Mary Kenney

Mary Kenney

Mary Kenney was born in Hannibal, Missouri, on 8th January, 1864. After a brief formal education Kenney worked as a dressmaker to help support her invalid mother.

In 1889 Kenney moved to Chicago where she worked in several different factories. Kenney became a trade union organizer and was eventually invited to Hull House to meet Jane Addams. It was agreed that Kenney and fellow trade unionists could hold their meetings at the house.

Kenney moved into Hull House and in 1891 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.

Working-class women, such as Kenney and Alzina Stevens, who had developed an interest in social reform as a result of their trade union work, played an important role in the education of the middle-class residents at Hull House. They in turn influenced the working-class women. As Kenney was later to say, they "gave my life new meaning and hope".

Kenney became a well-known trade union figure and in 1892 Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labour, appointed her as his first woman organizer.

In 1892, John Peter Altgeld was was elected governor of Illinois in 1892 and the following year he appointed Florence Kelley as the state's first chief factory inspector. Kelley recruited a staff of twelve, including Kenney and Alzina Stevens. In 1894 Altgeld and Kelley managed to persuade the state legislature to pass legislation controlling child labour. This included a law limiting women and children to a maximum eight-hour day. This success was short-lived and in 1895 the Illinois Association of Manufacturers got the law repealed.

Leaders of the Women's Trade Union in 1907. Shown from left to right are Hannah Hennessy, Ida Rauh, Mary Dreir, Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, Margaret Robins, Margie Jones, Agnes Nestor and Helen Marot.
Leaders of the Women's Trade Union in 1907. Shown from left to right
are Hannah Hennessy, Ida Rauh, Mary Dreir, Mary Kenney O'Sullivan,
Margaret Robins, Margie Jones, Agnes Nestor and Helen Marot.

Kenney moved to Boston where she married John O'Sullivan, a journalist working for The Boston Globe. She was employed by the Women's Educational and Industrial Union and helped to organize garment and laundry workers.

In 1903 Kenney joined with William Walling to form the Women's Trade Union League. The main objective of the organization was to educate women about the advantages of union membership, to support women's demands for better working conditions, and to raise awareness about the exploitation of women workers.

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.

© John Simkin, May 2013

Primary Sources

(1) Mary Kenney wrote about her experiences at Hull House in her unpublished autobiography.

One day, while I was working at my trade, I received a letter from Miss Jane Addams. She invited me to for dinner. She said she wanted me to meet some people from England who were interested in the labour movement.

When I went into Hull House, I saw furnishings and large rooms different from anything I had ever seen before. With one look at the reception room, my first thought was, "If the Union could only meet here."

Miss Addams greeted me and introduced the guests from England and all the residents. My first impression was that they were all rich and not friends of the workers.

Small wages and the meagre way mother and I had been living had been making me grow more and more class conscious. By my manner Miss Addams must have known that I wasn't friendly. She asked me questions about our Trade Union. "Is there anything I can do to help your organization?" she said.

I couldn't believe I had heard right. "Does she really want to help our Trade Union?" I asked myself. She said, "I would like to help. What can I do?" I answered, "There are many things we need. We haven't a good meeting place. We are meeting over a saloon on Clark Street and it is a dirty and noisy place, but he can't afford anything better. I confided in her that, as I passed through the large reception room, I had thought of what a wonderful meeting place it would make.

"Can I help in any other way? she said. I said we needed someone to distribute circulars. She said she would. When I saw there was someone who cared enough to help us and to help us in our way, it was like having a new world opened up.

Miss Addams not only had the circulars distributed, but paid for them. She asked us how we wanted to have them worded. She climbed stairs, high and narrow. Many of the entrances were in back alleys. There were signs to "Keep Out". She managed to see the workers at their noon hour, and invited them to classes and meetings at Hull House.

Later, she asked me to come to Hull House to live. Knowing Hull House and what it stood for, I know it "heaven". My whole attitude toward life changed. I attended classes there. My first was in English. My first was in English. I realized for the first time how handicapped I was and how handicapped the children of other wage workers were that left school at fourteen.

(2) Mary Kenney became a close friend of Ellen Gates Starr at Hull House.

Miss Starr I quickly learned to love dearly. She had a sense of humour unequaled by anyone I'd ever known. At my first appearance in Hull House, she seemed to sense my defiance and laughed. I was sensitive and I gave her a cold stare.

When I went to live in Hull House I tried to ignore Miss Starr, but she came to me, and after we talked things over, we became friends. It was a great privilege to have her as a friend. She was like an older sister. When I made mistakes, she "took me in hand," and she wasn't afraid to tell me just what she thought.

(3) In 1891 Mary Kenney established the Jane Club, that became part of the Hull House Settlement.

One day Miss Addams said, "Mary, if you get the members for a cooperative boarding club, I will pay the first month's rent, and supply the furnishings. There's a vacant apartment on Ewing Street." I knew what it would mean for working women to have a house near Hull House. "I'll get the members," I said. Soon the apartments were ready, and at the end of the following week there were six members with a cook and a general worker.

We elected a president, who was also steward, and a treasurer, and we agreed to meet weekly. We voted to tax ourselves $3.00 each for weekly dues, which covered expenses for food, quarters and service. There were six apartments in the house. At the end of three months we occupied three of them with eighteen members. At the end of a year, we occupied all six. The social spirit was just as cooperative as the financial relationship. We enjoyed doing things together.

(4) Florence Kelley, Survey Magazine (June, 1927)

A superb embodiment of youth in the Mississippi Valley was Mary Kenny. Born in Keokuk, Iowa, of Irish immigrant parents, she had moved with her mother to a nearby brick tenement house, a distinguished three-story edifice in that region of drab one and two story frame cottages, in order to be a close neighbour to Hull House and participate in its efforts to improve industrial conditions. Tall, erect, broad-shouldered, with ruddy face and shining eyes, she carried hope and confidence wherever she went. Her rich Irish voice and friendly smile inspired men, women, and children alike to do what she wished.

A highly skilled printer, she was employed by a company which gave preference to union employees. As a numberer she earned fourteen dollars a week, supporting herself and her lovely old mother on that wage. Hers was the initiative in making of the brick tenement a cooperative house for working girls known as the Jane Club, a large part of the success of which was for many years due to the gentle sweetness of Mrs. Kenny, who mothered the cooperators as though they had been her own.

(5) Samuel Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labour (1925)

In 1891 I had, upon one of my visits to Chicago, met Mary Kenny, a member of the Bookbinders' Union, whom I found to be an intelligent union woman with more to learn and anxious to learn and anxious to be of service. As we accumulated a little money in the treasury of the Federation, I determined to inaugurate a special effort to organize women workers. I wrote to Mary Kenny and asked her whether she would not spend several months in and around New York. She readily assented. She was anxious to help. I sent her a commission and with it a check to pay her immediate expenses. She came to New York and worked there for a few months. Mary Kenney proved a most valuable worker for the Federation and I made arrangements to send her to Boston. I sent a letter to John F. O'Sullivan telling of my appointment of Miss Kenny and asking him to assist her in the work (they later married).

(6) Dorothea Moore, A Day at Hill House, American Journal of Sociology (March, 1897)

The old house is almost submerged. With its hooded top story of fanciful brick, and its large flanking of additions to right and left, there remain but the long windows and wide doorway to hint of the aspect that was its own in the long gone privacy of the estate of which it was an important and hospitable part of the quiet days before the invasion of crowd and hurry and competition.

These additions are more intrinsic than external - growing out of growing needs - and therefore present in themselves a kind of rough estimate of history of them. Thus, the most extensive area and the highest wall belong to the Children's Building, on the right flank, the corresponding smaller wing being used for lecture and class rooms, with dormitory space above.

About the house are its tributaries, some in material form and some visible only in spirit. Around the southern corner is a brick building, the home of the Jane Club, an active club of working women who in a life of five years have solved some of the most vexing questions of co-operative living in their own social and economic satisfaction.

© John Simkin, April 2013