| ||Julia Lathrop, Alzina Parsons Stevens, Florence Kelley and Agnes Sinclair Holbrook: Investigation and Advocacy, 1890-1899|
| ||Print This Document|
| ||Kathryn Kish Sklar, "Florence Kelley," in Women Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Rima Lunin Schultz and Adele Hast (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001): 460-8.|
| || KELLEY, FLORENCE|
September 12, 1859-February 17, 1932
Florence Kelley and her generation of white, middle-class, college-educated women reformers occupied an important turning point in American history during the Progressive Era between 1890 and 1920. Together they did much to shift the American [end page 460] social contract from a Social Darwinist to a social interventionist basis. Social Darwinist views of the "survival of the fittest," derived from Charles Darwin's 1859 book, Origin of Species, promoted social policies that limited public responsibility for the welfare of poor people and wage-earning people in the 1870s and 1880s. Kelley and Progressive Era women reformers intervened in public life in ways that created new forms of governmental responsibility for working-class Americans. By creating minimum standards for working women and children, they provided a floor beneath which workers could not legally sink. Rejecting the notion that employers could impose whatever terms they wished on workers, they established the legal principle that society had an interest in regulating those terms.
Florence Kelley was born into a patrician Quaker and Unitarian family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of William Darrah Kelley, a leading politician, and Caroline Bartram (Bonsall) Kelley, a descendant of John Bartram, the Quaker botanist. Kelley's rural residence and a childhood plagued by illness meant that she attended school only sporadically. Although her brief enrollment in Quaker schools introduced her to a wider reform world beyond her family and taught her mental discipline, most of her intellectual development occurred as part of her relationship with her father and her mother's aunt, Sarah Pugh. William Kelley, an abolitionist, founding member of the Republican party, Radical Reconstructionist, and U.S. Congressman from Philadelphia from 1860 until his death in 1890, became her chief mentor, teaching her to read and instructing her in politics. Sarah Pugh, head of the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society, a close friend of Lucretia Mott, and correspondent of British reformers such as Richard Cobden and John Bright, exemplified the ability of single women to devote their lives to reform causes. Kelley often visited her grandparents' home, where Sarah Pugh lived, and heard about the women's rights activism of Pugh and Mott. For her, Sarah Pugh became "conscience incarnate" (Sklar, Florence Kelley, 16).
During six mostly unschooled years before she entered Cornell University, Kelley systematically read her father's library, immersing herself in the fiction of Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Louisa May Alcott, and Horatio Alger; the poetry of William Shakespeare, John Milton, George Cordon Byron, and Oliver Goldsmith; the writings of James Madison; histories by George Bancroft, William Prescott, and Francis Parkman; and the moral and political philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edward Charming, Edmund Burke, Thomas Carlyle, William Godwin, and Herbert Spencer.
Kelley's childhood was shaped as well by her mother's permanent depression caused by the death of five of her eight children before they had reached the age of six. Two brothers but no sisters survived. Caroline Kelley developed a "settled, gentle melancholy" (Sklar, Autobiography of Florence Kelley, 30) that threatened to envelop her daughter so long as she lived at home.
At Cornell, Kelley studied history and social science, graduating in 1882. She spent her senior year in Washington, D.C., where she lived with her father and researched her honors essay in the Library of Congress. That essay, "On Some Changes in the Legal Status of the Child since Blackstone," was published in 1882 in the International Review. Facing a very limited set of opportunities after college, her application for graduate study having been rejected by the University of Pennsylvania on account of her sex, Kelley threw her energies into the New Century Working Women's Guild, an organization that fostered middle-class aid for self-supporting women. She helped found the guild, taught classes in history, and assembled the group's library.
Like higher education, the newly emerging field of social science served as another critical vehicle by which middle-class women expanded the space they occupied within American civic life between 1860 and 1890. Social science leveled the playing field on which women interacted with men in public life. It offered tools of analysis that enhanced women's ability to investigate economic and social change, speak for the welfare of society as a whole, devise policy initiatives, and oversee their implementation. Yet at the same time, social science also deepened women's gender identity in public life and attached their civic activism even more securely to gender-specific issues.
In the fall of 1882 Florence Kelley heralded the importance of women social scientists as molders of public policy. Her first writing after graduation, "Need Our Working Women Despair?" addressed an arresting ethical question. She answered it by recommending female-specific sociology as an antidote for [end page 461] despair. Together, college-trained women and wage-earning women could produce new knowledge capable of enhancing the lives of both. "In the field of sociology," she wrote, "there is brain work waiting for women which men cannot do" (Sklar, Florence Kelly, 69). The new "science of human relations" can only be complete "when accomplished by the whole human consciousness, i.e. by that two-fold nature, masculine and feminine, which expresses itself as a whole in human relations" (p. 70).
A dutiful daughter, in 1882 she accompanied her older brother when his doctor prescribed a winter of European travel to cure temporary blindness. In Europe she encountered M. Carey Thomas, a Cornell acquaintance, who had just completed a Ph.D. at the University of Zurich, the only European university that granted degrees to women. From 1883 to 1886 Kelley also studied there, initially accompanied by her mother and younger brother. Her focus on government and law brought her into contact with the vital group of Russian émigrés, and in 1884 she married Lazare Wischnewetzky, a Russian Jewish socialist medical student. The first of their three children, Nicholas, was born in July 1885.
Kelley also joined the German Social Democratic Party. Outlawed in Germany, the party maintained its European headquarters in Zurich, and Kelley met many of its leaders. Abandoning her pursuit of a postgraduate degree, she instead translated into English a classic work by Friedrich Engels, The Conditions of the Working Class in England, originally published in German in 1845. This project launched a close but troubled relationship with Engels that persisted until his death in 1895.
Kelley returned to the United States in the fall of 1886 with her husband and young son, taking up residence in New York City. Another child, Margaret, was born in 1886, and another son, John in 1888. In New York she found it extremely difficult to continue the political commitments she had begun in Zurich. Her Philadelphia friend Rachel Foster Avery, then secretary of the National Woman Suffrage Association, financed the publication of her translation of Engel's [sic] Condition (the book listed Avery as the copyright holder), but Kelley's insistence on the importance of the writings of Marx and Engels led to her expulsion from the Socialist Labor Party in 1887. Party leaders resented Engel's [sic] preface to the Condition, which, at Kelley's urging, chastised the German-speaking majority of the party for its isolation from the American labor movement.
Forced to pursue a new path, Kelley returned to her interest in child labor. She quickly became known as a sharp critic of state bureaus of labor statistics for their inadequate attention to child labor, and she published articles on child labor in popular magazines. Her husband, meanwhile, never found his footing in the United States. His medical practice dwindled to nonexistence, and he began to beat his wife. At the end of 1891, Kelley fled with their children to Chicago, going first to the Woman's Temple headquarters of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The Woman's Temple was a twelve-story office building and hotel constructed by the WCTU. The WCTU press had published her hard-hitting pamphlet, Our Toiling Children (1889); her editor there directed Kelley to Hull-House, the innovative social settlement founded by JANE ADDAMS and ELLEN GATES STARR in 1889. "We were welcomed as though we had been invited," Kelley later wrote about her arrival at Hull-House. "We stayed" (Sklar, Autobiography of Florence Kelley, 77). There she lived happily and productively until 1899.
Chicago and the remarkable political culture of the city's women opened opportunities to Kelley that she had sought in vain in Philadelphia, Germany, and New York. Exploiting those opportunities to the fullest, she drew on the strength of three overlapping circles of politically active women. The core of her support lay in the community of women at Hull-House. This remarkable group helped her reconstruct her political identity within women's class-bridging activism and provided her with an economic and emotional alternative to married family life. Partly overlapping with this nucleus were women trade unionists. By drawing women and men trade unionists into the settlement community, she achieved the passage of pathbreaking legislation. Toward the end of her years in Chicago, she worked with the circle of middle-class and upper-middle-class women who supported Hull-House and labor reform.
Florence Kelley's productive life in Chicago began with her relationship with Jane Addams. JULIA LATHROP, another Hull-House resident, reported that Kelley and Addams "understood each other's powers" instantly and worked together in a "wonderfully effective way" (Addams, 77). Addams, with a deep and philosophical appreciation for the unity of life, was better able to construct a vehicle for expressing that unity in day-to-day living than she was capable of devising a diagram for charting the future. And Kelley, the politician with a thorough understanding of what the future should look like, was better able to invoke that future than to express it in her day-to-day existence. Addams taught Kelley how to live and have faith in an imperfect world, and Kelley taught Addams how to make demands on the future.
At Hull-House Kelley joined a community of college-educated women reformers who, like Addams and herself, sought work commensurate with their talents. Julia Lathrop, about twenty years later the first director of the U.S. Children's Bureau, had joined the settlement before Kelley. ALICE HAMILTON, who arrived in 1897, developed the field of industrial medicine. These four, with MARY ROZET SMITH, Jane Addams's life partner, became the settlement's main leaders. In addition to these women, Kelley forged close ties with Mary Kenney (see MARY KENNEY O'SULLIVAN), a trade union organizer affiliated with the settlement, who lived nearby with her mother.
Kelley exerted an immediate and dramatic influence on the generation of women reformers who clustered within the social settlement movement during the Progressive Era. Her understanding of the material basis of class conflict and her familiarity with American political institutions, combined with her spirited personality, placed her in the vanguard of a generation of reformers who sought to make American government more responsive to what they saw as the needs of working people. In this way they were critical components in the process by which American laissez-faire policies to positive regulatory programs.
Soon after her arrival in Chicago Kelley resumed the law [end page 462] studies she had begun in Zurich, completing her degree at Northwestern University Law School in 1895. First, however, Addams helped Kelley place her children in the comfortable home of Henry Demarest Lloyd and Jessie Bross Lloyd in nearby Winnetka. Since her father had lost most of his money before his death in 1890, Kelley had to support herself and her children. Jane Addams aided Kelley's appointment as a special agent of the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics. In that capacity Kelley completed roughly one thousand forms by "sweaters victims" in the garment industry, first visiting them at work, then at home. Hearing of her reputation, Carroll Wright, head of the U.S. Department of Labor, hired her in the fall of 1892 to direct a cadre of "schedule men" who collected data from each house, tenement, and room in the 19th Ward, where Hull-House was located. With the help of other Hull-House residents, she used this data to compile pathbreaking occupational and nationality maps later printed in Hull House Maps and Papers (1895). Kelley and the other Hull-House residents, using only data about nationalities and wages in conjunction with residential information, created color-coded maps that displayed geographic patterns that told more than Wright's charts. Because the maps defined spatial relationships among human groups, they vividly depicted social and economic relationships: the concentration of certain ethnic groups in certain blocks; the relationship between poverty and race; the distances between the isolated brothel district and the rest of the ward; the very poor who lived in crowded, airless rooms in the rear of tenements and those with more resources in the front; and the omniscient observer and the observed. As an expression of the democratic relationship among Hull-House residents, Hull House Maps and Papers listed only "Residents of Hull House" as the volume's editors.
Kelley described the transformative effect of the Hull-House community on her personal life in a letter to her mother a few weeks after her arrival. "In the few weeks of my stay here I have won for the children and myself many and dear friends whose generous hospitality astonishes me. It is understood that I am to resume the maiden name and that the children are to have it" (Kelley to Caroline B. Kelley, Chicago, February 24, 1892, Nicholas Kelley Papers). By joining a community of women, she had achieved a new degree of personal autonomy.
Her forceful personality flourished at Hull-House. Jane Addams's nephew, who occasionally resided at the settlement, was awed by the way Kelley "hurled the spears of her thought with such apparent carelessness of what breasts they pierced" but nevertheless felt that she was "full of love" (Linn, 138). He thought her "the toughest customer in the reform riot, the finest rough-and-tumble fighter for the good life for others, that Hull House ever knew: Any weapon was a good weapon in her hand evidence, argument, irony or invective" (p. 138).
In the spring of 1892, Kelley used Hull-House as a base to exert leadership within an anti-sweatshop campaign that had been launched in 1888 by the Illinois Woman's Alliance, a class-bridging coalition of women's organizations. One of the founders of the alliance, ELIZABETH MORGAN, British-born socialist and a leading member of the Chicago Trade and Labor Assembly, was already alienated from Mary Kenney and hence from Kelley. However, another alliance founder, CORINNE BROWN, daughter of a stair-maker, worked closely with Kelley. For example, in 1892 she and Brown coauthored a report on the condition of the public schools of Chicago in which they denounced the board of education and the city council for their neglect of children in poor wards. That year the leadership of the anti-sweatshop movement passed from Morgan and the Illinois Woman's Alliance to Kelley and Hull-House. At mass meetings that attacked the sweatshop system, Kelley shared the podium with Mary Kenney, Henry Demarest Lloyd, and other Chicago notables such as Reverend Jenkin Lloyd Jones, minister at All Souls' Unitarian Church, the most liberal pulpit in Chicago, and with such young trade union organizers in the clothing industry as Abraham Bisno.
Campaigns against sweatshops were widespread in American cities in the 1890s. These efforts targeted "predatory management" and "parasitic manufacturers" (Sklar, "Two Political Cultures," 58), who paid such low wages to their workers as to require them to seek support from relief or charity, thereby indirectly providing employers with subsidies that enabled them to lower wages further. Supported by trade unions, these campaigns used a variety of strategies to shift work from tenement sweatshops to factories. In factories, union organizing could more easily succeed in improving working conditions and raising wages to levels necessary to sustain life.
Outcries raised by anti-sweatshop campaigns prompted government inquiries and, in 1893 after intense lobbying in Springfield by Hull-House residents and other well-known Chicago women, the passage of pathbreaking legislation drafted by Florence Kelley. That year Governor John Peter Altgeld appointed Kelley to a position the new statute created: Chief Factory Inspector of Illinois. Nowhere else in the Western world was a woman trusted to enforce the labor legislation of a city, let alone of a large industrial region the size of Illinois. With eleven deputies, five of whom were required to be women, and a budget of twenty-eight thousand dollars, for the next three years Kelley enforced the act's chief clauses. The act banned the labor of children under fourteen years of age; it regulated the labor of children age fourteen to sixteen; it outlawed the production of garments in tenements; it prohibited the employment of women and minors for more than eight hours a day; and it created a state office of factory inspection.
The statute's eight-hour clause made it the most advanced in the United States, equaled only by an eight-hour law for all workers in Australia. The limitation of hours, whether through statutes or union negotiations with employers, was the second most important goal of the labor movement between 1870 and 1910, the first being the recognition of the right of workers to form unions. Skilled workers had acquired the eight-hour day for themselves in many trades by the 1890s, but since women were not admitted to most skilled occupations, their hours remained long, often extending to twelve or even fourteen hours a day. In the late 1880s more than 85 percent of female wage earners were between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five and only about 5 percent were married. Excluded from access to skilled jobs and presumed to leave the paid labor force upon marriage, they were crowded into a few unskilled occupations, where they were easily replaced, and employers exploited them by requiring long hours and paying low wages. Statutes that limited women's hours limited this exploitation. Reduction of hours [end page 463] without reduction of wages was a challenge that Kelley's office met by promoting the formation of unions among affected women workers, thereby helping them negotiate better wages for the hours they worked.
The reduction of women's hours by statute had other beneficial effects; in many occupations it also reduced the hours of unskilled men, as was the case in garment-making sweatshops. In this and many other occupations, it proved impossible to keep men working longer than the legal limit of the working day for women. In this way, hours statutes drove sweatshops out of business, since their profits could only be achieved through long hours. In the United States more than in other industrializing nations, the union movement consisted, with few exceptions (miners chief among them), of skilled workers who shunned responsibility for the welfare of unskilled workers. Therefore, in the United States more than elsewhere, gender-specific reforms like Kelley's 1893 legislation undertaken by women for women also had the effect of aiding all unskilled workers, men as well as women and children. In the United States, where labor movements were not as strong as they were in other countries, gender-specific reforms accomplished goals that elsewhere were achieved under the auspices of class-specific efforts.
Kelley's first steps in enforcing Illinois's new law were smart: she located her office close to Hull-House, and she chose ALZINA PARSONS STEVENS as her chief assistant. Stevens had risen to national prominence in the Knights of Labor in Toledo in the 1880s and moved to Chicago to coedit the Vanguard, a weekly newspaper promoting economic and industrial reform. When Stevens joined Kelley's staff, she moved into Hull-House. Mary Kenney and Abraham Bisno also served as deputy inspectors.
In an era when courts nullified legislative attempts to intervene in the laissez-faire relationship between capital and labor, it was inevitable that Kelley's enforcement of this new eight-hour law would be challenged in the courts. In 1895 the Illinois Supreme Court found the eight-hour clause of the 1893 law unconstitutional because it violated women's right to contract their labor on any terms set by their employer. This setback made Kelley determined to change the power of state courts to overturn hours laws for women.
The high tide of Kelley's achievements between 1893 and 1896 ebbed quickly when Altgeld lost the election of 1896. His successor replaced her with a person who did not challenge the economic status quo, and she was unable to find work commensurate with her talents. German admirers came to her rescue. For fifty dollars a month she provided a leading German reform periodical with assessments of recent American social legislation. She also worked in the Crerar Library, a reference library specializing in economic, scientific, and medical topics.
Needing to reach beyond the limits of Hull-House activities, Kelley began to work more closely with ELLEN HENROTIN. Wife of a leading Chicago banker, Henrotin had supported Kelley's legislation in 1892 and spoke vigorously at a rally to defend the law in 1894, urging those in attendance to "agitate for shorter hours for women because it means in the end shorter hours for all workers, men and women" ("Hit at Sweat Shops"). Henrotin's organization in 1893 of thirty women's congresses at the World's Columbian Exposition catapulted her into the presidency of the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC founded 1890) from 1894 to 1898. By 1897 the GFWC served as an umbrella organization for more than five hundred women's clubs, including the powerful Chicago Woman's Club. Fostering the creation of more than twenty state federations to coordinate those clubs, Henrotin moved the GFWC in progressive directions by establishing national committees on industrial working conditions and national health. In this way she directed the path of what was to become one of the largest grassroots organizations of American women beyond the minimal goals of good government and civil service reform to the more challenging issues of social inequalities and social justice.
Reflecting her growing awareness of the potential power of women's organizations as a vehicle for her social justice agenda, in 1897 Kelley began to work closely with Henrotin in organizing an Illinois Consumers' League. They built on the example of the New York Consumers' League, which had been founded in 1891 to channel consumers' consciousness toward political action on behalf of workers who made the goods that consumers purchased.
Kelley's work with Henrotin helped her make the biggest career step of her life when, in 1899, she agreed to serve as secretary of the newly formed National Consumers' League (NCL), a position she held until her death in 1932. With a salary of fifteen hundred dollars plus traveling and other expenses, the job offered financial stability and a chance to develop a more radical and more focused women's organization than the GFWC. This position took her to New York, where between 1899 and 1926 she lived at the Henry Street settlement, Lillian Wald's "nurses' settlement" on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Her children moved with her. Supported by aid from Mary Rozet Smith, Nicholas Kelley graduated from Harvard in 1905 and then from Harvard Law School. He remained in Manhattan and became his mother's closest adviser. In a blow that caused Kelley to spend the rest of the year in retirement in Maine, her daughter Margaret Kelley died of heart failure during her first week at Smith College in 1905. After this bereavement Kelley maintained a summer home on Penobscot Bay, Maine, where she retreated for periods of intense work with a secretary each summer. John Kelley never found a professional niche but remained close to his mother and joined her in Maine each summer.
Kelley made the National Consumers' League into the nation's leading promoter of protective legislation for women and children. Between 1900 and 1904 she built sixty-four local consumer leagues one in nearly every large city outside the South. Through a demanding travel schedule, which meant that she spent one day on the road for every day she worked at her desk, Kelley maintained close contact with local leagues, urging them to implement the national organization's agenda and inspiring them to greater action within their states and municipalities.
Aiding the development of local leagues was the NCL's campaign to promote the adoption of the Consumers' White Label among local manufacturers. The national branch of the consumers' league had been formed in 1898 to coordinate the efforts of previously existing leagues in New York City, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, all of which had conducted campaigns against sweatshops. Kelley was a leader within this [end page 464] movement, and that year, at a convention of the locals called to coordinate their anti-sweatshop efforts, she proposed the creation of a consumers' label as a way of identifying goods made under fair conditions. Her proposal galvanized the convention into creating a national organization "for the express purpose of offering a Consumers' League Label" nationally, recognizing that local efforts against sweatshops could never succeed until all producers were "compelled to compete on a higher level" (Sklar, Florence Kelley, 309) and agreeing that the label could be a means of achieving that goal.
The NCL awarded its label to manufacturers who obeyed state factory laws, produced goods only on their own premises, did not require employees to work overtime, and did not employ children under sixteen years of age. In determining whether local factories qualified for the label, league members learned a great deal about local working conditions. Factories had to be inspected, and local leagues employed their own factory inspectors. Kelley became the league's national inspector. The inspectors prepared local groups for the next stage of league work the promotion of state laws limiting the working day of women to ten hours. The NCL also promoted its agenda through alliances with mainstream women's organizations. Between 1900 and 1902, within the General Federation of Women's Clubs, Kelley chaired NCL's standing committee on the Industrial Problem as It Affects Women and Children, and in 1903 she chaired the child labor committees in both the National Congress of Mothers and the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In her 1905 book, Some Ethical Gains through Legislation, Kelley argued that for working children, women, and men, "the right to leisure is a human right in process of recognition as a statutory right" (p. 168).
In determining whether local factories qualified for the consumers' label, local league members had to educate themselves about local working conditions. They had to pose and answer questions new to middle-class women, though painfully familiar to union organizers: Did the manufacturer subcontract to home workers in tenements? Were children employed? Were state factory laws violated? Could workers live on their wages or were they forced to augment their pay with relief or charitable donations? How far below the standard set by the consumers' label were their own state laws? Even more technical questions arose when leagues came into contact with factory inspectors, bureaus of labor statistics, state legislatures, and courts. Should the state issue licenses for home workers? What was the relationship between illiteracy in child workers and the enforcement of effective child labor laws? Was their own state high or low on the NCUs ranked list showing the number of illiterate child workers in each? Should laws prohibit the labor of children at age fourteen or sixteen? Should exceptions be made for the children of widows? How energetically were state factory laws enforced? How could local factory standards be improved? These questions, recently quite alien to middle-class women, now held the interest of thousands of the most politically active among them. This was no small accomplishment. State leagues differed in the degree to which they worked with state officials, but wherever they existed they created new civic space in which women used their new knowledge and power to expand state responsibility for the welfare of women and children workers.
On the road steadily between 1900 and 1907, Kelley inspected workshops, awarded the label to qualified manufacturers, and strengthened local leagues. Her efforts were rewarded by the spectacular growth of NCL locals, both in number and location. The NCUs 1901 report mentioned thirty leagues in eleven states; by 1906 they numbered sixty-three in twenty states. The Massachusetts league described the effects of Kelley's leadership in 1903: "[She] can travel from one end of the Continent to the other without losing her hold upon local problems in State Leagues the farthest removed from her bodily presence, stirring our zeal and opening new fields for our activity by letters, which are prompt and full as if letter writing were the chief occupation of her day" ("Consumers' League of Massachusetts," NCL, Fourth Annual Report, 37-39). Mrs. Kelley, the report concluded, "gives us service which it is impossible to overestimate" (p. 39).
Flourishing local leagues sustained the national's existence, channeling money, ideas, and the support of other local groups into the national office. At the same time locals implemented the national agenda at the state level. Most league members were white, urban, northern, middle-class Protestants, but Jewish women held important positions of leadership. Catholic women became more visible after Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore consented to serve as vice-president of a Maryland league, and Bishop J. Regis Canevin of Pittsburgh encouraged members of that city's Ladies Catholic Benevolent Association to join. Two important reasons for the absence of black women from the NCUs membership and agenda were the league's focus on northern urban manufacturing and the residence of 90 percent of the nation's black population in the South in 1900, where they were employed primarily in agriculture. Nevertheless, in 1903 the Massachusetts league undertook a systematic effort "to enlist the wives of farmers through the Farmers' Institutes, Granges, etc." ("Consumers' League of Massachusetts," NCL Fourth Annual Report, 7).
Having accomplished the task of educating her constituency by 1907, Kelley implemented a second stage of league work. With the use of social science data, the NCL overcame legal obstacles to the passage of state laws limiting women's working hours. The overturning of Illinois's 1893 law by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1895 made Kelley determined to defend such laws before the U.S. Supreme Court. When an Oregon ten-hour law came before the court in 1907, she threw the resources of the NCL into its defense. This case, Muller v. Oregon, pitted the NCL and its Oregon branch against a laundry owner who disputed the state's authority to regulate working hours in nonhazardous occupations. For what became known as the "Brandeis Brief," Kelley's research director, Josephine Goldmark, gathered printed evidence from medical and other authorities (most of whom were British or European) to demonstrate that work days longer than ten hours were hazardous to the health of women. Goldmark obtained the services of her brother-in-law, Louis D. Brandeis, a leading Boston attorney, who successfully argued the case on sociological rather than legal grounds, using the evidence that Goldmark had compiled. Thus at the same time that this case cleared the way for state hours laws for women, it also established the court's recognition of sociological evidence, which, for example, in Brown v. Board [end page 465] of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1954 sustained the court's ruling against segregated schools.
In the years immediately following the Muller decision, inspired by Kelley's leadership, and supported by other groups, local consumer leagues gained the passage in twenty states of the first laws limiting women's working hours. Also responding to the decision, nineteen other states revised and expanded their laws governing women's working hours.
The Supreme Court's 1908 opinion tried to block the possibility of extending such protections to men by emphasizing women's special legal status (they did not possess the same contractual rights as men), and their physiological difference from men (their health affected the health of their future children). Nevertheless, in 1917 Kelley and the NCL again cooperated successfully with the Oregon league in arguing another case on sociological grounds before the U.S. Supreme Court, Bunting v. Oregon, in which the Court upheld the constitutionality of hours laws for men in nonhazardous occupations. Viewing laws for women as an entering wedge for improving conditions for all working people, Kelley achieved that goal in the progression from Muller to Bunting. In this as in other aspects of her work with the league, though nominally focused on gender, her reforms had class-wide effects.
As early as 1899 Florence Kelley had hoped "to include a requirement as to minimal wages" (Kelley, "Aims and Principles of the Consumers' League," 298) in the NCL's White Label. Australia and New Zealand had already organized wage boards as part of compulsory arbitration, but the path to an American equivalent did not seem clear until 1908, when she and other Consumers' League members attended the First International Conference of Consumers' Leagues, in Geneva, where they learned about the proposed British wage law, eventually passed in 1909, which implemented minimum wages for all workers in certain poorly paid occupations.
Almost immediately on her return Kelley established her leadership in what became an enormously successful campaign for minimum wage laws for women in the United States. In her campaign she denounced the large profits made in three industries: retail stores, sweatshop garment making, and textile manufacturers. "Low wages produce more poverty than all other causes together," she insisted, urging that "goods and profits are not ends in themselves to which human welfare may continue to be sacrificed" (Kelley, "Minimum Wage Boards," 303-14).
Kelley argued that minimum wages would raise the standards in women's employment by recognizing their need to support themselves. "So long as women's wages rest upon the assumption that every woman has a husband, father, brother, or lover contributing to her support, so long these sinister incidents of women's industrial employment (tuberculosis, insanity, vice) are inevitable." She urged that "society itself must build the floor beneath their feet" (Kelley, "Ten Years from Now," 978-81). Wage legislation "pierces to the heart the classic claim that industry is a purely private affair" (Sklar, "Two Political Cultures," 60). Kelley and the NCL were unaided in their efforts by their male-dominated equivalent, the American Association for Labor Legislation (AALL), which thought the wage campaign too radical. When Kelley appealed for aid in 1910 to AALL's executive director, John Andrews, he loftily replied: "I question very seriously the wisdom of injecting the minimum wage proposal into the legislative campaign of this year, because I do not believe our courts would at the present time uphold such legislation, and I am afraid it would seriously jeopardize the splendid progress now being made to establish maximum working hours" (Andrews to Eric Stern, New York, December 14, 1910, American Association for Labor Legislation Papers). Two years later the AALL still opposed wage legislation as premature.
Kelley and the NCL were able to move ahead with this pathbreaking legislation because they could mobilize grassroots support for it at local and state levels. The AALL had no local branches; instead, their power flowed from a network of male academic experts who advised politicians about legislation. If politicians were not ready to move, neither was the AALL. The NCL, by contrast, had in its sixty-four local branches enough political muscle to take the initiative and lead politicians where they otherwise would not have gone.
In 1912 Massachusetts passed the first minimum wage law for women, followed in 1913 by eight additional states: California, Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. By 1919 fourteen states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had enacted minimum wage statutes for women. The success of these laws informed the inclusion of a minimum wage for men and women in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. In 1942, when the U.S. Supreme Court approved the constitutionality of the FLSA, the eight-hour day and the minimum wage become part of the social contract for most American workers. The class-bridging activism of middle-class women in the NCL forged the way with these fundamental reforms.
At Henry Street, Kelley continued to benefit from the same consolidation of female reform talents that had sustained her efforts at Hull-House in Chicago. For example, the creation of the U.S. Children's Bureau in 1911 sprang from her discussions with Lillian Wald. The Children's Bureau was the only governmental agency in any industrial society that was headed and run by women. Kelley thought that her most important contribution to social change was the passage in 1921 of the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act, which first allocated federal funds to health care. She was instrumental in the creation of the coalition that backed the act's passage, the Women's Joint Congressional Committee, and in the coalition's successful campaign for the bill in Congress. Although limited to a program administered by the Children's Bureau to combat infant and maternal mortality, Kelley thought the Sheppard-Towner Act marked the beginning of a national health care program.
After this high point in 1921, however, the decade brought a series of reversals that threatened to undo most of her achievements. In 1923 the U.S. Supreme Court in Adkins v. Children's Hospital found the Washington, D.C., wage law for women unconstitutional. Although many state wage boards continued to function during the 1920s and 1930s, providing ample evidence of the benefits of the law, no new wage laws were passed. In 1926, Congress refused to allocate new funds for Sheppard-Towner programs, and the responsibility for maternal and infant health returned to the state and county level. [end page 466]
Just as important, by 1922 Kelley's strategy of using gender-specific legislation as a surrogate for class legislation had generated opposition from a new quarter women who did not themselves benefit from gendered laws. The National Woman's Party (NWP), formed in 1916 through the charismatic leadership of Alice Paul and funded almost entirely by Alva Belmont, created a small coalition consisting primarily of professional women with some wage-earning women who worked in male-dominated occupations. Despite Kelley's strong objections about the damage they would do to gender-specific legislation, including the Sheppard-Towner Act, the NWP proposed an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ERA) in 1921. Although mainstream organizations such as the General Federation of Women's Clubs and the League of Women Voters continued to support gender-specific legislation, the NWP's proposed amendment undercut the momentum of such gendered strategies. In the 1920s most wage-earning women opposed the ERA because they stood to lose rather than benefit from it. By the 1970s, changes in working conditions and protective labor laws meant that most wage-earning women stood to benefit from the amendment and many more supported it.
Even more damaging than these reversals, however, were the right-wing attacks launched by hyper-patriots against Kelley and other women reformers during the "red scare" of the 1920s. Woman Patriot exemplified these attacks. Launched in 1916 and published twice a month, this newsletter was subtitled, before the enactment of the woman suffrage amendment, Dedicated to the Defense of Womanhood, Motherhood, the Family and the State AGAINST Suffragism, Feminism and Socialism. After 1920, the newsletter dropped its reference to suffrage but continued its virulent attacks on the social agenda of women reformers. "Shall Bolshevist-Feminists Secretly Govern America?" their headlines screamed, referring to the Sheppard-Towner Act. When the Woman Patriot referred to Kelley as "Mrs. Wischnewetzky" and called her "Moscow's chief conspirator" (November 1,1921, 1), Kelley urged Addams to join her in a libel suit against them. Addams gently persuaded her to ignore the attacks. Kelley then wrote an impassioned series of autobiographical articles that established her lineage as an inheritor of American ideals and a dedicated promoter of American values.
Attacks on women reformers in the 1920s were in part generated by supporters of American military expansion in the aftermath of World War I, when Kelley and many other women reformers were actively promoting peace and disarmament. For example, the Woman Patriot characterized the support that women reformers were giving to disarmament as "an organized internationalist Bolshevist-Feminist plot to embarrass the Limitation of Armaments Conference" (Harper, website). Government employees joined the attack in 1924, when Lucia Maxwell of the Chemical Warfare Department of the Department of War issued a "Spider Web Chart" entitled "The Socialist-Pacifist Movement in America Is an Absolutely Fundamental and Integral Part of International Socialism." Depicting the connections between women's organizations and congressional lobbying for social legislation and for disarmament, the chart sought to characterize as "pacifist-socialist" most women's organizations in the United States, including the National Consumers' League, the League of Women Voters, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the National Congress of Mothers and Parent Teacher Association, the National Women's Trade Union League, the American Home Economics Association, the American Association of University Women, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Girls' Friendly Society, the Young Women's Christian Association, and the National Federation of Business and Professional Women.
Historians have not measured the effect of these attacks on the political agendas of women's organizations, but after these attacks the agendas of many women's organizations, for example that of the League of Women Voters, shifted from social justice to good government projects, from support for a Child Labor Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and to advocacy for a city manager forms of governance. Such a shift was in keeping with the demise of the progressive movement after World War I, but that demise was hastened by the rise of "red scare" tactics in American political culture.
Florence Kelley did not live to see that many of her initiatives were incorporated into federal legislation in the 1930s. Faced with the collapse of the American economy in the Great Depression of 1929-39, policy makers drew heavily on the legacy of progressive reforms initiated between 1890 and 1920. Florence Kelley's legacy, including minimum wage and maximum hours legislation incorporated in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, was strong enough to survive the reversals of the 1920s. In 1933, with the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president, Kelley's protégée, Frances Perkins, became the first woman to serve as a cabinet member. Reflecting the power of women's organizations in shaping a new social contract for American working people, Perkins was appointed Secretary of Labor.
Kelley's legacy reaches beyond any specific policies. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said in 1953 that the nation owed Kelley an "enduring debt for the continuing process she so largely helped to initiate, by which social legislation is promoted and eventually gets on the statute books" (foreword to Goldmark, v). As Kelley shaped it during her long reform career between 1890 and 1930, that process relied heavily on women's organizations and their ability to act independently of the political status quo.
Sources. Florence Kelley's personal papers are at the New York Public Library. The National Consumer League Papers are located at the Library of Congress. Other related collections include the Jane Addams Papers at Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania; the Nicholas Kelley Papers at the New York Public Library; the Lillian Wald Papers at the New York Public Library and at Columbia Univ.; the Consumers' League of Massachusetts Papers at SL; the American Association for Labor Legislation Papers, Cornell Univ.; and the Henry Demarest Lloyd Papers at the State Hist. Sec. of Wisconsin. Kelley's writings are voluminous. Her brief autobiography has been reprinted as The Autobiography of Florence Kelley: Notes of Sixty Years, ed. Kathryn Kish Sklar (1986). See also Kelley's book, Some Ethical Gains through Legislation (1905), as well as "Aims and Principles of the Consumers' League," American Journal of Sociology, November 1899; "Minimum Wage Boards," American Journal of Sociology, November 1911; "Ten Years from Now," Survey, March 26, 1910. See the National Consumers' League, "Consumers' League of Massachusetts," Fourth Annual Report, [end page 467] 1903. Kathryn Kish Sklar's essay, "Florence Kelley," from which this profile in part is drawn, is in American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, copyright 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. For a most complete account of Kelley's life before 1900 and for a bibliography of her writings before 1900, see Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work: The Rise of Women's Political Culture, 1830-1900 (1995). On the eight-hour law, see "Hit at Sweat Shops," CT [Chicago Tribune], April 23, 1894. For the National Consumers' League's minimum wage work, see Sklar, "Two Political Cultures in the Progressive Era: The National Consumers' League and the American Association for Labor Legislation," in U.S. History as Women's History: New Feminist Essays, ed. Linda K. Kerber et al. (1995). See also Nicholas Kelley, "Early Days at Hull House," Social Service Review, December 1954; Felix Frankfurter, foreword to Josephine Goldmark, Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelley's Life Story (1953); and Dorothy Rose Blumberg, "Dear 'Mr. Engels': Unpublished Letters, 1884-1894, of Florence Kelley (Wischnewetzky) to Friedrich Engels," Labor History, Spring 1964; Dorothy Rose Blumberg, Florence Kelley: The Making of a Social Pioneer (1966); and Louis Athey, "The Consumers' Leagues and Social Reform, 1890-1923" (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Delaware, 1965). Jane Addams, My Friend Julia Lathrop (1935), and James Weber Linn, Jane Addams: A Biography (1938), discuss the relationship of Kelley and Addams. The red scare opposition to Kelley is in the Woman Patriot, November 1, 1921. For the correspondence between Kelley and Jane Addams regarding attacks on them, see Anissa Harper, "Pacifism vs. Patriotism in Women's Organizations in the 1920s: How Was the Debate Shaped by the Expansion of the American Military," in Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1830-1930, an Internet website edited by Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin, http://womhist.binghamton.edu. Obituaries are in NYT [New York Times] and the Boston Evening Globe, both February 18, 1932. [ends on page 468]
Credit: Women Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary, by Rima Lunin Schultz and Adele Hast, (Indiana University Press, 2001). Reprinted with permission from the Chicago Area Women's History Council.