Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, 1864-1943

  • Mary-Kenney-O’Sullivan-WWP

Woman Category: Activism & Feminism and Economics & FinanceWoman Tags: 19th Amendment Centennial Anniversary, Greater Boston Women, and Suffragist

  • HerStory

    A pioneering activist for working women’s rights and co-founder of the National Women’s Trade Union League.

    Mary Kenney was born to a family of Irish immigrants in the railroad town of Hannibal, Missouri. Her father died when she was 14, and she had to find a job to support her disabled mother. She worked as a bookbinder 11 hours a day, six days a week. Following the job, she moved to Iowa and then to Chicago. There she was exposed to the gender wage gap: she was paid $7 a week when filling in for a male worker, but the management refused her demand to get his salary of $21 a week. At the age of 26, she organized the female bookbinders of Chicago into The Women’s Bindery Union no. 1. It was a first step in a dynamic lifetime career as a trade union leader, which included her appointment as the first woman general organizer of the American Federation of Labor.
    O’Sullivan moved to Boston and at the age of 30 got married to a fellow labor activist. After the premature death of their firstborn, the couple had three children. Eight years into their marriage, her husband was run over in an accident. The young widow, now a single mother, continued her unionist work, which included advocating for suffrage and pacifism. In 1903, she co-founded the National Women’s Trade Union League and served there a secretary for nine years.
    When she was 50 years old, she was appointed as a factory inspector by the Massachusetts State Board of Labor and Industries – a position which she held for 20 years, until retiring at 70. O’Sullivan visited her parents’ homeland Ireland at 62 as a delegate of the Women’s Peace Conference. When she died, she left a draft of an autobiography, which was never published.

    “Someone must go from shop to shop and find out who the workers were that were willing to work for better working conditions. I must be that someone”

    “Someone must go from shop to shop and find out who the workers were that were willing to work for better working conditions. I must be that someone”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She was first exposed to labor activism as a teenager on her front porch – when overhearing her father discuss with the neighbors The Great Railroad Strike of 1877.
    • She lived in the iconic Chicago Hull House, by invitation of its founder Jane Addams, where she ran the “Jane Club” – a cooperative of six apartments for low-income women.
  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Photo credit - Wikipedia.