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'The necessity of organization': Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, the American Federation of Labor, and the Boston Women's Trade Union League, 1892-1919

Kathleen Banks Nutter, University of Massachusetts Amherst


One of the early leaders of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) was working-class woman and veteran trade union organizer Mary Kenney O'Sullivan (1864-1943). When she joined with several other trade unionists and social reformers to form, in 1903, the WTUL, Kenney O'Sullivan had already spent more than a dozen years attempting to forge a coalition between male-dominated organized labor and the social reform community in which Progressive-minded women played a vital role. Throughout, her primary goal was to improve the conditions of labor for women such as herself, primarily through trade unionism. In the early 1890s, then Mary Kenney was living in Chicago, working as a bookbinder. Frustrated by low wages and poor working conditions, Kenney formed Women's Bookbindery Union No. 1 as early as 1890. She went on to organize women in other trades, utilizing her connections with both the Chicago labor community and the social reform community, especially with the Chicago settlement, Hull House, and its founder, Jane Addams. In 1892, Kenney was briefly appointed the first national woman organizer for the American Federation of Labor (AFL). After her 1894 marriage to Boston labor leader, John O'Sullivan, and now known as Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, she would continue her trade union activity in that city, repeating the pattern of coalition building by relying upon both the Boston Central Labor Union and the local social reform community, particularly the settlement Denison House and the Women's Educational and Industrial Union. While she had some success in organizing women workers, Kenney O'Sullivan's personal efforts at coalition building were often frustrated by the sharp class and gender distinctions of her day. In 1903, she joined several other trade unionists and social reformers in an attempt to institutionalize this fragile coalition of labor and social reform through the formation of the WTUL. The WTUL, on the national level and through its principal local branches in New York, Chicago and Boston, sought to cooperate with the AFL in organizing wage-earning women into trade unions, as well as provide education and agitate for protective labor legislation. It also attempted to bridge the gap between working-class and reformist middle-class women. Kenney O'Sullivan was a leader in both the National WTUL and its Boston branch and, as such, she attempted to insure that the WTUL concentrate on trade unionism for women. The possibilities and limits of doing so within a cross-class, cross-gender alliance are especially evident during the WTUL's early years. From the Fall River strike of 1904 to the Lawrence strike of 1912, the efforts of Kenney O'Sullivan and other like-minded women continued to be frustrated by the class and gender contraints of this period. This dissertation attempts to reveal the complexity of those gender and class constraints during the Progressive Era by focusing on the efforts of Mary Kenney O'Sullivan at organizing wage-earning women.

Subject Area

American history|Womens studies|Labor relations

Recommended Citation

Nutter, Kathleen Banks, "'The necessity of organization': Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, the American Federation of Labor, and the Boston Women's Trade Union League, 1892-1919" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9823761.