Harriet Morison was born in Ireland, probably in June 1862 at Magherafelt, County Londonderry, the daughter of Margaret Clark and her husband, James Morison, a master tailor. Little is known about Harriet's early life. She travelled with her family to New Zealand in 1874, and became a tailoress; through her occupation she began a lifetime involvement in working women's concerns.
In Dunedin in 1889 Harriet Morison became the first vice president of the Tailoresses' Union of New Zealand. This was created after the sweating scandal of late 1888 and early 1889 exposed appalling working conditions for factory employees and home-workers in Dunedin. The union was the first organisation to represent female workers in New Zealand effectively. After John A. Millar stepped down as secretary in 1890, Harriet Morison took over the position, having carried out the secretary's duties for the previous six months.
For the next six years she was an important force within the tailoresses' union. Owing largely to her energy and commitment, the union raised wages and established industry standards for tailoresses throughout Otago. She also assisted workers in other provinces. In 1892 Harriet Morison spent seven months in Auckland organising northern tailoresses. She returned there many times, helping to ensure the survival of the union in Auckland. Maintaining contacts with tailoresses throughout New Zealand was important to Morison, as she believed that unity was vital to the tailoresses' cause. She was not, however, especially radical for her time, always advocating moderation and co-operation with employers in all union activities.
In 1890 Harriet Morison led an attempt to set up a domestic servants' association in Dunedin, with the dual purpose of providing a well-trained supply of servants to the ladies of Dunedin and raising the social status of domestics, giving them the 'dignity of skilled labour'. She felt that without training and skills, women would never improve their position in society.
Although known primarily as a trade unionist, Harriet Morison was active in many other areas. She led an unsuccessful attempt to set up a convalescent home for Dunedin clothing workers, and sat on a local committee to manage ambulance classes for women. She edited the 'Working woman's corner' in the Globe newspaper from January to March 1891. For 14 years she was an official visitor at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum just north of Dunedin. She was a lay preacher for the Bible Christian church and at another time served one term as chairwoman of her Unitarian church committee. Christianity was fundamental to her values: she believed that trade unions, as a means to achieve equality, were consistent with the teachings of Christ. Christian principles gave Morison's trade unionism a humanitarian aspect shared by many other moderate unionists of her time.
Harriet Morison also believed that women's right to vote was implicit in egalitarian Christian principles. The need to use the vote to counteract the evils of alcohol, and the injustice of ignoring half the adult population, were two other important arguments she used to back her demand for women's suffrage. She was a founding member of the Women's Franchise League in Dunedin, the first in New Zealand, which she formed in 1892 with Helen Nicol. Suffrage petitions circulated nation-wide in 1891 and 1892 owed many of their signatures to Harriet Morison, who helped to raise support among the working women of Dunedin. She was an important participant in a public campaign which helped prevent anti-suffragist H. S. Fish, member of the House of Representatives, from winning the 1892 mayoral election in Dunedin. She was also a member of the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union, an organisation which agitated for women's suffrage.
In 1896 Harriet Morison left the Dunedin tailoresses' union under a cloud. Inclement weather meant that two picnics she had planned in 1895 were a disaster. She organised a carnival to clear debts and raise further funds, but did not keep proper books and had the carnival bank account in her name. In 1896 members of the union's executive committee accused Morison, probably wrongly, of embezzling funds and dismissed her as secretary. She was never formally charged and the matter ended with her resignation from the union.
However, she continued to be an advocate for working women. Morison was appointed an inspector of factories for the South Island in April 1906, but the Labour Department quickly decided that she was an 'inappropriate choice'. She was accused of being 'rather inclined to go to extremes' and failing to conform to the 'steady, sure and tactful' departmental style. So many complaints were laid by factory managers that Morison was removed from her position, and in May 1908 she was placed in charge of a newly opened Women's Branch in Auckland, which was essentially a labour bureau for domestic servants.
In 1909 Morison was put on the department's retrenchment list but given a last-minute reprieve. She resented her demotion and also the directive in 1910 that she inspect factories for four hours per week accompanied by a male inspector. In 1913 and 1914 she was further upset by having to do at least two hours clerical work per day. In 1914 she appealed her classification, but was unsuccessful as senior officers were convinced she had exaggerated the extent of her duties. In 1917 they spurned requests from four Auckland women's societies and a number of individuals that a female inspector be employed, and that the appointee be Harriet Morison.
In February 1917 Harriet Morison was suspended on the grounds that she had falsified claims regarding the employment of servants (probably in an attempt to show her workload was incorrectly classified). An inquiry was held at which evidence supporting the case against her was produced. Just as she was about to be dismissed, amid strenuous protest from the Public Service Association, the prime minister intervened. Morison was reinstated but not subdued: in 1919 she applied for a salary increase. Finally, in 1921, Morison resigned from the public service when the Department of Labour closed the Women's Branches and made her and three other women redundant.
Harriet Morison died on 19 August 1925 at her home in New Lynn. She had never married. Morison left behind an important legacy, not only as a trade unionist, but also as a feminist. She provides an example of the strong connections between women workers and the battle for women's rights in New Zealand. Her belief that women had a duty to care for the morals of society as well as a right to be protected from its evils extended into her approach to trade unionism.