17. A Working Woman Unionizes Other Working Women: Mary Kenney O’Sullivan
Mary Kenney was born to working-class Irish immigrants in Hannibal, Missouri in 1864. She attended school until the 4th grade, when she was forced to enter into a dressmaking apprenticeship. Mary hated the unpaid work and when her training concluded, she went into bookbinding, which she loved. In 1888 she and her mother moved to Chicago where Mary quickly learned that being a union member was the only way to ensure economic survival.
For years Mary had been disgusted with the working girls club that she belonged to. At each gathering the working women spoke only of pooling their money together to attend various entertainments. Mary believed that by advocating for better pay, the women would be able to venture out on their own. If women had better wages, she proclaimed, they would have a better quality of life.
Mary organized the first Book Binders’ Union for women in Chicago. In 1888, a letter arrived from Jane Addams asking Mary to have dinner at Hull-House as people from England wanted to talk to her about the labor movement. With reluctance, Mary knocked on the door at Hull-House. When it opened, Jane Addams was standing there welcoming the labor activist. Jane Addams asked the bookbinder if there was anything that she could do to assist Mary in her union activities. Soon thereafter, Mary was holding union meetings at the settlement house.
In 1891, Mary Kenney headed a boarding cooperative where single working women would pay a weekly tax of $3 that would provide them with food, a cook, and a guarantee that they would not be kicked out of their home when they went on strike. This boarding coop, named the Jane Club, became a model of salvation for union women. All too often laborers who went on strike when authorized by their unions faced starvation and homelessness in their quest for better working conditions, shorter work hours, and better pay.
In 1893 Mary Kenney moved to Boston to continue as a full-time union organizer for the American Federation of Labor. There she met a fellow union organizer Jack O’Sullivan. The couple married and moved into Denison House, a settlement house founded in 1892 in Boston. Mary Kenney O’Sullivan continued her union work and became the founding member of the National Women’s Trade Union League under the umbrella of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).