Mary Morton Kimball Kehew

From New World Encyclopedia

Mary Morton Kimball Kehew (September 8, 1859 – February 13, 1918) was an American reformer, and labor union activist. She is known for her work to improve the living and working conditions of working women in Boston. Joining the Women's Educational and Industrial Union of Boston, an association of philanthropic women whose goal was social justice for women, was her first step. She professionalized the organization and initiated a number of business-related ventures. Interested in labor reform, she worked with Mary Kenney O'Sullivan and Jane Addams in the Women's Trade Union League, organizing and supporting a number of new labor unions. Her interests also ran into education, and she was active in the establishment and support of several educational organizations, including settlement houses and other institutions for the blind. Kehew was a talented, energetic reformer who was able to work with people of all classes, yet she was not interested in fame or publicity for herself. Her example is thus one of a sincere philanthopist, working for the benefit of others.


Mary Morton Kehew neé Kimball was born on September 8, 1859 in Boston, Massachusetts, into a wealthy New England family. She was well-educated and began engaging in social activism early in life.

In 1886, she joined the Women's Educational and Industrial Union of Boston, an association that gathered philanthropically minded women who fought to improve the working conditions of women in Boston. Kehew became the Union's director in 1890, and its president in 1892, succeeding Abby Morton Diaz who was her distant relative, connected through Marcus Morton (1819–1891) a chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

Founded in 1877 by Harriet Clisby to pursue social justice for women, the Union drew on elite members of the society, of whom Kehew was a part. The network of connections brought by each member helped the Union establish itself as a powerful lobbying body, raising its voice on different social issues. Most of the members inside the Union were connected by familial or social ties, which helped energize the organization and move it forward as a cohesive unit.

After becoming the Union's president, Kehew immediately started to carry out reorganization within the Union, making it more organized and effective in accomplishing its goals. Her main interest was labor, not moral reforms. She wanted to make various Union departments self-sufficient, by running them like a business, and introducing numerous ideas to make this possible. Besides offering basic employment guidance and legal services, the Union started to organize courses in dressmaking, housekeeping, and salesmanship.

In 1905, the Union’s research department conducted a study of the living and working conditions of Boston women. The purpose was to create a thorough study that would support legislative proposals for the regulation of working conditions of women. In addition, the Union shop sold handcrafts made by women, and its kitchen provided inexpensive lunches for working women. The classes organized by the Union were later taken over by Simmons College. Throughout Kehew's presidency, the Union became increasingly professionalized, with a large number of people serving as paid staff.

Parallel to her work inside the Union, Kehew was involved in propagating its work among women in society. In 1892, she invited Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, who had been trained at Hull House, to form the Union for Industrial Progress with her. Through this organization she helped set up several other labor unions, among others the union of women bookbinders and laundry workers (1896), the union of tobacco workers (1899), and the union of needle-trade workers (1901).

In 1903, Kehew was on the board of members who organized the National Women's Trade Union League in Boston. She was elected its first president, while Jane Addams served as vice president.

Kehew was also actively engaged in numerous other projects. She supported the work of different philanthropic organizations, such as Simmons College, and settlement houses such as the Denison House in Boston, the Public School Association, the Massachusetts Association for Promoting the Interests of the Blind, the Loan and Aid Society for the Blind, and the Woolson House—a social settlement for blind women.

Kehew served as the president of the National Women's Trade Union League until 1913, then as acting president, and finally as board chair until her death. She died in 1918 in Boston.

Her personal papers are held in the Simmons College archives, and are available to all members of the Simmons College community and other interested scholars and researchers.


Kehew avoided public speeches and appearances, preferring to work behind the scenes. Her organizational skills and directorship, however, made her famous among social activists of her day. While most other women advocated moral reforms within society and did charity work, Kehew was more interested in how to make women's groups more organized. She professionalized The Women's Educational and Industrial Union, making it more business-like, establishing it as one of the first women's organizations for social justice. In addition, her studies on the social and working conditions of women helped create labor reform legislation and bring important social changes. Kehew was thus regarded as one of the core members of the Progressive movement in Boston.

The Women's Trade Union League, which Kehew helped establish, was the first national association dedicated to organizing women workers. It played an important role in organizing massive strikes in the first two decades of the twentieth century, which in turn helped create the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. The League’s campaign for women's suffrage resulted in improving the working conditions of women.

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