Mary Kenney O'Sullivan was an American social activist and labor leader. She was famous for her work in Boston where she organized women into various unions to fight against the exploitation of women and children in factory labor.She was born Mary Kenney in Hannibal, Missouri, on January 8, 1864, the only child of an Irish immigrant couple.
After a brief formal education, at the age of 14 she began working as a bookbinder to help support her invalid mother, and by the age of 19, she had mastered all there was to know about the trade and was even promoted to forewoman, but even though she was working in the same position of her male counterparts, she could never earn as much as a man. She was also frustrated by 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 harsh 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 1889, she and her mother moved to Chicago where she worked in several different factories and eventually became a trade union organizer. Eventually she found her way to Hull House where she met Jane Adams. It was agreed that Kenney and fellow trade unionists could hold their meetings at the settlement house.
In 1891, Mary established the Jane Club, a co-operative house where girls with low wages could live together. There were six apartments in the house. Within a year they were all occupied with each person paying $3.00 for rent, food and services. Mary gave weekly lectures at the house, educating the women on the need for social reform.
Mary Kenney became a well-known trade union figure and in 1892 Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor, appointed her as his first woman organizer, and the following year, Then, in the mid-1890's, Mary moved to Boston where she married John O'Sullivan, a journalist working for the Boston Globe. At the time, she was employed by the Women's Educational and Industrial Union and helped to organize garment, rubber makers, shoemakers, and laundry workers.
In 1902, Mary's husband died, and and she was left alone to raise her three children. She continued to work for the American Federation of Labor. In 1903, a year after being left a widow with three children to raise, she joined a New York settlement worker to found the National Women’s Trade Union League. As a leader of the WTUL during its formative years, O’Sullivan brought together affluent women, professionals,and women workers to promote protective legislation, such as the minimum wage, and trade unionism among women. She was a leader in Massachusetts reform circles, focusing her efforts on woman suffrage, housing for the poor, prohibition, pacifism, and — the cause with
which she is most closely identified — legislation to protect women and children in the in the workplace.
In November, 1914, Kenney was appointed as a factory inspector by the Department of Labor, a post she was to hold for twenty years. Mary Kenney O'Sullivan died in West Medford on 18th January, 1943. 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 and underprivileged, and pacifism. Her highest priority was however organizing women into labor unions and the fight against 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.