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Florence Kelley: Visionary Social Reformer

By Tara Mae

Florence Kelley was a warrior for the working class who championed progressive social reforms such as minimum wage, eight hour work days, and child labor laws. She established outreach programs in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City. Kelley’s legacy is reflected in the ongoing fight for fair wages, economic mobility, and worker protections. Her access to and implementation of outreach networks allowed her to greatly impact labor laws and policies. 

Born in Philadelphia on September 12, 1859, Kelley’s mother Caroline Bartram Bonsall Kelley was from an established Quaker family. Her father William D. Kelley, a self-made man, was an abolitionist, judge, cofounder of the Republican Party, and member of the House of Representatives. He exposed Kelley to the harsh realities of child labor at a young age, reading her book on the subject, and taking her to see children work in hazardous conditions at glass and steel factories. 

Sarah Pugh, Kelley’s great aunt, was another strong influence on her cultural awareness. A Quaker, Pugh was a prominent abolitionist and a staunch women’s rights advocate. She reportedly chose not to use sugar and cotton because of their ties to slavery. Pugh introduced Kelley to the networks of female advocacy groups and organizations. She acted on her principles, teaching Kelley about the power of protest and the possibilities of change. 

Kelley first came to New York when she was 16 to attend Cornell University. Illness forced her to withdraw from her studies for two years. She resumed her education and did her thesis on underprivileged children. Upon her graduation in 1882, she returned to Philadelphia. Kelley wanted to study law at the University of Pennsylvania but was denied entry because of her gender. 

So, she instead both developed and attended courses at the New Century Guild, a committee for working women. These evening classes were created to help working women learn vocations. After a year, family obligation made Kelley leave the city and her position to become companion and caregiver to her ailing brother as he traveled through Europe. While abroad, she was able to resume her studies.

The University of Zurich allowed women to matriculate, and was the first European university that gave degrees to women. It was there that Kelley encountered the works of Karl Marx and befriended Friederich Engles. In 1887, she published a translation of his work The Condition of the Working-Class in England; it is still used today.

Having married Russian medical student Lazare Wischnewetzky in 1884, she and her husband moved to New York City in 1886 and had three children. The couple separated in 1889. Citing his physical abuse and substantial debt, yet unable to obtain a divorce on the grounds of “non-support” Kelley fled with her children to Chicago. A judge granted her a divorce and full-custody. She resumed using her maiden name. 

Making a new life for herself and her family, Kelley did not abandon passions. From 1891-1899, she worked for Hull House, a settlement house. Here, she was able to expand her social outreach and solidify her career as a social reformer, work Kelley continued when she returned to New York. She connected with Hull House cofounder Jane Addams and social reformer Julia Lanthrop. They shared a common background: each of them were from upper-middle class families and had fathers who were social reformers. Together, they sought to improve the living and working conditions of the impoverished and working poor; Kelley was particularly focused on the plight of child laborers. 

One of Kelley’s biggest professional platforms was her quest to make it illegal for children under the age of 14 to work and to limit the number of hours worked by children under the age of 16. She lobbied for children to have the right to education. Kelley inspected local factories and sweatshops, observing deplorable work environments and children as young as three years old performing dangerous tasks. She convinced members of the state legislature to tour these job sites, and became the first woman in Illinois to hold state office when the governor appointed her chief factory inspector.  Kelley was later named Special Agent of the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics. She kept working with women’s organizations.   

Although Kelley had worked with other women’s groups, Hull House provided her with the most consistent opportunities to engage with women-led initiatives. Through Addams’ sponsorship, Kelley developed an association with the Chicago Women’s Club and formed a Bureau of Women’s Labor. The connections she made enabled Kelley to expand the scope and influence of her reform efforts, and enabled her to align with allies. Kelley realized that alliance building as a necessary tool for achieving change. 

Since women lacked the social, economic, and political clout enjoyed by their white male counterparts, fostering relationships through female driven community organizations was among the only resources available to them. Consolidating this power allowed the women to strive towards bettering their own status as well as the standing of different causes. Kelly is recognized as having coined the term and defined the concept of social justice feminism. 

This is the practice of identifying issues of oppression as pertaining to race, class, citizenship, sexuality, and challenging these inequities through action. Kelley remained dedicated to the tenets of social justice feminism. She earned a law degree from Northwestern University in 1894 and was able to open a school for working girls. Her inclusionary values were further honed when she returned to New York. 

In 1899, Kelley moved back to the Empire State, where she remained for the next 30 years. Kelley lived and worked at the Henry Street Settlement and became the general secretary of the National Consumers League (NCL). The organization was started by Addams and Josephine Shaw Lowe; it denounced sweatshops and encouraged consumers to only buy goods from businesses that met its minimum wage and working condition requirements. Kelley was frequently charged with engaging legislators and persuading them to join the cause.

Her experience in New York was the culmination of all her previous endeavors. She spearheaded campaigns that led to the promise of national advancement, like the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and laws that standardized the number of hours in a work day and the rate of minimum wage. Kelley’s resolute persistence eventually led to child labor being effectively outlawed in 1938 with the help of her friend Frances Perkisn, who, as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, became the first female cabinet member in American history.    

Forging new relationships, Kelley immersed herself in activist enclaves. In 1905, with Upton Sinclair and Jack London, she helped establish and run the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. She joined up with Addams again to participate in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and was invited by Mary White Ovington and William English Walling to be a founding member of the NAACP. 

Working on its behalf, Kelley studied how the federal government disbursed funds for education. She discovered the deeply inequitable distribution to white and Black schools, favoring the former over the latter. Kelley’s findings led her to launch the Sterling Discrimination Bill, a scathing rebuttal against the Sterling Towner Bill, which suggested that for 15 schools in the South and Washington, D.C., a federal sanction of of $2.98 per capita for teachers of Black children and $10.32 per capita for teachers of white children. Kelley’s proposal called for states to use population as the measure for distributing the federal funds.

Kelley’s approach to improving the status of women caused her to come into conflict with the goals of the NAACP over the Sheppard-Towner Act. The bill gave aid to mothers and babies during pregnancy and infancy. But, it did not include any language that prohibited discrimination against Black mothers. Kelley did not want the NAACP to oppose the legislation because she feared it would not be passed with the additional language. Led by board member W.E.B. Du Bois, the NAACP vehemently disagreed. Kelley was eventually able to garner the NAACP’s support when she vowed to monitor the bill if it became law.

She marched in the Silent Parade in New York City on July 28, 1917. It was organized by the NAACP, church, and community leaders. It consisted of 10,000, mainly Black, participants marching in protest against racist violence, such as lynchings. Kelley worked on anti-lycnhing campaigns, and in 1922, solicited the assistance of the National Women’s League of Voters to pressure Congress into passing the Dryer Anti-Lynching Bill. The group did not take up the mantle, but Kelley kept pushing, encouraging newspaper editors to speak out against lynching, and compling her own data on the murders. The bill failed to pass. To this day, there is no federal anti-lynching law.

Due in part to her persistence, the National Association of Colored Women was accepted into the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee in 1924, four years after Kelley began lobbying for its inclusion. Kelley was successful in many of her pursuits, but she did not always win her cases. Fully devoted to her causes, Kelley’s determination occasionally led her to the Supreme Court. She witnessed certain state labor reforms be overturned by the court, but did not relinquish her desire to see social justice prevail. 

Spending the last years of her life back in Pennsylvania, Kelley died on February 17, 1932. She devoted her life to social reform, accomplishing much and resolutely continuing on despite failures. Beyond the tangible results achieved in her lifetime, hers is a living legacy, as the ideals and ideals Kelley championed continue to be advanced. 

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Thank you for this wonderful piece. Ms. Kelley was tenacious in overcoming many obstacles. Initially being denied law school entry due to her gender but later getting into another law school. Later having to leave the New Century Guild to be caregiver for her ailing brother while he travelled through Europe ??? This shows the priorities of the time regarding gender inequalities. Kelly was tremendously accomplished and I'm sure she was an inspiration to RBG! Great article!

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