Florence Kelley (1859 – 1932): Social Reformer, Child Welfare Advocate, Socialist and Pacifist
Introduction: Florence Kelley was a social reformer and political activist who defended the rights of working women and children. She served as the first general secretary of the National Consumers League and helped form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
Kelley was born on September 12, 1859 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of U.S. congressman William Darrah Kelley (1814-1890). Her father was an abolitionist of strict principles. He taught his daughter about child workers, and several times took her to see young children working in steel and glass factories under dangerous conditions. These visits would influence Kelley in her decision to turn toward advocacy for child labor reform.
In 1876, at the age of sixteen, Kelley enrolled at Cornell University. Due to illness that forced her to leave college for over two years, she did not graduate until 1882. After one year spent in teaching evening classes in Philadelphia, Kelley went to Europe to continue with her studies. At the University of Zürich she came under the influence of European socialism, particularly the works of Karl Marx. In 1887 she published a translation of Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844.
Kelley married in 1884 to a Russian medical student, Lazare Wischnewetzky, and moved with him to New York City two years later. The couple separated in 1889 and Kelley moved to Chicago with her three children. After obtaining a divorce, she reverted to her maiden name.
Social Welfare Career: In 1891 Kelley joined Jane Addams, Julia Lathrop, Ellen Gates Starr, and other women at Hull House. Kelley’s first job after coming to the Hull House settlement was to visit the area around the settlement, surveying the working conditions in local factories. She found children as young as three or four working in tenement sweatshops. The report of this survey, along with other following studies, was presented to the state, resulting in the Illinois State Legislature bringing about the first factory law prohibiting employment of children under age 14. Based on that success, Kelley was appointed to serve as Illinois’s first chief factory inspector. Kelley was subsequently appointed the first woman factory inspector, with the task of monitoring the application of this law. To advance her credibility as an inspector, Kelley enrolled to study law at Northwestern University, graduating in 1894, and was successfully admitted to the bar.
In 1899 Kelley moved to Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement in New York City and became general secretary of the National Consumers League (NCL). The league was started by Jane Addams and Josephine Shaw Lowell as the Consumers’ League of New York and had the objective of encouraging consumers to buy products only from companies that met the NCL’s standards of minimum wage and working conditions. Kelley traveled around the country giving lectures and raising awareness of working conditions in the United States. One important initiative of the NCL was the introduction of the White Label. Employers who met the standard of the NCL by utilizing the labor law and keeping the safety standards had the right to display the White Label. The NCL members urged customers to boycott those products that did not have a white label.
Kelley led campaigns that reshaped the conditions under which goods were produced in the United States. Among her accomplishments were the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and laws regulating hours and establishing minimum wages. In 1905 Kelley, together with Upton Sinclair and Jack London, started the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. She gave a series of public lectures in numerous American universities on improving the conditions of labor. During one of these lectures she met Frances Perkins, who became Kelley’s friend and an important asset in the fight for her cause. Perkins became America’s first woman cabinet minister, and contributed toward passing the law in 1938 that effectively banned child labor for good. She also helped organize the New York Child Labor Committee in 1902 and was a founder of the National Child Labor Committee in 1904.
In 1909 Kelley helped with the organization of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and thereafter became a friend and ally of W.E.B. Du Bois. Kelley possessed enormous energy and ability to describe the oppressive conditions of the working classes. She was particularly zealous in her efforts to improve working conditions for women. However, she met numerous obstacles, including decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that legislative reforms brought on the state level were unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Kelley persisted. She helped Josephine Clara Goldmark, director of research at the NCL, to prepare the “Brandeis Brief” for the Muller v. Oregon case, argued by Louis D. Brandeis. Through the use of statistics from medical and sociological journals the case was able to prove that long working days (often 12 to 14 hours) had a devastating effect on women’s health. In its decision, the Supreme Court declared the legality of Oregon’s ten-hour work day for women. This was an important victory not only in regulating women’s work, but also in the greater battle for improving general conditions of work in America. In the year following Muller v. Oregon, the NCL launched a minimum wage campaign that would lead to the passage of laws in fourteen states.
Kelley lobbied Congress to pass the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916, which banned the sale of products created from factories that employed children aged thirteen and under. In 1919 Kelley was a founding member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and for several years she served as vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Florence Kelley died in the Germantown section of Philadelphia on February 17, 1932. She is buried at Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.
For further reading and research:
Bobick, Ruth (2015). Six Remarkable Hull-House Women. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Peter E. Randall.
Goldmark, Josephine (1953). Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelley’s Life Story. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Kelley, Florence (2009). The Selected Letters of Florence Kelley, 1869 – 1931. Edited by K. Sklar and B.W. Palmer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
National Consumers League. Florence Kelley: Impatient Crusader. (Video)
National Consumers League website.
Sklar, Kathryn Kish (1995). Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Trattner, Walter I. (1970). Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): “Florence Kelley” (2008, April 3). Florence Kelley (1859-1932): Social reformer, child welfare advocate, socialist and pacifist. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/kelley-florence/
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