment. In 1901, she was elected to the Boston School Committee, where she served for four years, and was the first Irish Catholic woman to hold a seat on the committee. She worked for equal employment opportunities for local, often Irish Catholic teachers in Boston schools, with the slogan "Boston Schools for Boston Girls".[4] She also supported school sports for girls, at a time when many educationists were opposed to the idea. "The girl who goes into athletics is likely to be equally quick mentally," she explained. "With proper safeguards for their health, I believe school athletics to be an excellent thing for schoolgirls."[5] She had a reputation as a forceful, argumentative committee member.[6] Her husband made a practice of being present at all the school board meetings to "join in the fight" when she was quarrelling.[7]

Julia Harrington Duff lost her seat on the school board in 1905 when its membership was reduced from 24 seats to five; she ran again for the board in 1906, (and again in 1907[8]), saying "I shall run not as a representative of any race or creed, but as a representative of the 60,000 mothers of children in the city of Boston."[9] In 1910, she supported a boycott of the Boston opera house to express disapproval for recently-divorced Lina Cavalieri.[10]

Personal life[edit]

Julia Harrington married John Duff, a medical doctor educated at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They had three children. She died in 1932, aged 73 years. Her home is part of the Boston Women's Heritage Trail in Charlestown.[11]

Her son Paul Harrington Duff became a noted surgeon in Boston.[12] His son, Brian Barnett Duff, was a U. S. federal judge in Illinois.[13] Her great-granddaughter, Eileen Duff, was has served on the Massachusetts Governor's Council since 2012.[14] Many of her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great great grandchildren have gone on to serve as public school teachers. Much of her family still lives in the Boston area and in New England. There are over 100 Duffs who still maintain a close family relationship.


  1. ^ Janet Nolan, Servants of the Poor: Teachers and Mobility in Ireland and Irish America (University of Notre Dame Press 2004): 43. ISBN 9780268036591
  2. ^ Polly Welts Kaufman, "Julia Harrington Duff and the Political Awakening of Irish-American Women in Boston, 1888-1905" in Susan Lynne Porter, Women of the Commonwealth: Work, Family, and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts (University of Massachusetts Press 1996). ISBN 9781558490055
  3. ^ Harvard College Annual Report 1897-1922 (Riverside Press 1922): 251.
  4. ^ Polly Welts Kaufman, "Julia Harrington Duff: An Irish Woman Confronts the Boston Power Structure, 1900-1905" Historical Journal of Massachusetts 18(2)(Summer 1990).
  5. ^ "Little Talks With Men and Women of the Day" Boston Post (February 2, 1904): 7. via Newspapers.comopen access
  6. ^ "How Mrs. Duff Compelled Machine to Oppose P. S. A." Boston Post (November 29, 1903): 16. via Newspapers.comopen access
  7. ^ "Mrs. Duff Biffs School Board" Atlanta Constitution (November 16, 1902): 7. via Newspapers.comopen access
  8. ^ Frederick W. Coburn, "The Educational Victory in Boston" The School Journal 75(January 1908): 570.
  9. ^ "Wants Place on School Board" Philadelphia Inquirer (December 2, 1906): 8. via Newspapers.comopen access
  10. ^ "Boston Women After Cavalieri" Santa Cruz Evening News (September 21, 1910): 4. via Newspapers.comopen access
  11. ^ Boston Women's Heritage Trail, Charlestown, CT3: 108 Main Street Julia Harrington Duff.
  12. ^ The American Catholic Who's Who (Walter Romig Publisher 1960-61): 124.
  13. ^ Brian Barnett Duff obituary, Chicago Tribune (27 February 2016).
  14. ^ "Eileen Duff". Ballotpedia. Retrieved 2019-03-13.