Mary Kenney O'Sullivan (January 8, 1864 – January 18, 1943) was an American social activist and labor union leader, famous for her work in Boston, where she organized women into various unions to fight against exploitation of children and women in factory labor. In Chicago, she became close friends with Jane Addams and other activists at Hull House, supporting Florence Kelley in her efforts to end child labor and improve working conditions for women.
Throughout her life she advocated women's suffrage, housing for the poor, and pacifism. Her efforts brought fruit both in the passage of laws and in the education of future generations whose lives have been greatly improved as a result of the reforms she advocated.
Mary Kenney O'Sullivan was born on January 8, 1864 in Hannibal, Missouri, the only child of the working-class Irish immigrant Kenney couple. At the age of 14, she started to work as a bookbinder, and by the age of 19 had mastered every skill of the printing trade and has been promoted to forewoman. Even though working in the same position as her male counterparts, she could however never earn as much as a man. She was also frustrated by the hard working conditions that the women were exposed to. That early experience of injustice and gender inequality played an important role in her decision to become a social activist to bring about change.
In 1888, Mary and her mother moved to Chicago where Kenney started organizing women into trade unions. In the late 1880s, the women bookbinders of Chicago joined the American Federation of Labor and Kenney was elected a delegate to the Chicago Trades and Labor Assembly. In Chicago, Kenney met Jane Addams who invited her to live in Hull House. Kenney and her fellow trade unionists held their meetings at the settlement house.
In 1891, Kenney established the "Jane Club," a six-apartment house that offered cheap room and board for women with lower wages. Kenney and other women of the Hull House, such as Alzina Stevens, gave weekly lectures at the house, educating women of the need of social reforms.
In 1892, Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor invited Kenney to New York to become the first woman salaried organizer for the union. During her short stay in that position she helped organize shoe workers, binders, printers, and carpet weavers.
In 1892, Kenney joined Mary Morton Kimball Kehew in forming the Union for Industrial Progress, which had a goal to study working conditions in factories.
When in 1893 Florence Kelley became the Illinois’ first chief factory inspector, she invited Kenney to join her team. A year later, Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld and Kelley’s team succeeded in lobbying the Illinois legislature to pass a law that controlled child labor and limited working hours of women to a maximum of eight hours per day. The law was, however, short-lived, as the Illinois Association of Manufacturers had the law withdrawn in 1895.
In the mid-1890s Kenney moved to Boston, Massachusetts where she married John O'Sullivan, a journalist working for the Boston Globe. The couple had three children. In Boston, she worked for the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, organizing rubber makers, shoe, garment, and laundry workers.
In 1902, John O’Sullivan died, and Mary was left alone with her three children. She continued to work for the American Federation of Labor. In 1903, she joined William Walling to form the Women's Trade Union League, which had a goal to educate women of the need and advantages of union organizing. The League also advocated for better working conditions for women and against exploitation of child and woman labor.
Besides her work in the League, she focused her efforts on Women's suffrage, housing for the poor, and pacifism.
In 1914, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law to protect women on workplace. In November 1914, she was elected to help enforce the new law, becoming a factory inspector for the Division of Industrial Safety of the Department of Labor, a post she held for twenty years.
Mary Kenney O'Sullivan died on January 18, 1943 in Medford, Massachusetts. She is buried at St. Joseph Cemetery in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.
Mary Kenney O'Sullivan spent her whole life advocating Women's suffrage, housing for the poor, prohibition, and pacifism. Her highest priority was however organizing women into labor unions, to fight gender inequality on the workplace. Through her effort Illinois and later Massachusetts passed legislature that enhanced working conditions for women. With her work she influenced numerous women who later made pass state and federal laws that advanced position of working women.
Mary Kenney O'Sullivan is one of six Massachusetts women whose bronze bust is housed in the Massachusetts State House.
All links retrieved August 29, 2018.
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