Florence Kelley (September 12, 1859 – February 17, 1932) was an American social worker and reformer. She was one of the "ladies of Halsted Street" who lived and worked at the Hull House social settlement in Chicago, founded by Jane Addams. During her time there, Kelley worked as a factory inspector, investigating living and working conditions in slums and sweatshops. Her reports led to significant changes in child labor laws and improvement of conditions for working women. She continued her work in this area in New York City after qualifying as a lawyer. She was also instrumental in the founding of the U.S. Children's Bureau and active in the early days of the NAACP. Her efforts to bring about reform in this important area were a great contribution to the improvement of the lives of children, and hence later generations of society.
Florence Kelley was born on September 12, 1859 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of U.S. congressman William Darrah Kelley (1814-1890). Her father was a famous social activist who fought for the rights of the poor and weak. He taught his daughter about the child workers, and several times took her to see young boys working in factories under dangerous conditions. This inevitably influenced Kelley in her decision to turn toward advocacy for child labor reform.
Kelley enrolled at Cornell University in 1876, but did not graduate until 1882 due to numerous health problems. She did, however, manage to become a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. 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 the Polish-Russian physician, Lazare Wischnewtchy, and moved with him to New York City two years later. The marriage suffered from the beginning, and they separated in 1889. Kelley moved to Chicago with her three children, and resumed her maiden name.
In 1891 Kelley joined Jane Addams, Julia Lathrop, Ellen Gates Starr, and other women at Hull House. There, she started to work on different social issues, taking particular interest in women and children working in Chicago factories. In 1892, she conducted comprehensive investigations of working conditions in slum houses and sweatshops. The results of her study showed miserable working conditions, and pushed the government to bring about the Illinois Law in 1893. The law limited working hours for women, prohibited child labor, and regulated working conditions in sweatshops. Based on that success, Kelley was appointed to serve as Illinois's first chief factory inspector.
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 House in New York City and become secretary of the National Consumers League (NLC). The league was started by 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 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.
Kelley was a member of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society and an activist for women’s suffrage and African-American civil rights. She 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’s work greatly contributed toward the creation of the U.S. Children's Bureau in 1912. She spent the rest of her career writing on legislative topics.
She died in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on February 17, 1932.
Although Florence Kelley considered herself a socialist, she was never involved in the Socialist party, although they shared the same goal—a just society. She was particularly involved with the child labor reform and the improvement of working conditions for women.
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. Kelley was subsequently appointed the first woman factory inspector, with the task of monitoring the application of this law.
Another of Kelley's important contributions was her work in the National Consumers League (NCL). As the main objective of NCL was to monitor the application of minimum wage laws and limitation of working hours of women and children, 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.
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.
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, of which the greatest was repeated declarations by the U.S. Supreme Court that legislative reforms, brought on the state or even federal level, were unconstitutional. Thus the hard-won battles on the local level were habitually discarded by the Supreme Court.
However, Kelley never gave up, and each time an important case was in front of the Supreme Court, she prepared herself better to defend it. She finally mastered the use of field studies, scientific data, and statistical evidence to support her arguments, and together with Josephine Clara Goldmark made legal history with the Muller v. Oregon case, argued by Louis D. Brandeis, in which the Supreme Court finally declared the legality of a ten-hour work day for women. Kelley was able to prove through a wide range of evidence that long working days (often 12 to 14 hours) had a devastating effect on women’s health. 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.
Florence Kelley was a woman of great bravery and commitment to justice who inspired others to follow similar paths. Her long fight to ban child labor finally resulted in Congress passing the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.
The consequences of Kelley and Goldmark’s victory in Muller v. Oregon were long-lasting and broad-reaching. The ruling started an avalanche of different state laws that regulated labor in America. Many of her ideas were later incorporated into the New Deal program.
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